Data and government

Three quick links about data and government:

Austerity is an Algorithm by Gillian Terzis in Logic Magazine looks at what can go wrong when algorithms start making decisions about benefit entitlements (accessed 1 February 2018).

Towards Rules for Automation in Government by Michael Karlin (AI policy advisor in Canada) provides an overview of the issues the Canadian government is considering as it develops policy for AI (accessed 3 February 2018).

Markets don’t work like they used to by James Plunkett considers the state of big data and the decisions and tactics (for better and worse) it’s driving in companies to tailor products and prices to consumers, and where governments need to think about principles-based regulation (accessed 5 February 2018).

Summer reading

A couple of interesting posts from the cultural sector including Nina Simon on Museum2 (accessed 9 January 2018) and the Berkshire Museum, looking at deaccessioning, market value, valuing communities and public trust. Also Tara Robertson’s closing keynote from the LITA Forum in late 2016 (accessed 18 January 2018) is a deeply insightful and moving personal and professional view on documentary heritage that shouldn’t be open.

In the digital government world, Paul Maltby (accessed 12 January 2018) provides useful pointers here on what digital and policy teams in government can learn from each. Published as part of a series of posts in the run up to the One Team Government unconference in June 2017. And lately, Steven Johnson in the NY Times Magazine (accessed 18 January 2018) writes about blockchain’s potential to revive an open and decentralised web (once it gets past disrupting currencies). 

Finally, and closer to home after a fascniating start to the week meeting Te Arawa trustees in Rotorua, Joshua Hitchcock writes in the Spinoff (accessed 18 January 2018) on the need for investment by and for iwi beyond purely economic development, to include all four pou: social, cultural, environmental, and economic. 


Summer reading

Blame the baby boomers, Sean Illing on Vox, looks at how postwar generations burnt through their inheritance and left millennials to clean up the mess. Meanwhile in New Zealand Gex X is leading the cleanup with Simon Wilson in The Spinoff on our hopes and dreams for Jacinda. Another Spinoff story, this from Mike Dickison positioning Wikipedia as a public policy response.


Duterte Threatens to Dethrone the Jeepney as King of Filipino Roads, by Aurora Almendral in the NYTimes, makes me wonder how governments can make major change without hurting what it’s disrupting.

Good piece about different ways government could charge for data, improving quality and ensuring sustainability, by Andrew Nicklin

Interesting point about overdoing user focus in government decision making: ‘By putting the emphasis on citizen engagement, policy-making quickly becomes purely “demand-driven”, skewing resources to those most able to engage with officialdom’ from Daniel Rogger writing on the World Bank blog.


Finally a hat tip to @edsu for the following:

Three-part ‘File Not Found’ series about archiving and digitising in Science Friday. Part 1: audio and video and the problem of tape machines; Part 2: saving the internet amid political change in Trump’s America; Part 3: on the digital dark ages and immortal data.

Short fiction by Hengtee Lim (Snippets) in Medium on technology enabling people to remember their previous lives.


Earlier this week I had the privilege of attending a meeting with our organisation’s Te Ara Wānanga, a critical friend grouping of Māori leaders that provides advice and guidance to Manatū Taonga on Māori cultural issues. I’ve attended their meetings before and always value the opportunity to listen directly to people like Linda Tuhiwai-Smith, Karl Johnston, and others.

This wānanga was a little bit different in that it included kaihautū from our partner organisations, Ngā Taonga, Te Papa, Heritage NZ and DIA, as well as most of Manatū Taonga’s senior leadership and third-tier management teams. One of the main topics was looking at Te Ara Taonga and better approaches for the cultural sector, and government in general, to engage with iwi.

Te Ara Taonga has seen these five cultural sector agencies (or six if you count DIA as National Library and Archives NZ) come together and jointly engage with iwi. Iwi have responded positively to this; it saves time, it means they only have to tell their story once to all agencies at the same time, and iwi and agencies can collaboratively work out who’s best to respond to iwi needs around the same table.

I came away inspired and feeling that maybe New Zealand is on the cusp of generational change in Crown-Māori relations. Certainly sitting around a big table talking about these issues together, openly, honestly and in an atmosphere that encourages people to contribute and listen, is a great space to be in.

But I also came away wondering what the role is for Pākehā. Listening is one part, and an important part, but it’s got to be more than that (and no one’s going to argue with that, right?).

Pākehā need to do more than listen. They need to do the some of the hard mahi, not as leaders but as workers taking direction and instruction from the actual leaders in this space: Māori.

There aren’t enough kaihautū to do all the mahi on their own. That’s true in the cultural sector and it’s true right across government. It’s probably also true for many iwi. The pressure on a handful of Māori who know how to work in the space occupied by Crown and Māori interests is huge and well-known. For those in government, they need genuine support that comes from an entire organisation behind them.

But Pākehā need to step back and let Māori lead. Pākehā need to follow, and that means follow instructions. In this world Pākehā don’t get an automatic spot on the paepae. They need to start in the wharekai before they can enter the wharenui, and earn our stripes in a different way to fit into a different world.

For some Pākehā it’ll be a huge challenge to give up leadership and accept authority from someone else. For some they’ll complain that it’s not in the spirit of partnership for Pākehā to take a back seat. But to embrace partnership we have to learn a new way of working and learn from the people who know this part of our culture.

Only when we’ve learned from Māori, and Māori have the space to lead, can we think about leading together in partnership. I look forward to that day, and in the meantime I’m looking forward to learning how to make an honest and genuine contribution to getting there.


