Data based moralising

There are all manner of complex reasons why people may sign up to Ashley Madison (and other related sites). Some people are in open relationships while some people may be in all manner of unhappy relationships (those that are abusive, that have mismatches around sex drives). Others may have contemplated doing something, but only thought long enough to sign up to having an account, and never actually contacted anyone. Relationships and cheating are complicated.

This leak has huge potential damage to cause a *lot* of harm to real people. And even more so in countries where extramarital sex isn’t just considered morally wrong but is illegal, or where homosexuality is illegal (some of the data reportedly indicates this). Saudi Arabia is an example of this.

I really hate people forcing their morality/perspective on relationships on to others in this incredibly public and identifiable way. And I think we’ll (very sadly) see more instances of incidences like the suicides reportedly related to the hack.

Waving goodbye to July

What a month July was – I’m not sure I’ve had such a busy month for a very long time… lots of travelling as part of work (doing NHS Citizen stuff), but also lots of seeing friends in different places such as managing to see my best friend in Manchester, and fulfilling a life long desire to stroll up the Champs-Élysées for breakfast after lots of jazz.

I still managed to do a bunch of reading though…

Things I read

Tanglewreck – Jeanette Winterson
“Today lies on top of yesterday. And yesterday on top of the day before, and so on down the layers of history, until the layers are so thick that the voices underneath are muffled to whispers”

You can rarely go wrong with a good children book – and this is an OK one. Gorgeous concept, but I’m possibly a bit too old and too ‘sciency’ to buy into the idea of time travel as portrayed here.
 
Mrs Dalloway – Virginia Woolf
It had long been on my to read pile – but I found that I really need to spend some time just sat down with it as the largely stream of consciousness writing style meant it wasn’t a book to pick up and put down. It explores some of my favourite themes – interactions between individuals, understanding/acceptance of decisions made, reinterpretation/subjectivity of perspectives, and mental health. The ending made me itch with frustration as I wanted greater resolution…
 
Gilead – Marilynne Robinson
Time, age, and introspection seemed common themes for books in July. I loved the period of time the book could span due to the tale told, always from a single perspective. Reading through an individuals slow stepping their way towards forgiveness – you can read this as a book about faith, or you can remove the religious aspect entirely and read it as being about family, relationships, and human interactions.

 

Things I did

  • Building Digital Democracy event in Parliament – interesting afternoon. I wasn’t convinced by everything that was being presented as being new/interesting/valuable, but certainly a step in the right direction of getting digital and parliament talking to each other more. Wednesday lunch time is rarely a good time for a Parliamentary event though.
  • Turkish baths, champagne, and chinese in Harrogate – there is a place in Harrogate where you can do 3 of the best things ever. You can go to Turkish baths (bathing, heat, cool water, all surrounded by amazing architecture), and then eat chinese and drink champagne after. Possibly the best evening of my life.
  • Open Government Partnership launch – I’m very pro greater openness in Government, so was very happy to be at the launch event for the next national action plan. It was excellent to be involved in conversations about ‘open data’ going beyond just openness in terms of licensing. Anyone who has heard me rant about this over the last few years will know *quite* how happy I was to hear others talking in these terms in this meeting…
  • Wikimedia UK Volunteer Strategy Gathering – conversations about communities, community building/empowering, strategy, and open knowledge, genuinely fit into my idea of a good time on a Saturday. I may be somewhat of a nerd though… I’m not convinced by the processes they are currently proposing, nor their focus on committees and advisory boards, but we shall see what happens next!

Things I saw

Fast and Furious 6 and 7 – Incredible. For all the wrong/right reasons. 7 was the better of the two – if only for bonus Jason Statham, The Rock pulling a gun from a Predator drone having literally flexed a cast off his arm, Vin Diesel and the amazing car jump to hook a bag of grenades onto a helicopter. Oh and a glorious scene where a car is driven through multiple towers in Abu Dhabi. And the bit where the team parachute out of a plane in their cars. It’s ludicrous. But so much fun.

Green Hornet – An absolute farce and terrible film that was perfect for a giggly evening in with pizza. Will NEVER watch it again, and will never recommend it.

The Man Who Knew Too Little – Mildly amusing. Not recommended

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off– Hard not to see the appeal for many. A giggle and a backward glange to an idealised teenage day that no-one ever actually had, and to a person none of us ever were.

