The ACLU produced a video a number of years ago about ordering pizza in the future. Warning or prediction. Sometimes its hard to tell the difference. About the only part that doesn’t make sense is the voice explaining what all the problems are. Algorithms don’t explain.
I want to pick at one of the little threads. The ethnic or cultural background categorisation
Its useful when looking at a system to take apart the assumptions underlying it . There is a much longer piece to be written about categorisation and we’ll take one element here. This is a list of drop down choices for one of the pieces of information for the Primary Online Database.
Ethnic or cultural background (drop-down list)
Any other White Background
Any other Black Background
Any other Asian background
Other (inc. mixed background)
The comment I used on Twitter when I first saw this list “The word you’d use to describe the list of ethnic/cultural choices in the Dept of Eduction planned Primary Schools Database is WRONG.”
Categories are artificial ways of slicing up the world. Dave Snowden wrote an interesting post on Categories recently. In it he quoted a passage from Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ which is worth quoting again here.
Alpha children wear grey. They work much harder than we do, because they’re so frightfully clever. I’m awfully glad I’m a Beta, because I don’t work so hard. And then we are much better than the Gammas and Deltas. Gammas are stupid. They all wear green, and Delta children wear khaki. Oh no, I don’t want to play with Delta children. And Epsilons are still worse. They’re too stupid to be able to read or write. Besides they wear black, which is such a beastly color. I’m so glad I’m a Beta.
I was going to describe that the categories above as “not even wrong” a better description is probably “wronger than wrong.” They are wrong in that they are very poor and very distorting classification. As Dave said in his piece
The problem with categories is that things are made to fit within the boundaries
What I’d wonder about is what is the mindset of someone who comes up with these particular categories.
Richard Feynman on knowing things v’s knowing the names of things
A distinction with a difference
Hans de Zwart has written a piece on how Al Wei Wei the Chinese artist is living in all our futures. The whole thing is well worth a read. There is a lot to unpack in it. The paragraph that points to the New Intermediaries (Google, Facebook, Netflix) that sit between us and everything else is worth a book on its own. As is Disney normalising surveillance and quantified self technology through MagicBands.
I was once asked to help someone start a business that put trackers on kids. I found it deeply creepy and still do. Though as a parent of kids a little piece at the back of your mind is going. “Well it’d be nice to be sure”. Which is why these things will probably sell despite them being creepy. The end of the piece points out another problem with constant monitoring
We need failure to be able to learn, we need inefficiency to be able to recover from mistakes, we have to take risks to make progress and so it is imperative to find a way to celebrate imperfection.
The bit that really resonated with me was on Casinos and Natasha Dow Schüll and her book ‘Addiction by Design’.
In it, she clearly shows how the slot machine industry has designed the complete process (the casinos, the machines themselves, the odds, etc.) to get people as quickly as possible into ‘the zone’. The player is seen as an ‘asset’ for which the ‘time on device’ has to be as long as possible, so that the ‘player productivity’ is as high as possible.
The comments on the use of defibrillators in Casinos is especially disturbing. The logical jump made is that
Facebook is very much like a virtual casino abusing the same cognitive weaknesses as the real casinos.
And as Hugh MacLeod pointed out
Once you realize that 90% of social media is just about the dopamine, the rest is easy 😀
— Hugh MacLeod (@gapingvoid) September 25, 2012
The Department of Education are requesting that data on all primary school children be captured into a Primary Online Database. The list of data they are asking for is comprehensive. It includes PPSN numbers.
This is what we know
A new database of primary school students will gather personal information, including PPS numbers, information on ethnic and cultural background and religion. Some details will be kept for up to 30 years (Irish Times)
List of data includes:
• First and second names
• PPS number
• Mother’s maiden name
• Date of Birth and gender
• Full address
• Mother tongue
• Irish language exemptions
• Enrolment date, teacher / class details
• Previous school / pre-primary education
• Learning support details
There is also a free text box for “Notes about a pupil”. The Departments reference manual on the Database states
Notes about a pupil may be entered into the ‘Notes’ tab. At present, notes entered here can be seen by Department of Education staff but this is to be changed so that only the school user may see the notes.
The Department is also claiming that
it is compulsory for parents to register their children. In the event a PPS number is not available for a student, the Department will use the mother’s maiden name to look up Department of Social Protection records.
The Department also reports that only information on ethnic and religious background requires the consent of a parent of guardian.
The data to be captured on the system may be captured on esinet.ie or an excel spreadsheet or on a schools own system.
It is not clear that the data is safe or secure or how it is being protected by the Department of Education or the Schools.
Simon McGarr has pointed out “The Department of Education data protection notice explicitly refers to kids’ PPS Numbers as non sensitive data.”
The Department of Education claims support of the INTO and the National Parents Council. Speaking to one principal of a school it appears to be very controversial, not least of all because of the huge administration workload it puts on the schools including the school being asked to retain the data for 30 years.
One member of board of the National Parents Council (Primary) wasn’t even aware of the existence of the Primary Online Database.
