Government to establish a ‘National Data Commissioner’

Rohan Pearce at Computerworld – Australia: “A new position of the ‘National Data Commissioner’ will be established as part of a $65 million, four-year open data push by the federal government.

The creation of the new position is part of the government’s response to the Productivity Commission inquiry into the availability and use of public and private data by individuals and organisations.

The government in November revealed that it would legislate a new Consumer Data Right as part of its response to the PC’s recommendations. The government said that this will allow individuals to access data relating to their banking, energy, phone and Internet usage, potentially making it easier to compare and switch between service providers.

The Office of the Australian Information Commissioner and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission will have oversight of the Consumer Data Right.

The government said today it would introduce a new data sharing and release framework to streamline the way government data is made available for use by researchers and public and private sector organisations.

The framework’s aim will be to promote the greater use of data and drive related economic and innovation benefits as well as to “Build trust with the Australian community about the government’s use of data”.

The government said it would push a risk-based approach to releasing publicly funded data sets.

The National Data Commissioner will be supported by a National Data Advisory Council. The council “will advise the National Data Commissioner on ethical data use, technical best practice, and industry and international developments.”…(More).

Behavioral Economics: Are Nudges Cost-Effective?

Carla Fried at UCLA Anderson Review: “Behavioral science does not suffer from a lack of academic focus. A Google Scholar search for the term delivers more than three million results.

While there is an abundance of research into how human nature can muck up our decision making process and the potential for well-placed nudges to help guide us to better outcomes, the field has kept rather mum on a basic question: Are behavioral nudges cost-effective?

That’s an ever more salient question as the art of the nudge is increasingly being woven into public policy initiatives. In 2009, the Obama administration set up a nudge unit within the White House Office of Information and Technology, and a year later the U.K. government launched its own unit. Harvard’s Cass Sunstein, co-author of the book Nudge, headed the U.S. effort. His co-author, the University of Chicago’s Richard Thaler — who won the 2017 Nobel Prize in Economics — helped develop the U.K.’s Behavioral Insights office. Nudge units are now humming away in other countries, including Germany and Singapore, as well as at the World Bank, various United Nations agencies and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Given the interest in the potential for behavioral science to improve public policy outcomes, a team of nine experts, including UCLA Anderson’s Shlomo Benartzi, Sunstein and Thaler, set out to explore the cost-effectiveness of behavioral nudges relative to more traditional forms of government interventions.

In addition to conducting their own experiments, the researchers looked at published research that addressed four areas where public policy initiatives aim to move the needle to improve individuals’ choices: saving for retirement, applying to college, energy conservation and flu vaccinations.

For each topic, they culled studies that focused on both nudge approaches and more traditional mandates such as tax breaks, education and financial incentives, and calculated cost-benefit estimates for both types of studies. Research used in this study was published between 2000 and 2015. All cost estimates were inflation-adjusted…

The study itself should serve as a nudge for governments to consider adding nudging to their policy toolkits, as this approach consistently delivered a high return on investment, relative to traditional mandates and policies….(More)”.

Algorithmic Impact Assessment (AIA) framework

Report by AINow Institute: “Automated decision systems are currently being used by public agencies, reshaping how criminal justice systems work via risk assessment algorithms1 and predictive policing, optimizing energy use in critical infrastructure through AI-driven resource allocation, and changing our employment4 and educational systems through automated evaluation tools and matching algorithms.Researchers, advocates, and policymakers are debating when and where automated decision systems are appropriate, including whether they are appropriate at all in particularly sensitive domains.

Questions are being raised about how to fully assess the short and long term impacts of these systems, whose interests they serve, and if they are sufficiently sophisticated to contend with complex social and historical contexts. These questions are essential, and developing strong answers has been hampered in part by a lack of information and access to the systems under deliberation. Many such systems operate as “black boxes” – opaque software tools working outside the scope of meaningful scrutiny and accountability.8 This is concerning, since an informed policy debate is impossible without the ability to understand which existing systems are being used, how they are employed, and whether these systems cause unintended consequences. The Algorithmic Impact Assessment (AIA) framework proposed in this report is designed to support affected communities and stakeholders as they seek to assess the claims made about these systems, and to determine where – or if – their use is acceptable….


1. Agencies should conduct a self-assessment of existing and proposed automated decision systems, evaluating potential impacts on fairness, justice, bias, or other concerns across affected communities;

2. Agencies should develop meaningful external researcher review processes to discover, measure, or track impacts over time;

3. Agencies should provide notice to the public disclosing their definition of “automated decision system,” existing and proposed systems, and any related self-assessments and researcher review processes before the system has been acquired;

4. Agencies should solicit public comments to clarify concerns and answer outstanding questions; and

5. Governments should provide enhanced due process mechanisms for affected individuals or communities to challenge inadequate assessments or unfair, biased, or otherwise harmful system uses that agencies have failed to mitigate or correct….(More)”.

Can we solve wicked problems?

