The risks of imprecision

When being half-right can be worse than being wrong.

Chris Dillow has a nice post up, "in praise of imprecision". He argues that, in far too many situations, we argue over tiny differences in estimates when the overall answer is basically known. What's GDP growth for last year? It's basically flat. Yet for all the arguments, you would think that the difference between -0.3 and -0.1 per cent – or even between -0.1 and 0.1 – was the difference between life and death.

He illustrates this with a few neat little guesstimates. For instance:

How much does welfare scrounging cost the economy? Guesstimate the number of scroungers. Guesstimate the value-added they'd contribute if they were working. Express as a proportion of GDP. For plausible values, it's a small number.

Or:

What impact will the small uprating in the minimum wage have on jobs? The adult rate will rise by 1.9%. Economists forecast inflation this year of 2.5%, so this is roughly a 0.6% real fall. Let's call the price-elasticity of demand for labour 1.5. The Low Pay Commission estimates (pdf) that 5.3% of jobs are around minimum wage ones. Multiply these three numbers together and we get 0.048%. Multiply by the number of jobs in the economy (29.73m) and we have roughly 14,000.That's roughly one-eleventh of the sampling variability of employment figures.

It's worth pointing out that the same idea has been applied pretty consistently to the claim that families with three generations of worklessness are a public policy problem. We don't know how many there are – and nor does the government, we now know – but study after study has suggested that the number is tiny.

There are only 15,000 households with two generations which have never worked, and a third of them are because the younger generation left full time education within the last year. On top of that, less than 1 per cent of young people have never worked by the age of 29, so the younger generation is normally the one most likely to pull a family out of worklessness. Whatever the number is, in other words, it's really, really small.

But it's important to note the downside to imprecision. The way common knowledge is disproved is rarely through wholesale upheaval. Instead, it's a gradual process of refinement: new estimates are put out, slightly lower than the old ones; then lower estimates still; and they get steadily lower, until suddenly you realise that the conventional wisdom was wrong.

It's a lot harder to turn an estimate of "recession" into an estimate of "growth" through gradual refinement than it is to turn an estimate of "-0.3 per cent" into one of "0.5 per cent". So there's more of a danger that we'll be stuck with half-truths.

But with that danger in mind, the absence of accepted imprecision is still keenly felt in Whitehall. Too frequently, "no statistics" is used to imply "we have no idea of the magnitude of this problem" – but that's not true. We actually know quite a lot, albeit imprecisely. The trick is acting on it.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Calum Kerr on Governing the Digital Economy

With the publication of the UK Digital Strategy we’ve seen another instalment in the UK Government’s ongoing effort to emphasise its digital credentials.

As the SNP’s Digital Spokesperson, there are moves here that are clearly welcome, especially in the area of skills and a recognition of the need for large scale investment in fibre infrastructure.

But for a government that wants Britain to become the “leading country for people to use digital” it should be doing far more to lead on the field that underpins so much of a prosperous digital economy: personal data.

If you want a picture of how government should not approach personal data, just look at the Concentrix scandal.

Last year my constituency office, like countless others across the country, was inundated by cases from distressed Tax Credit claimants, who found their payments had been stopped for spurious reasons.

This scandal had its roots in the UK’s current patchwork approach to personal data. As a private contractor, Concentrix had bought data on a commercial basis and then used it to try and find undeclared partners living with claimants.

In one particularly absurd case, a woman who lived in housing provided by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation had to resort to using a foodbank during the appeals process in order to prove that she did not live with Joseph Rowntree: the Quaker philanthropist who died in 1925.

In total some 45,000 claimants were affected and 86 per cent of the resulting appeals saw the initial decision overturned.

This shows just how badly things can go wrong if the right regulatory regimes are not in place.

In part this problem is a structural one. Just as the corporate world has elevated IT to board level and is beginning to re-configure the interface between digital skills and the wider workforce, government needs to emulate practices that put technology and innovation right at the heart of the operation.

To fully leverage the benefits of tech in government and to get a world-class data regime in place, we need to establish a set of foundational values about data rights and citizenship.

Sitting on the committee of the Digital Economy Bill, I couldn’t help but notice how the elements relating to data sharing, including with private companies, were rushed through.

The lack of informed consent within the Bill will almost certainly have to be looked at again as the Government moves towards implementing the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation.

This is an example of why we need democratic oversight and an open conversation, starting from first principles, about how a citizen’s data can be accessed.

Personally, I’d like Scotland and the UK to follow the example of the Republic of Estonia, by placing transparency and the rights of the citizen at the heart of the matter, so that anyone can access the data the government holds on them with ease.

This contrasts with the mentality exposed by the Concentrix scandal: all too often people who come into contact with the state are treated as service users or customers, rather than as citizens.

This paternalistic approach needs to change.  As we begin to move towards the transformative implementation of the internet of things and 5G, trust will be paramount.

Once we have that foundation, we can start to grapple with some of the most pressing and fascinating questions that the information age presents.

We’ll need that trust if we want smart cities that make urban living sustainable using big data, if the potential of AI is to be truly tapped into and if the benefits of digital healthcare are really going to be maximised.

Clearly getting accepted ethical codes of practice in place is of immense significance, but there’s a whole lot more that government could be doing to be proactive in this space.

Last month Denmark appointed the world’s first Digital Ambassador and I think there is a compelling case for an independent Department of Technology working across all government departments.

This kind of levelling-up really needs to be seen as a necessity, because one thing that we can all agree on is that that we’ve only just scratched the surface when it comes to developing the link between government and the data driven digital economy. 

In January, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and the New Statesman convened a discussion on this topic with parliamentarians from each of the three main political parties and other experts.  This article is one of a series from three of the MPs who took part, with an  introduction from James Johns of HPE, Labour MP, Angela Eagle’s view and Conservative MP, Matt Warman’s view

Calum Kerr is SNP Westminster Spokesperson for Digital