Earlier this week I watched a videoed talk of Kaila Colbin, talking to chief executives of New Zealand cultural agencies (those organisations funded through Manatū Taonga – Ministry for Culture and Heritage). Her talk, Riding the Exponential Wave of Change, was about the technology changes hitting society today (and yesterday, tomorrow, etc.).

Colbin is the New Zealand representative of the Singularity University. As the name suggests it’s founded on an explicit belief and trust in the idea of technology leading us to the great technological singularity where machines out-learn humans in how to be human, and from there exceed us. I don’t know enough about the singularity, and I’m not sure I want to know much more, but figure we’ll all need to grapple with it whether we like it or not (and whether it’s true and real or not).

Colbin’s talk didn’t offer many solutions to the creative sector, nor focus specifically on what the singularity means for it or the existence of artists, reverting instead to the bigger question of what does it mean to be human in a world in which we might (‘will’ in Colbin’s view) be out-humaned by machines?

She had plenty of useful, even positive examples: machines diagnosing cancer more accurately than trained medical specialists and lawyer bots being ‘employed’ by US law firms; and some more worryingly examples: machines composing music that according to people in the know is actually quite good. (Disclosure: I’m unnerved by this. What next, novels written by bots? Paintings by bots? Are they real? Do they have real ‘feelings’ and empathy built in if not created by real people? But this is by the by…)

What really unnerves me is a number of assumptions in the singularity:

  • Abundance – machines will be able to make everything for us. That great utopia of endless leisure time is just around the corner and machines will make it all possible.
  • Equal distribution – we’re all going to benefit. There’ll be no haves and have-nots, no inequality, no poverty, hunger, or conflict.
  • Passive consumption – there’ll be no need for human agency in any of this. Machines will be so good at providing what we need that there’ll be very little for humans to do but sit back and consume – I mean enjoy – the fruits of our – or their – success.

The first two assumptions sound too good to be true; the latter too dispiriting. Perhaps the biggest assumption lies in the belief that technology will be inherently good: by default it will determine what’s needed and how to provide it evenly in a personalised way for each and every one of us.

Here lies the contradiction. Part of the basis of the singularity is that technology is nothing new, nor is the exponential pace of technological change. The printing press brought a huge change; steam power brought a larger change; the information age – and each development within it – brings an even greater exponential change.

Technology is inherent in humanity, conversely humanity (and its biases) is inherent in technology. When we think about technology creating evenly distributed abundance, the singularity doesn’t acknowledge that technology has so far failed to solve humanity’s inability to evenly distribute wealth. It’s simple technological determinism – call it techie trickle-down theory. Under such a theory, at what point does technology learn to think enough for itself that it can override the implicit bias built into every human-made building block on which it was created?

This is where the creative sector steps back into the picture. If technology fails to overcome bias and fails to create abundance for all (my assumption), then artists remain a critical part of society: critiquing the technology as in so many sci-fi films and literature, celebrating the humanity, and reminding us all of the society that both belong to and how it can be better. Doing what many artists have always done, in a world that’s unlikely to change in any meaningful way for most of us. With artists along for the ride I think we’ll survive the singularity.


Small update to add a couple of relevant links:

Boundaries and organisations

Following my talk at NDF last week I’ve been thinking more about how we need to break down some of the organisational barriers across our sector. My talk was in part thinking about how my organisation makes its publishing model more useful – useful to government, to the cultural heritage sector, and ultimately more useful to its audience.

That focus on the audience pushes us in the easily-measured trap of chasing audience numbers. In that we’re not alone. Every organisation typically does it.

The talk that followed mine in the session was from Te Papa’s Michelle Smith. It was a really interesting look at how they’re refining their content development to target social media and search engine optimisation, with two very different approaches. It’s definitely worth a look when the video comes out.

But one slide stood out: a screenshot of search results for ‘Matariki’. Turns out that Te Papa’s Matariki content is battling it out for first place against Te Ara’s Matariki content. So here we have two organisations, same sector, with a good relationship, chasing one audience on the same subject.

I’m not criticising either organisation. It’s how our funding incentivises our work: get the audience, get the numbers, and (hopefully) get the ongoing funding. For our audience it may or may not make sense (on the plus side, maybe we’re presenting different perspectives and different material) but as a sector, are we making the best investment?

It’s one of the problems of crossing organisational boundaries. A pragmatic approach might be to move Te Ara to Te Papa, a suggestion that’s been made in the past but rejected on the basis that Te Ara needs some kind of organisational independence. (It currently has relationships right across the sector and draws heavily on many collections. Would it start to prioritise Te Papa’s collections over others and give a skewed view of national collections?)

The cultural sector isn’t alone in this. New governments create new portfolios, for example the new Crown-Māori relations portfolio. Ideally it should sit right across government – we’re all part of the Crown and should all have relationships with Māori. But it has to ‘live’ somewhere, so it will be housed in an existing department and over time will have to contribute to that organisation’s vision to ensure its survival. Living somewhere means contributing to that place; if you can’t your future’s at risk.

It’s very similar to government publishing. Again, ideally, it should retain some kind of independence to provide analysis and interpretation of history and society free from the political levers a government wants to pull. But like a new portfolio it has to live somewhere and if it strays too far from its home organisation’s goals it less likely they’ll back you.

This is a tension we need to think about a lot more. How do we start to measure success that is less about the organisation and more about the organisation’s contribution to something bigger, something that stretches across organisational boundaries. It’s not going to be a few shared projects or some ad hoc collaboration. It’s about a shared and agreed strategy that acknowledges we’re all heading in the same direction; thinking about what we’re good and bad at; taking the lead on what you’re good at; and accepting that others are better placed to deliver in other areas (even if you’ve traditionally done them). To paraphrase Pia Andrews in her conference opening address, it’s deciding what to take forward and what to leave behind.