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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Is Google Maps discriminating against people with disabilities?

Its walking routes are not access-friendly.

“I ended up having to be pushed through a main road in London, which was really scary.” Three weeks ago, Mary Bradley went to London to visit her daughter Belinda, who is just finishing her first year at university there. Her other daughter joined them on the trip.

But what was supposed to be an enjoyable weekend with her two children turned into a frustrating ordeal. The apps they were using to find their way around kept sending them on routes that are not wheelchair-friendly, leading to time-consuming and sometimes frightening consequences.

Bradley has been using a wheelchair – when having to go longer distances without a vehicle – for over a year, due to a 45-degree curve in her spine, severe joint facet deterioration in her back, and other conditions.

She lives in Weston-super-Mare in Somerset, and has made the trip up to London to visit her daughter a handful of times. Each visit, they use Google Maps and the transport app Citymapper to find their way around, as neither of them know London particularly well.


Belinda and Mary Bradley. Photo: Belinda Bradley

“It was just horrible,” says Bradley of her most recent trip to the capital. “We’re following the maps, and we go along, then find we are faced with a footbridge, and realise there was no way I was going to get over it, so we had to go back the way we’d come. At one point, we were faced with a strip of narrow pavement the wheelchair couldn’t go down. That was something we found all weekend.”

While Google Maps did highlight accessible Tube stations, they found that once they had alighted to do the rest of the journey to their destination on foot, “it took us three times as long, because the route that it takes us just wasn’t passable”.

They ended up having to try different routes “having no real idea of where were going”.

“It meant that it took so much longer, the girls ended up having to push me for longer, I got more and more embarrassed and frustrated and upset about the whole thing,” Bradley tells me.

At one point, her daughters had to take her down a main road. “Being pushed on a road, especially in London, is scary,” she says. “It was scary for me, it was scary for the girls.”

When they returned home, Belinda, who is a 19-year-old Writing and Theatre student at the University of Roehampton, was so furious at the situation that she started a petition for Google Maps to include wheelchair-friendly routes. It hit over 100,000 signatures in a fortnight. At the time of writing, it has 110,601 petitioners.


Belinda's petition.

Belinda was surprised that Google Maps didn’t have accessible routes. “I know Google Maps so well, [Google]’s such a big company, it has the satellite pictures and everything,” she says. “So I was really surprised because there’s loads of disabled people who must have such an issue.”

The aim of her petition is for Google Maps to generate routes that people using wheelchairs, crutches, walking sticks, or pushing prams will be able to use. “It just says that they’re a little bit ignorant,” is Belinda’s view of the service’s omission. “To me, just to ignore any issues that big needs to be solved; it needs to be addressed almost immediately.”

But she also wants to raise awareness to “make life better in general” for people with disabilities using navigation apps.

Belinda has not received a response from Google or Citymapper, but I understand that Google is aware of the petition and the issue it raises. Google declined to comment and I have contacted Citymapper but have not received a response.

Google Maps does provide information about how accessible its locations are, and also allows users to fill in accessibility features themselves via an amenities checklist for places that are missing that information. But it doesn’t provide accessible walking routes.

“There’s no reason that they couldn’t take it that bit further and include wheelchair accessible routes,” says Matt McCann, the founder of Access Earth, an online service and app that aims to be the Google Maps for people with disabilities. “When I first started Access Earth, I always thought this is something Google should be doing, and I was always surprised they haven’t done it. And that’s the next logical step.”

McCann began crowdsourcing information for Access Earth in 2013, when he booked a hotel in London that was supposed to be wheelchair-friendly – but turned out not to be accessible for his rollator, which he uses due to having cerebral palsy.

Based in Dublin, McCann says Google Maps has often sent him on pedestrian routes down cobbled streets, which are unsuitable for his rollator. “That’s another level of detail; to know whether the footpaths are pedestrian-friendly, but also if they’re wheelchair-friendly as well in terms of the surface,” he notes. “And that was the main problem that I had in my experience [of using walking routes].”

Access Earth, which includes bespoke accessibility information for locations around the world, aims to introduce accessible routes once the project has received enough funding. “The goal is to encompass all aspects of a route and trip,” he says. Other services such as Wheelmap and Euan's Guide also crowdsource information to provide access-friendly maps.

So how long will it take for more established tech companies like Google to clear the obstacles stopping Mary Bradley and millions like her using everyday services to get around?

“You can use them for public transport, to drive, you can use them if you’re an able-bodied person on foot,” she says. “But there are loads of us who are completely excluded now.”

Sign Belinda Bradley’s “Create Wheelchair Friendly Routes on Google Maps" here.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.