 

So, roll on August – a month of more travel, lots of planned films, and hopefully some time to actually see some exhibitions. I plan to actually settle down and get back into reading something non-fictional as well, and I have the feeling I have some proms tickets for something…

Why voter tools may be problematic…

I’m a little unsurprised by this post I just saw on Buzzfeed about how the Daily Telegraphs Tactical Voting Tool was coded never to recommend the SNP. Not only am I not totally surprised, but I’m both a little happy and a little sad to be proven right about the use of voter apps and tools.

Before the election I became a little concerned about applications and tools that were being created by a variety of organisations that were supposed to give a floating voter an idea of how to vote in the 2015 General Election.

There is a fundamental (and incorrect) assumption underlying these tools that a parliamentary candidate should only be considered as a member of a party, rather than both as a member of a party and as an individual who will have their own pet areas of interest and qualities, but let’s ignore that and pretend that we should only be thinking about what national party policy says.

How the tools work

Many of these tools that were being created operated on a simple set of premises. A user would chose some areas of policy they were interested in, and then a variety of statements would be shown to the user without any obviously identifying information about which party had made those statements (although language used and the proposals themselves often gave that away to the more politically active), and the user would choose which statements they thought fitted most with their beliefs. An algorithm would then run over the answers provided and recommendations for how someone may wish to vote, or a bar chart/pie chart of the users similarities with political parties on various issues would pop out.

Alternatively, a user may be asked a series of questions about their priorities or beliefs, with similar outputs being provided – some form of chart or suggestions for which party their beliefs most align with.

Sometimes the bits of policy would be direct quotes from various statements and/or manifestos – albeit it shorn of any context and just a part that the tool creator had deemed ‘relevant’ – perhaps removing a sentence or two from either side that may alter how something reads, perhaps not using the paragraph that may be most directly comparable to other parties policies, or perhaps not considering that policies in seemingly unrelated areas may have an impact

And sometimes – especially with those tools that asked a series of questions – policy ideas and proposals from parties would be condensed by the tool creator into slightly different sentences and ideas than were ever originally considered.

How can bias creep in?

My concern before the election was that even with the best will in the world, any such tool will be full of biases. Be that removing specific nuance that may accidentally change what was originally meant in a policy statement, or removing the idea of how policies can and do interact (as an example the Green Party’s proposal to reduce copyright to 14 years after creation itself may be considered very difficult for many creators – but as the Green Party also propose a citizens basic income, this reduction in copyright would not itself cause destitution if both policies were brought in together).

And added to which, most organisations, including charities and NGOs, creating these tools are not politically neutral. They care about specific areas and will have either accidental or deliberate political biases that will emerge through these tools. Not only is it easy to accidentally remove nuance from a policy statement in a way that may make a political party look bad, it would also be very easy to deliberately do it – if say you wanted more people to vote for Labour than the Greens and Lib Dems – you could chose statements for the latter two parties that are less likely to be palatable to a wider audience, or summarise their policy proposals in less favorable ways.

And any questions asked will invariably contain bias. Just as one example, when I looked at 38 degrees vote match, none of the topics mentioned were my top voting issues. And the questions themselves were troublesome. For instance – one of the statements I was asked if I agree with was:

‘Government should raise new taxes to fund the NHS’

This statement is really leading. ‘Raising new taxes’ is not the same as ‘give more money to NHS’ as it is presuming the means by which more money needs to be provided. Furthermore, it also presumes the answer to any existing problems within the NHS is ‘a lack of money’, rather than for (possibly) bad internal management structures, or the wrong types of services being offered. Different technical procedures, less paper work, a decrease in homeopathy funding can all act to reduce costs for the NHS, providing an effective increase in funds – without ever ‘raising new taxes’. But the questions didn’t allow for such subtlety.

And therefore, any party which had more nuanced approaches to policy, which may need a little more explaining would be punished by this – as their idea wouldn’t fit easily into a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer to this question.

I don’t expect most people to go away and read all the manifestos, and I do genuinely like the idea of tools and apps that people can play with to explore voting options. But I worry that these tools and apps can be used by organisations to push biases that less politically aware individuals may not notice.

