Weeknotes: politics, ethernet, unions, SIC codes

Some time ago, Something New set up as a new kind of political party. This is, as tech people say, an extremely non-trivial thing to attempt - especially as the focus was on how people could get more involved with policy development together. Now it's winding up - the right decision, but not an easy one:

We started on this journey to try to bring some better engagement with politics. The OpenPolitics Manifesto was a way to explore new ways of working together, and Something New was a party created to put that experiment out in front of voters. But we’ve found the last few years incredibly hard to engage with. The approach of rationality and evidence has no foothold in politics now, so it’s incredibly difficult to get any traction. Our ideals around a vision of a better future seem a very long way from the current political world.

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 James Smith on unionizing in tech:

While I was at primary school, Margaret Thatcher was doing her best to crush the power of working people that challenged her plans. Ever since then the word “union” has been inextricably linked to strikes, unrest and conflict, and has been very effectively labeled an enemy. Even now, the only time we hear about unions are when the trains aren’t running. The very idea of workers organizing among themselves is… well, pretty unusual.

... We work in an industry that likes to think it’s progressive, but in reality, as most of us have experienced over our careers, the tech industry is full of exploitation.

... Being part of a union is the same; it’s there in case something happens. For the situations we can’t see yet. As long as nothing’s on fire, you’d never even know it was there. I don’t want to need it. But I might, one day.

... Unionisation is weird in the tech industry, as in society as a whole. If we do it, it makes it more normal. And by making it more normal, we make it more acceptable for those people who do need it right now.

Siva Vaidhyanathan on how There’s No Such Thing As a Tech Expert Anymore, via Cassie Robinson.

Members of Congress clearly don’t understand the tech companies they’re supposed to regulate. But neither does anyone else.

... So as we look at the myriad ways Google and Facebook have let us down and led us astray, let’s remember that no one has the manual. No one fully understands these systems, even the people who designed them at their birth. The once impressive, now basic, algorithms that made Google and Facebook distinct and useful have long been eclipsed by even more sophisticated and opaque data sets and machine learning. They are not just black boxes to regulators, journalists, and scholars. They are black boxes to the very engineers who work there.

As Arbesman writes of other complex systems, “While many of us continue to convince ourselves that experts can save us from this massive complexity—that they have the understanding that we lack—that moment has passed.”

The ONS published a diary of the nation in lockdown - fascinating statistics and quotes.

Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino looks back at the ways people have tried to connect before now, often overlooked:

The pandemic seems to have triggered some investigation of how we connect remotely with others. Welcome to the last 20 years of HCI everyone!

Now everyone is making UK lockdown lookup websites, but they aren't all very good, sigh. Check out the comparison here.

Tom Gauld on autumn:

Comic about reading books outdoors in the autumn

It's Fat Bear week at the Explore.org Katmai bear cams.  These, and other wildlife livestreams, are directed by volunteers in a surprisingly complex operation.

Tom Forth writes:

The Data City creates new SIC codes, in a new way, for new industries.

Standard Industrial Classification (SIC) codes were created in 1937 to standardise how different parts of the US government classified businesses. Something similar has since been adopted in almost every country in the world.

These systems assign a code to every company in the economy. In the UK a deep coal mine is 05101. A manufacturer of assembled parquet floors is 16220. Processors of seed for propagation are coded as 01640.

These codes work well for agricultural and industrial sectors. Precise definitions for a wide range of industries go into very small niches. But as employment in these sectors has shrunk (industry and agriculture combined make up less than 20% of the UK’s economy today) and as new sectors have grown and become less precisely defined these niches tell us less and less about our economy.

... Three other SIC codes — Management consultancy activities other than financial management (70229), Information technology consultancy activities (62020), and Other business support service activities n.e.c. (82990) — employ well over a million people.

... It was easy to say what Nokia did when they manufactured rubber boots. Today it is much harder.

To fix this we think about SIC codes differently. To show that difference we call them RTIC codes, Real-time Industry Classifications. Four big differences between RTICs and SICs are,

  •     We don’t limit the number of RTIC codes that a company can have.
  •     We use a company’s whole web presence to assign it RTIC codes instead of asking it to self-identify from a set list.
  •     We create new RTIC codes constantly to reflect new niches of activity.
  •     We update our assignments continually.

... If the UK is serious about using data in government, and if it’s serious about levelling up, and if it’s serious about industrial strategy, then it needs something like our data and our tools. Currently, for all their claims and assurances, too many of the UK’s major national institutions and too many government departments don’t know very much about what our economy is good at and where those strengths are. Too often they lack any reasonably objective way to tell the hundreds of places that ask for huge investment every time there is a competitive funding round that they are actually not good at what they claim to be. They lack knowledge about where clusters of excellence exist and what sectors they are in.

Through a combination of proximity and a drive to innovate and support economic growth, some of the UK’s large cities already understand their economic strengths well. But within such a centralised country there isn’t much that they can do with that knowledge. It is not in their power.

If the UK is serious about using data in government, and if it’s serious about levelling up, and if it’s serious about industrial strategy, then it needs something like our data and our tools. 

This is really exciting stuff - an important problem, a very different way of tackling it. Good luck to the Data City team!

From Drew Austin's newsletter:

In his 2005 book Planet of Slums, Mike Davis writes, “The urban edge is the societal impact zone where the centrifugal forces of the city collide with the implosion of the countryside.” Throughout much of the world, people are simultaneously being pushed out of urban and rural areas by different forces, and the “urban edge” is the ambiguous, often invisible place where they end up.

... Davis’s thesis is that urbanization is not necessarily a product of opportunity. Cities around the world have become a default destination for populations that have nowhere else to go, and the interaction of center city gentrification and rural hardship, pushing from two directions, produces an “urban edge” that looks nothing like the stereotypical affluent American suburb.

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Thanks to everyone who worked on Cambridge's divestment - but honestly, it's not the most enthusing news as Daniel notes:

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What if the North Sea had an embassy? HT Justin Pickard.

And finally, Carrie Wittmer explores the data around which male Hollywood sex symbols actually have sex on screen. Thanks Verity Allan for bringing this joy to my stream.