Paper by Gianluca Elia and Alessandro Margherita describing “A conceptual framework and a collective intelligence system to support problem analysis and solution design for complex social issues…Wicked problems are complex and multifaceted issues that have no single solution, and are perceived by different stakeholders through contrasting views. Examples in the social context include climate change, poverty, energy production, sanitation, sustainable cities, pollution and homeland security.

Extant research has been addressed to support open discussion and collaborative decision making in wicked scenarios, but complexities derive from the difficulty to leverage multiple contributions, coming from both experts and non-experts, through a structured approach.

In such view, we present a conceptual framework for the study of wicked problem solving as a complex and multi-stakeholder process. Afterwards, we describe an integrated system of tools and associated operational guidelines aimed to support collective problem analysis and solution design. The main value of the article is to highlight the relevance of collective approaches in the endeavor of wicked problem resolution, and to provide an integrated framework of activities, actors and purposeful tools….(More)”.


Artificial Intelligence and the Need for Data Fairness in the Global South

Medium blog by Yasodara Cordova: “…The data collected by industry represents AI opportunities for governments, to improve their services through innovation. Data-based intelligence promises to increase the efficiency of resource management by improving transparency, logistics, social welfare distribution — and virtually every government service. E-government enthusiasm took of with the realization of the possible applications, such as using AI to fight corruption by automating the fraud-tracking capabilities of cost-control tools. Controversially, the AI enthusiasm has spread to the distribution of social benefits, optimization of tax oversight and control, credit scoring systems, crime prediction systems, and other applications based in personal and sensitive data collection, especially in countries that do not have comprehensive privacy protections.

There are so many potential applications, society may operate very differently in ten years when the “datafixation” has advanced beyond citizen data and into other applications such as energy and natural resource management. However, many countries in the Global South are not being given necessary access to their countries’ own data.

Useful data are everywhere, but only some can take advantage. Beyond smartphones, data can be collected from IoT components in common spaces. Not restricted to urban spaces, data collection includes rural technology like sensors installed in tractors. However, even when the information is related to issues of public importance in developing countries —like data taken from road mesh or vital resources like water and land — it stays hidden under contract rules and public citizens cannot access, and therefore take benefit, from it. This arrangement keeps the public uninformed about their country’s operations. The data collection and distribution frameworks are not built towards healthy partnerships between industry and government preventing countries from realizing the potential outlined in the previous paragraph.

The data necessary to the development of better cities, public policies, and common interest cannot be leveraged if kept in closed silos, yet access often costs more than is justifiable. Data are a primordial resource to all stages of new technology, especially tech adoption and integration, so the necessary long term investment in innovation needs a common ground to start with. The mismatch between the pace of the data collection among big established companies and small, new, and local businesses will likely increase with time, assuming no regulation is introduced for equal access to collected data….

Currently, data independence remains restricted to discussions on the technological infrastructure that supports data extraction. Privacy discussions focus on personal data rather than the digital accumulation of strategic data in closed silos — a necessary discussion not yet addressed. The national interest of data is not being addressed in a framework of economic and social fairness. Access to data, from a policy-making standpoint, needs to find a balance between the extremes of public, open access and limited, commercial use.

A final, but important note: the vast majority of social media act like silos. APIs play an important role in corporate business models, where industry controls the data it collects without reward, let alone user transparency. Negotiation of the specification of APIs to make data a common resource should be considered, for such an effort may align with the citizens’ interest….(More)”.

Nudging the city and residents of Cape Town to save water

Leila Harris, Jiaying Zhao and Martine Visser in The Conversation: “Cape Town could become the world’s first major city to run out of water – what’s been termed Day Zero….To its credit, the city has worked with researchers at the University of Cape Town to test strategies to nudge domestic users into reducing their water use. Nudges are interventions to encourage behaviour change for better outcomes, or in this context, to achieve environmental or conservation goals.

What key insights could help inform the city’s strategies? Research from psychology and behavioural economics could prove useful to refine efforts and help to achieve further water savings.

The most effective tactics

Research suggests the following types of nudges could be effective in promoting conservation behaviours.

Social norms: International research, as well as studies conducted in Cape Town, suggest that effective conservation can be promoted by giving feedback to consumers on how they perform relative to their neighbours. To this end, Cape Town introduced a water map that highlights homes that are compliant with targets.

The city has also been bundling information on usage with easy to implement water saving tips, something that research has shown to be particularly effective.

Research also suggests that combining behavioural interventions with traditional measures – such as tariff increases and restrictions – are often effective to reduce use in the short-term.

Real-time feedback: Cape Town is presenting the daily water level in major dams on a dashboard. This approach is consistent with research that shows that real-time information can effectively reduce water and energy consumption.

Such efforts could even be more effective if information is highlighted in relation to the critical level that’s been set for Day Zero, in this case 13.5%.

In the early days of a drought, it is also advisable to make information like this readily accessible through news outlets, social media, or even text messages. The water tracker produced by eighty20, a private Cape Town-based company, provides an example.

Social recognition: There’s evidence that efforts to celebrate successes or encourage competition can be effective – for instance, recognising neighbourhoods for meeting conservation targets. Prizes needn’t be monetary. Sometimes simple recognition, such as a certificate, can be effective.

