The census may have a nugget, but Tesco already has the gold

The government has nothing on supermarkets when it comes to keeping to tabs on people.

You won't find the next generation of gold prospectors getting their hands dirty. Nope, you'll see them behind a computer mining data.

In the 21st century, data is the new oil, and all you need to do is drill into the right databases to find out what you need.

I point this out having just trawled through my census form and realised what a pointless, expensive waste of time it is. And that's before I decide whether my religion is Jedi or not.

I predict now that this is the last one we'll do, certainly on paper, this way. Especially given that ministers could simply call up Tesco to get pretty well all the answers they need within hours.

Here is why: Tesco has an astonishing databank, built up through its Clubcard reward scheme. The data from card swipes is analysed by a company it owns called Dunnhumby.

Dunnhumby's website says: "We have access to the shopping behaviour of 13 million households. This helps manufacturers to understand the purchase decisions and habits of customers better than anyone else."

The raw data alone has no value; it's how you crunch it. And this lot are so good at it that they can sell it on to other firms.

What this means is that Tesco knows exactly where its stores need to be located and doesn't fill its shelves with stuff it can't sell. That's the secret of its profits. It also segregates communities. The really poor areas are never going to get sun-dried tomatoes. Cigarette companies work in a similar way to get round the ban on advertising.

Another company, Experian, has financial and location data sewn up. This company offers a free credit rating service and even knows about our web viewing habits.

So deep is Experian's reach that it was able to map exactly how and where the spending cuts would hit and even the health of the nation.

But you don't need to drill deep to find out about people. Wired organised a great stunt recently in which it did a basic trawl of personal details openly available and made some shocking discoveries.

The government is playing catch-up with its own site, partly driven by campaigns to open access to official data, but it's way behind.

It's a frustration among ministers past and present. Labour's former Cabinet Office minister Liam Byrne has highlighted that, on pressing issues, the departmental advice and evidence didn't go far enough. That's why there are so many consultation documents out of Whitehall.

At the local level, health, police and other agencies will tell you about the "hidden" people who show up to use services but don't exist officially. The new slum landlords won't say they've got ten people in a house. Westminster and other councils have warned for years about how unreliable the census figures are. Yet the government will still plan services around them.

Follow it though, and there are three conclusions. The government could contract out the census or mine its own databases properly.

Or, to get a real understanding of its citizens, the government could actually talk to citizens and communities. Get into a deep dialogue with people at local level; a form of crowdsourcing. But governments won't go there while they are focused on focus groups.

Finally, Tesco has enough data to know who's buying bad food and aspirin. It could save the NHS a fortune by identifying unhealthy people right now. The bigger stores have a pharmacy. Tesco could take over the health service.

It has the buying power, data, national presence and supply chain. And with deficit reduction, every little helps . . .

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Theresa May's magic money tree is growing in Northern Ireland

Her £1bn deal with the DUP could make it even harder to push through cuts in the rest of the UK.

Going, going, gone...sold to the dark-haired woman from Enniskillen! Theresa May has signed a two-year deal with Arlene Foster, the DUP's leader, to keep her in office. The price? A cool £1bn and the extension of the military covenant to Northern Ireland.

The deal will have reverberations both across the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland specifically. To take the latter first – the amount spent in Northern Ireland in 2016/17 was just under £10bn. A five point increase in spending on health, education and roads is a fairly large feather in anyone's cap.

It transforms the picture as far as the fraught negotiations over restoring power-sharing goes. It increases the pressure on Sinn Féin to restore power-sharing so they can help decide exactly where the money goes. And if there's another election, it means that Arlene Foster goes into it not as the woman who oversaw the wasteful RHI scheme (a renewable energy programme that because of its poor drafting saw farmers paid to heat empty rooms) but as the negotiator who bagged an extra £1bn for Northern Ireland. 

Across the United Kingdom, the optics are less good for the (nominal) senior partner to the deal.

"May buys DUP support with £1 billion 'bung" is the Times"£1bn for DUP is 'just the start" is the Telegraph's splash, and their Scottish edition is worse: "Fury at 'grubby' deal with DUP". With friends like this, who needs the Guardian? (They've gone for "May hands £1bn bonanza to DUP to cling on at No 10" as their splash, FYI.) 

Not to be outdone, the Mirror opts for "May's £1bn bribe to crackpots" while the Scotsman goes for "£100 million per vote: The price of power".  Rounding off the set, the Evening Standard has mocked Foster up as Dr Evil and Theresa May as Mini-Me on its front page. The headline? "I demand the sum of....one billion pounds!"   

Of course, in terms of what the government spends, £1bn is much ado about nothing. (To put it in perspective, the total budget across the UK is £770bn or thereabouts, debt interest around £40bn, the deficit close to £76bn).

But only a few weeks ago Theresa May was telling a nurse that the reason she couldn't get a pay rise is that there is "no magic money tree". Now that magic money tree is growing freely in Northern Ireland. The Conservatives have been struggling to get further cuts through as it is – just look at the row over tax credits, or the anger at school cuts in the election – but now any further cuts in England, Scotland and Wales will rub up against the inevitable comeback not only from the opposition parties but the voters: "But you've got money to spend in Northern Ireland!"

(That £1bn is relatively small probably makes matters worse – an outlay per DUP MP that you might expect a world-class football club to spend on a quality player. It's tangible, rather like that £350m for the NHS. £30bn? That's just money.)

For Labour, who have spent the last seven years arguing, with varying degrees of effectiveness that austerity is a choice, it's as close to an open goal as you can imagine. Theresa May's new government is now stable – but it's an open question as to how long it will take her party to feel strong again.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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