Steps forwards

I would like to like to see those with strong interests in politics and with some understanding of social science to start more critical analysis of the biases that can be built into such tools – both in the language and framings used, as well as in the software and algorithms underpinning them. For this, it would help if the tools themselves were open source, so that the underlying code can be explored fully. Obviously, making something open source doesn’t magically make it evaluated and tested – but it is a start that enables this.

With each of these voter apps basically acting as a (potentially) poorly-designed survey, but one with the potential to influence voters and possibly alter outcomes within our election and democracy, much more critical analysis of these tools is needed.

Registering to vote

You have until the end of today (20 April) to register to vote for the 2015 General Election. Go and do it now.

Really.

To vote in UK elections, you must be over 18 and on what is called ‘the electoral register’. And even if you decide in the end not to vote on the 7 May, if you don’t register today you lose the option of doing so.

You never know what a local candidate or political party may do or say in the next few weeks. Even if you are normally politically apathetic, there is a chance someone will say something so incredible or outrageous that you feel obliged to go make a mark on polling day. Or you may just want the chance to spoil your ballot and scrawl all over your piece of paper, to stick it to the man.

But if you don’t register today you won’t get that opportunity.

I’ll be honest, it’s very unlikely your vote in the general election will do much. Even in this close election, many seats in the country are safe seats, where a party holds a significant majority.

On the 7 May, there will also be local elections – where you get to choose local councilors. And this is likely to have a much more significant impact on your local area than the national elections. If you aren’t on the electoral register, you won’t get an opportunity to vote in the local elections either.

There are all sorts of other ways you can get involved in the election if you so desire – contact your parliamentary candidates in the run up to the election to tell them about the issues that you care about, and asking them what their views are on these things. When they are busy trying to get your vote is one of the best times to convince a politician that they should care about the same things you do.

Or you could go to a hustings and meet the candidates for your area.

But all this may be far too much to think about right now, seems far too much like getting involved. And doesn’t have a deadline of just a few hours away.

So go and register now. Because you should go and mark a paper on election day – even if you just scrawl across it that the entire system is broken and politicians are all corrupt bastards. Which they aren’t. Not all of them, anyway.

And there is a lot more we can all do to be actively involved in the politics of our country, but making sure you are at least able to vote just in case you may want to in 3 weeks time is the least of those things!

So register. Now

MPs and second jobs

I’ve seen quite a lot of calls for MPs to be banned from having a second job over the last few days.

And I’m sympathetic to a lot of it, and would be strongly opposed to any parliamentary representative of mine not working hard to represent the constituency, or deal with issues they said they would work on if elected.

But what actually is a second job? If we are to ban them, we need to come up with some kind of agreed definition. And I’m not sure I know what one is.

Does an MP have a second job if they are a doctor during periods of Parliamentary recess? How about if said MP has no family/child care responsibilities and writes articles or a book during late evenings, having been in Parliament or working on either parliamentary or constituency business for 10 hours or so that day?

Does an MP have a ‘second job’ if they are a Minister? In many ways, surely this is worse than having an outside part time job that takes place during recess, as said MP is no longer able to vote against the Government party line, as well as having a (very) significant portion of their working time taken up with Government business rather than constituency business.

While there clearly are examples of MPs who take the mick – before we can talk about banning anything, we need a much clear idea of the shades of grey that might or might not be considered acceptable.

Collecting a list of learned societies

Happy Open Data Day 2015!

To celebrate, I’m going to spend the day curating a list of UK based learned societies, and scientific organisations to release later today/tomorrow as an openly licensed data set. I’ll then hopefully update the Wikipedia page – which is woefully incomplete.

It would be great to have some help if you’re interested. At present I’m looking just to gather names of organisations and websites.

I’ve merged a number of lists of learned societies and scientific organisations together, into a Google spreadsheet, and shall spend the next few hours tidying it up, making notes, and hunting down other organisations to include.

Scientific organisations and learned societies are not defined terms, and come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Some are professional with paid staff, others entirely voluntary, and they may caryy out a wide range of activities from publishing through to arranging meetings or networking events. They may provide grants and bursaries, get involved in public engagement and outreach, or get involved in political lobbying.

