In this week’s New Statesman: Steven Poole on the rise of Big Data

PLUS: Rafael Behr on the angry white guys tearing the Tories apart.

Cover Story: The Digital Panopticon

In this week’s cover story Steven Poole looks at the promise of “Big Data” – that we will be saved from our manifold dilemmas so long as we measure the world. Google Flu Trends can track the spread of an influenza epidemic, Google Translate’s corpus of phrases and likely translations far surpasses all others, and aircraft and other complex engineering projects can be made more reliable once components are able wirelessly to phone home information about how they are functioning. But how useful is big data in the first place? And should we be wary of the consequences?

. . . as Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier point out in their useful recent book, Big Data: “Big data itself is founded on theory.” And once you’ve manufactured data with instruments that operate according to certain theories, you then need to analyse it theoretically. At the Large Hadron Collider, subatomic smashing generates a million gigabytes of data every second. Automated systems keep just a millionth of this for analysis (discarding the rest based on theories), but the bit-heap is still Brobdingnagian. And it needs to be analysed according to still other theories before scientists will understand what is going on. Until then, the data itself is just inscrutable numbers. Raw data is not knowledge. According to IBM, 90 per cent of the world’s extant data has been created in the past two years. Unless I missed something important, that is not because the human race has very rapidly become much wiser.

Rafael Behr: He was the future once – David Cameron and the struggle to be modern

By the end of this year, David Cameron will have served longer as the leader of the Conservatives than any of his three most recent predecessors put together, writes Rafael Behr. Longevity would be an advantage for a prime minister in charge of his party, running a competent administration and presiding over a benign economy. Cameron is doing none of these things:

The Cameron project was conceived in the middle of the last decade as a re-enactment of Tony Blair’s march on power in the mid-1990s. A metropolitan cult of renewal was central to that ambition . . .

When the Tories were in opposition, cultural refugees from the new liberal-left social consensus could cherish the hope that a Conservative prime minister might bring cultural restitution. Then along came Cameron’s clique of west London fops, legislating for gay marriage and referring to the party’s stalwart activists as “swivel-eyed loons”. To the disinherited fringe, Cameron’s “modernisation” felt like a continuation of the reviled Blair-Brown occupation. (The reliance on Labour MPs to pass same-sex marriage legislation reinforces the sense of conspiracy.) No wonder Farage’s rallying cry is territorial. He urges supporters to “take our country back”.

What’s more, the Tories have miscalculated the Ukip vote. “We indulge these people by saying they’ve been given nothing,” a senior Conservative adviser says. “How many Ukip supporters have second homes in Marbella?” Not very many, actually, according to the polls.

The prevailing tone of British politics is alarmed by the present, ashamed of the recent past and obsessed with romantic retellings of an imaginary past anterior. The vacancy for a leader who projects credible optimism about what comes next is unfilled. For Cameron, this is now an almost impossible task.

David Blanchflower: This was King and Osborne’s lost decade

In the Economics Column this week our economics editor, David Blanchflower, berates the joint record of George Osborne and the outgoing governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, saying he “nearly fell over laughing” when King announced at the press conference for his valedictory inflation report that “a recovery is in sight”.

“I would be surprised to see growth of more than 1 per cent this year and next,” Blanchflower predicts. “This looks like King and George Osborne’s lost decade.”

So just what does King mean by “recovery”, and is there any merit to the Chancellor’s assertion that the economy is “healing”?

There is rather mixed evidence from business surveys: the purchasing managers’ surveys showed some pick-up, but the Bank of England agents’ surveys suggest little improvement. The EU’s Economic Sentiment Index, which combines consumer and business surveys, fell again in April. The labour market continues to weaken. Underemployment is rising again; there has been a further surge in the number of people who are part-time but want full-time jobs . . . It is unlikely that, with such uncertainty in the air and shrinking wages, consumers are heading for a spending spree. The patient is still in intensive care.

PLUS

The Diary: Jonathan Smith on the darker side of Cornwall, tailgaiting in Virginia and Elvis’s top half

David Herman: Why is television still so white?

Letter from Serbia: Fiona Sampson takes a journey to the heart of the Balkans

Hugh Purcell on the New Statesman’s past: Fellow-Travellers at the NS, shadowy MI6 placements and the senior staffer Gaitskell’s wife said was “Stalin dressed as a nun”

Laurie Penny applauds the bravery of the suffragettes

Ed Smith: In cricket, as in Britian, the north-south divide is as deep as ever

David Puttnam: What makes us human?

In the Critics

This week, Hedley Twidle, the winner of the 2012 Bodley Head and Financial Times Essay Prize, considers the latest travelogue by Paul TherouxThe Last Train to Zona Verde: Overland from Cape Town to Angola. Theroux, Twidle writes, “is unwilling to let go of his African fantasies” and the result is disastrous. “He mints generalisations and insults at such a clip that they soon begin to outstrip even the most gifted parodist.” Twidle concludes: “Bankrupt in more ways than one, this is a book I would recommend as a teaching aid or to someone interested in tracking the final sub-Conradian wreckage of a genre.”

PLUS

  • Colin MacCabe reviews Stephen Nadler’s The Philosopher, the Priest and the Painter. “Nadler’s book, though an admirable portrait of Descartes’s life in the Netherlands, gives no sense of the strangeness of Descartes’s vision.”
  • George Eaton praises the modesty and wisdom of Andrew Adonis, which shine through in 5 Days In May, his book about the coalition negotiations. “As a long-standing believer in a ‘progressive coalition’, Adonis felt this failure [of the Lib-Lab negotations] more keenly than most.”
  • Alice O’Keeffe on the limitations of nature writing, as revealed in Robert Macfarlane’s latest book, Holloway. And Leo Robson praises All That Is, the latest novel by the87-year-old American writer, James Salter. “Salter’s grammar-defiant swooning is the vehicle for a deep seriousness about human sensation and emotion and you give in, happy to helpeless.”

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

***

Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.