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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Donald Trump wants to terminate the Environmental Protection Agency - can he?

"Epa, Epa, Eeeepaaaaa" – Grampa Simpson.

 

There have been countless jokes about US President Donald Trump’s aversion to academic work, with many comparing him to an infant. The Daily Show created a browser extension aptly named “Make Trump Tweets Eight Again” that converts the font of Potus’ tweets to crayon scrawlings. Indeed, it is absurd that – even without the childish font – one particular bill that was introduced within the first month of Trump taking office looked just as puerile. Proposed by Matt Gaetz, a Republican who had been in Congress for barely a month, “H.R. 861” was only one sentence long:

“The Environmental Protection Agency shall terminate on December 31, 2018”.

If this seems like a stunt, that is because Gaetz is unlikely to actually achieve his stated aim. Drafting such a short bill without any co-sponsors – and leaving it to a novice Congressman to present – is hardly the best strategy to ensure a bill will pass. 

Still, Republicans' distrust for environmental protections is well-known - long-running cartoon show The Simpsons even did a send up of the Epa where the agency had its own private army. So what else makes H.R. 861 implausible?

Well, the 10-word-long statement neglects to address the fact that many federal environmental laws assume the existence of or defer to the Epa. In the event that the Epa was abolished, all of these laws – from the 1946 Atomic Energy Act to the 2016 Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act – would need to be amended. Preferably, a way of doing this would be included in the bill itself.

Additionally, for the bill to be accepted in the Senate there would have to be eight Democratic senators who agreed with its premise. This is an awkward demand when not even all Republicans back Trump. The man Trum appointed to the helm of the Epa, Scott Pruitt, is particularly divisive because of his long opposition to the agency. Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine said that she was hostile to the appointment of a man who was “so manifestly opposed to the mission of the agency” that he had sued the Epa 14 times. Polls from 2016 and 2017 suggests that most Americans would be also be opposed to the agency’s termination.

But if Trump is incapable of entirely eliminating the Epa, he has other ways of rendering it futile. In January, Potus banned the Epa and National Park Services from “providing updates on social media or to reporters”, and this Friday, Trump plans to “switch off” the government’s largest citizen-linked data site – the Epa’s Open Data Web Service. This is vital not just for storing and displaying information on climate change, but also as an accessible way of civilians viewing details of local environmental changes – such as chemical spills. Given the administration’s recent announcement of his intention to repeal existing safeguards, such as those to stabilise the climate and protect the environment, defunding this public data tool is possibly an attempt to decrease awareness of Trump’s forthcoming actions.

There was also a recent update to the webpage of the Epa's Office of Science and Technology, which saw all references to “science-based” work removed, in favour of an emphasis on “national economically and technologically achievable standards”. 

Trump’s reshuffle of the Epa's priorities puts the onus on economic activity at the expense of public health and environmental safety. Pruitt, who is also eager to #MakeAmericaGreatAgain, spoke in an interview of his desire to “exit” the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. He was led to this conclusion because of his belief that the agreement means “contracting our economy to serve and really satisfy Europe, and China, and India”.

 

Rather than outright closure of the Epa, its influence and funding are being leached away. H.R. 861 might be a subtle version of one of Potus’ Twitter taunts – empty and outrageous – but it is by no means the only way to drastically alter the Epa’s landscape. With Pruitt as Epa Administrator, the organisation may become a caricature of itself – as in The Simpsons Movie. Let us hope that the #resistance movements started by “Rogue” Epa and National Parks social media accounts are able to stave off the vultures until there is “Hope” once more.

 

Anjuli R. K. Shere is a 2016/17 Wellcome Scholar and science intern at the New Statesman

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