The criteria for inclusion on the list:

  1. The organisation or group should be a learned society or scientific organisation. Although these aren’t defined terms, often an organisation claims to be one or looks a lot like other organisations which claim to be one. The key things to look for are that it must be a membership organisation that is in some way linked to an area of research. I don’t want to include organisations who are solely professional bodies – although some learned societies also act in this way. There are lots of grey areas though and I’m very keen to explore them in the future – so if you aren’t sure, please do add it!
  2. Based in the UK. This means the main physical base or contact address should be in the UK and/or the organisation specifically states that it is an organisation for either the whole UK or part of the UK.

Thanks for the help – and if nothing else, please just make sure you add your learned society or organisation on to the sheet!

Wrapping up January

I know… 2 personal blog posts in a row. I shall try not to make it a habit…

The month as a whole:

It was odd – but in a (very) good way. I spent most of 2013 dealing with illness and recovering, and January was the first month I felt back to something like myself. I went to lots of social events, continued working part time and did some additional freelance work looking at open data policies in/around academia, and took a few trips down to London. I’ve even started to look around for new freelance work and jobs. (My current job has a hard deadline in a few months, and my boss knows I’m looking for something else before then). It may be a cliché, but I certainly feel that January has set me off on the right track for the year.

Things I did:

As well as the stuff above, there has been lots of cooking, getting back into running/walking (all of which have helped me lose some weight), and meditating. There have also been a few events – such as helping to run/attend London Open Drinks, and dropping into others including the ICT4DLondon MeetUp.

There are a couple of research projects on the go at present around open access and universities and learned societies. I hope to release some data around these soon – but they’ve been quite a time drain.

Things I didn’t do
  • I wanted to do much more on an Arduino project I have in mind. I’m trying to build a mini weather station from scratch – but I ordered the wrong bits which I didn’t realize until they arrived (taking forever).
  • Jazz dancing – I was going to start jazz dancing, but couldn’t find a good class. I tried a few different places, but they were all not quite right. If you have any suggestions please let me know!
Things I watched
  • I saw the Rocky Horror Picture Show for the first time. And wow – that’s quite the experience. I am disappointed it took me so long to get around to watching it!
  • Roman Holiday. What a perfect lazy, wet, weekend film. I’ve been on something of an old film kick over the winter so may be biased – but it had me giggling much of the way through it. If only more films realized that a fairytale happy ending isn’t necessary…
  • I tried to watch The Fifth Estate – but I got about 20 minutes in and decided I couldn’t take anymore and had far better uses of my time.
Things I read
  • Hackers, Hoaxers, Whistleblower, Spy – by Gabriella Coleman. It’s an excellent and easy to read exploration of Anonymous that’s certainly worth a few hours of anyones time – even if you are less interested in Anonymous itself and more interested in digital activism; and I hope to write a book review up properly at some stage. Perhaps at times her sympathies are slightly too aligned with the group she’s writing about, but I much prefer that than an author who pretends to be totally detached.
  • The Last Continent – Terry Prattchett. I felt ill, I needed a warm and comfortable book to slip in to… and one which I knew very well.
  • There are a couple of others on the go at present but as I’ve not finished them, I’ll omit them for now…
I’ve been thinking about:
  • Citizen science – I’ve had a blog post in the back of my mind for a long time about how citizen science has potential to be much greater than academics using citizens to measure/record data – and how open hardware and citizen labs opens up some really interesting ideas. I really need to get these thoughts down somewhere, rather than just talk at friends.
  • Data privacy and ownership in citizen science/crowd-sourced projects – This is as issue I rarely see come up – and something that I think needs to be discussed more. This well-meaning and potentially valuable project from the Guardian started this line of thinking
  • Citizens engaging politicians – I’d like to see a lot more of it – rather than people just complaining that their MP doesn’t listen to them. With an election coming up there are some great opportunities for this…
  • That we need much more PR/media/politician friendly comms work on tech and Internet issues. A lot more.
  • The Green Party – How will the Party change and evolve as its membership grows and expands beyond an ideological core? They’ve had such a recent expansion.. and it will be fascinating to see what happens next.
  • Digital democracy – whatever that means
  • Academic publishing, institutional repositories and the politics that lie within universities…
And Februrary?

I need and want to do more writing. I always say that, but this month I shall succeed. There is also a science/tech hustings to organize in Cambridge, and already a few trips around the country on the to do list, as well as some stuff I can’t yet talk about.

My main aim for February is to be completely confident by the end of the month that I’ve recovered – which is totally doable I think.

So onward to February….!