Saturday, January 21, 2006

Liberalism - beyond the Valley of the Databases 

Three themes entwined for me this week – Liberalism, the Leadership contest and Databases. Thinking about databases may help think more clearly about the two Big Ls in this list.

I want to suggest a metaphor. New Labour is the political movement of database culture. Liberals can aspire to something richer. But we have to think about this.

Databases of course came up in the Kelly Uproar on List 99 and sex offenders in schools. It is quite right to be concerned about the slowness in setting up the new database on offenders, as Ming rightly stressed in the House and on Question Time. But databases are strictly limited tools and capable of damaging side consequences if we do not take care.

I have found a set of definitions helpful in looking at the social impact of IT systems and by extension in my Liberal politics. Broadly we need to distinguish between Data, Information, Knowledge and Wisdom.

1 Data is just lumps of facts and assertions and records which you can pile up and pass around and fit into slots. Some bits are accurate some are crap.

2 Information is data that has been organised for some purpose. It is data available in the right place at the right time in the right level of detail for someone to make a decision. Data is information organised to make a difference.

3 Knowledge includes not only the set of preceding data and information we have to ask the questions needed to turn data into information for this time and place but also the care and maintenance of the skills needed to ask these questions.

4 Wisdom is something we need to guide and deepen our knowledge. If you have a good definition of wisdom let me know. But its absence often becomes obvious.

There are huge problems in getting even basic data accurately. ‘Garbage In Garbage Out’ is not just a description of Celebrity Big Brother. We can too easily create ‘Data Artefacts’ where bits of data from sources of very different credibility and reliability are presented together in The Base as if all are of equal value. It is very easy to assume we are applying Knowledge in using a database when in fact we are falling for sophisticated versions of the three card trick. So we get ‘Spin’ and the New Labour culture of meaningless initiatives fitting people into database slots the better to manipulate them.

The problem is compounded when the ‘data’ is dynamic, that is entries are liable to change over time. This tends to happen for data about people. Date of birth may be reliable if entered correctly first time, but taste in seafood for a given person might change day by day. If you want to keep a dynamic database reasonably in line with reality it will (as a rule of thumb) cost as much per year to maintain as it did to collect the original data. This by the way is a key issue in the ‘Identity Card’ cost debate.

To correct the inevitable, and I stress inevitable shortfalls and inaccuracies in even a good database we need a culture of Information Integrity and that needs a politics of Knowledge Support. For that culture we need to support enquiring minds, the possibility of heretics, an insistence on the value of different experiences applied to current questions, and a resistance to groupthink.

That culture means people can build up the Knowledge needed to get real information for themselves, at the right time in the right place in the right detail for their own needs, and make as many decisions as possible without having to depend on others.

For me Liberalism is a key part of any such Knowledge Culture and the Libdems as a party are at least partially working in that area. I don’t claim perfection. But we can have a Nemawashi on this. I hope all Leadership candidates in their own ways recognise this and find ways to get this theme across to the wider public, not just score points in our LibDem world.

To go back to list99 and the new database, the effective deployment of this will need a costly but necessary programme of repeated data review and a culture of evaluation amongst those that access it. Otherwise it will become so out of date and contain so many false positives that the information content will degrade – it will act as a smokescreen for some instead of a searchlight. At the best data incapable of making much difference. It is the support of the Knowledge Culture that will protect our children, not the simple tool itself.

Just to back up the importance of this theme, see this article in yesterday’s (20th Jan) Guardian on the data capture culture and this in Today’s (21st Jan) on the Google row.

Note that in our sense they are talking about data pickup and the kinds of information that can be extracted by people asking questions we don’t give permission to be asked.

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