A single database of everyone under 30, including religion, ethnicity is a major change in relationship between state & citizen. This isn’t he census- where strong legislative protections are given to the privacy of individuals. This will be a honeypot for datamining. The data is being used for a purpose other than that for which it was obtained. Storing all details of a primary school pupil until they’re 30 is excessive data retention.
The Department of Education is acting ultra vires (beyond their powers) in demanding the information.
As a parent you can write to the school and the Board of Management and inform them that
The Department is acting beyond its power. The Department of Welfare hasn’t been informed or consented to the use of PPSN. They are breaching data protection legislation by using data for a purpose other than which it was obtained and by planning to retain that information for an excessive period of time.
Schools and boards should be aware they are personally responsible as data controllers to ensure that the data they hold is not used for a purpose other than that for which is was obtained and they are personally on risk if the department has acted ultra vires in demanding this data.
You can tell them explicitly that you don’t consent to giving them this data or to them transferring the data outside the school.
As Gavin Sheridan pointed out
the only other database I can think of that is similar is PRIS. For the prison system
Sometimes its better to slide up on things sideways. Somewhere along the way I got more exercise and improved my weight this year, slightly by coming to them sideways. There’s a longer thank you post to come on some of these things. I’m wary of over general advice because context is everything. So rather than making and sharing a New Year’s resolution (or many) here’s a single thought.
An Uncle of mine died during the year. I used to be at a loss of what to say to people at funerals. “I’m sorry for your loss” just never sat right for some reason. It just felt wrong. When talking to one of my cousins I said “be kind yourself. Grief comes in waveSome are strong and deep and some are fast. Let them wash over you and don’t beat yourself up over things. Give yourself time.”
I think the thought “Be kind to yourself” is good advice. I’m not the only one. It’s something a friend pointed out to me. If I’d being paying attention I might have figured it out sooner myself. Being a bit kinder to myself in 2013 led to some of the better things in 2014. Shit will happen. Be kind to yourself when it does.
And be kind to others too.
Lucinda Creighton has launched a new political party. Or launched a #hashtag. I’m not quite sure which.
As I tweeted yesterday
“First thought on
#RebootIreland When rebooting a computer you don’t get a different operating system”
There was a lot of comment on Twitter. Dave Winer said recently Twitter can have a tendency towards “high fructose emotional rage medicine.” Mostly the comment was cynical rather than hate filled.
My first thought was of a comic. There is a panel somewhere in my mothers attic from an episode of 2000AD. It’s from the story Strontium Dog. The storyline is set at the end of a war. A military police force is being disbanded and being replaced. Panel one has the old police force. And panel two has the new police force. Same group. Different uniforms. Same system. Plus ca change.
I was reminded of that panel when thinking about #RebootIreland. When we exchanged Fianna Fail for Fine Gael and Labour a few years ago that was the transition. Mostly because the state was governed by the Troika and administered by the politicians we elected. I’m not sure that what’s intended here will be any different.
I took a look at the #RebootIreland website. I’m not quite sure what to make of it. As Tommy Collison commented
“This party will champion human inventiveness.” What does that even mean? #RebootIreland
— Tommy Collison (@tommycollison) January 2, 2015
I have equal questions of what some of the other statements mean
Fostering a spirit of entrepreneurism in our public sector that will reward those who work the hardest and deliver the best results for our public services.
I’m not sure that lack of entrepreneurism is the problem with the public sector (Too few entrepreneurial teachers and nurses?). And performance management mechanisms lead to dysfunctional behaviour. There are no doubt reforms that need to be made. It would be an idea to start with an understanding of the problem than a statement of the solution. (If your solution is a hammer, the problem will inevitably be defined in terms of nails).
So what is #RebootIreland ? Is it a statement of intent? Is it an idea? It it a marketing slogan? Right now I’m not sure. I don’t know what its stands for or what it wants to achieve beyond some a choices of metaphor. Metaphors and symbols matter. What does #RebootIreland mean?
The metaphor suggests a quick clean out of the system and things can continue as they do before. One other comment on twitter was “sometimes rebooting the computer clears out the rubbish that’s stopping it going forward”. Perhaps and I don’t think so. Computer analogies and metaphors are too reductive. It continues a trend in human thinking and it doesn’t really get us anywhere. Reductive models lead us to nonsense like the Singularity. And one of the tweets that went around last night was the “computer says no” from Little Britain. (Which shows that you can create a hashtag but you can’t control it). I wonder if the party without a name or policy or candidates is attempting to do some sort of Lean Political Startup? In a comment on inappropriate language and contextless shifting of ideas Dave Snowden recently noted
Shifting partial understanding of success from one context to a completely different one as a populist recipe is of course no new thing. Neither is wrapping it up in partially understood and inappropriate language.
If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts he shall end in certainties
I’m reading a history of the American Revolution at the moment. The revolution itself and many of the leading revolutionaries were quite conservative. The human frailty, stupidity, venality and conniving on every side is the most illuminating and insightful part of a great narrative. It was very messy. Any change in Irish politics is likely to be messy. Can we have messy around issues of substance though? That’d make a nice change in Irish politics.
* image is Johnny Alpha wall paper from the 2000AD website