School's out: a summer camp in Wisconsin. Photo: Flickr/Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources
Show Hide image

I enjoyed working for the adult summer camp, but I drew the line at the shooting range

Suzanne Moore’s weekly column, Telling Tales. 

Americans like to send their children away to summer camps. They do the same to adults with learning difficulties. So it was that I found myself among a group of people with, shall we say, very mixed abilities. I had answered an ad in the Village Voice and had been asked about my experience of working with such people. I’m not sure the guys who hired me had any.

One of my favourites was Snapz, a woman from New Jersey in her fifties who spent the entire two weeks simply yawning and scratching.

“How’s it going, Snapz ?” I would regularly enquire.

“OK, honey. It’s just that I need a vacation.”

“This is your vacation,” I had to keep telling her.

And then there was Marty, who was as jittery as hell. Now we would describe him as “on the spectrum”. Marty had a job as a messenger because he had memorised the streets of Manhattan. He paced them all, clutching  his tin. On his tin and on his lapel were handwritten labels. One said: “MUGGERS I WILL FITE U”. And another: “THIS IS ALL MY MONY NO STEELING”. His specific anxiety was that weathermen on TV did not forecast the weather but controlled it.

So, with Snapz and Marty and the gang, I embarked on some entirely unsuitable activities for heavily medicated people – wine tasting; camping, with bears breaking into our supplies – but I drew the line at shooting after a stabbing incident at a barbecue.

I loved Marty and came to rely on him. If you gave him a date from any time in the 20th century, he could tell you what day of the week it was. We used to call such people “idiot savants”. I don’t know if there is a politically correct term for it; only William Hague has the same ability with dates.

In a national park in Virginia, Marty’s anxiety got the better of him. He didn’t like the darkening skies and was rocking back and forth.

“Give me a dime. I need to call the weathermen.”

“Marty, there are no phones.”

He insisted, “I need to call the weathermen, now.”

All I could think to do was find the rangers’ office and ask if he could use the phone. Marty was sporting a special new sign: “I CAN KIL U”.

We did not go down well at the rangers’ office. He went ape-shit because of the unforecast storm and he punched through the window. Armed rangers arrived.

“It’s only a window,” I cried.

“You do realise, ma’am, that this is a national park and that is a federal offence,” one of them barked, cuffing Marty.

“I am English,” I said. “I demand to speak to the ambassador.”

One sheriff looked at another and said, “She is even crazier than him. Just get them out of here.”

When I dropped Marty off with his elderly parents, he told them the vacation had been great. Except for the weather. 

Suzanne Moore is a writer for the Guardian and the New Statesman. She writes the weekly “Telling Tales” column in the NS.

This article first appeared in the 29 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, British jihadis fighting with Isis

Show Hide image

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