Social recognition was found to be the most successful intervention among nine others nudges tested in research conducted in Cape Town in 2016. In this experiment, households who reduced consumption by 10% were recognised on the city’s website.

Another study showed that competition between the various floors of a government building in the Western Cape led to energy savings of up to 14%.

Cooperation: In the months ahead, the city would also do well to consider the support it might offer to encourage cooperation, particularly as the situation becomes more acute and as tensions rise.

Past studies have shown that social reputation and efforts to promote reciprocity can go a long way to encourage cooperation. The point is argued in a recent article featuring the importance of cooperation among Capetonians across different income groups.

Some residents of Cape Town are already pushing for a cooperative approach such as helping neighbours who might have difficulty travelling to collection points. Support for these efforts should be an important part of policies in the run up to Day Zero. These are often the examples that provide bright spots in challenging times.

Research also suggests that to navigate moments of crisis effectively, clear and trustworthy communication is critical. This also needs to be a priority….(More)“.

The nation that thrived by ‘nudging’ its population

Sarah Keating at the BBC: “Singapore has grown from almost nothing in 50 years. And this well-regarded society has been built up, partly, thanks to the power of suggestion….But while Singapore still loves a public campaign, it has moved toward a more nuanced approach of influencing the behaviours of its inhabitants.

Nudging the population isn’t uniquely Singaporean; more than 150 governments across the globe have tried nudging as a better choice. A medical centre in Qatar, for example, managed to increase the uptake of diabetes screening by offering to test people during Ramadan. People were fasting anyway so the hassle of having to not eat before your testing was removed. It was convenient and timely, two key components to a successful nudge.

Towns in Iceland, India and China have trialed ‘floating zebra crossings’ – 3D optical illusions which make the crossings look like they are floating above the ground designed to urge drivers to slow down. And in order to get people to pay their taxes in the UK, people were sent a letter saying that the majority of taxpayers pay their taxes on time which has had very positive results. Using social norms make people want to conform.

In Singapore some of the nudges you come across are remarkably simple. Rubbish bins are placed away from bus stops to separate smokers from other bus users. Utility bills display how your energy consumption compares to your neighbours. Outdoor gyms have been built near the entrances and exits of HDB estates so they are easy to use, available and prominent enough to consistently remind you. Train stations have green and red arrows on the platform indicating where you should stand so as to speed up the alighting process. If you opt to travel at off-peak times (before 0700), your fare is reduced.

And with six out of 10 Singaporeans eating at food courts four or more times a week, getting people to eat healthier is also a priority. As well as the Healthier Dining Programme, some places make it cheaper to take the healthy option. If you’re determined to eat that Fried Bee Hoon at Khoo Teck Puat Hospital, for example, you’re going to have to pay more for it.

The National Steps Challenge, which encourages participants to get exercising using free step counters in exchange for cash and prizes, has been so successful that the programme name has been trademarked. This form of gamifying is one of the more successful ways of engaging users in achieving objectives. Massive queues to collect the free fitness tracker demonstrated the programme’s popularity.

And it’s not just in tangible ways that nudges are being rolled out. Citizens pay into a mandatory savings programme called the Central Provident Fund at a high rate. This can be accessed for healthcare, housing and pensions as a way to get people to save long-term because evidence has shown that people are too short-sighted when it comes to financing their future

And as the government looks to increase the population 30% by 2030, the city-state’s ageing population and declining birth rate is a problem. The Baby Bonus Scheme goes some way to encouraging parents to have more children by offering cash incentives. Introduced in 2001, the scheme means that all Singapore citizens who have a baby get a cash gift as well as a money into a Child Development Account (CDA) which can be used to pay for childcare and healthcare. The more children you have, the more money you get – since March 2016 you get a cash gift of $8,000 SGD (£4,340) for your first child and up to $10,000 (£5,430) for the third and any subsequent children, as well as money into your CDA.

So do people like being nudged? Is there any cultural difference in the way people react to being swayed toward a ‘better’ choice or behaviour? Given the breadth of the international use of behavioural insights, there is relatively little research done into whether people are happy about it….(More)”.

How Blockchain can benefit migration programmes and migrants

Solon Ardittis at the Migration Data Portal: “According to a recent report published by CB Insights, there are today at least 36 major industries that are likely to benefit from the use of Blockchain technology, ranging from voting procedures, critical infrastructure security, education and healthcare, to car leasing, forecasting, real estate, energy management, government and public records, wills and inheritance, corporate governance and crowdfunding.

In the international aid sector, a number of experiments are currently being conducted to distribute aid funding through the use of Blockchain and thus to improve the tracing of the ways in which aid is disbursed. Among several other examples, the Start Network, which consists of 42 aid agencies across five continents, ranging from large international organizations to national NGOs, has launched a Blockchain-based project that enables the organization both to speed up the distribution of aid funding and to facilitate the tracing of every single payment, from the original donor to each individual assisted.

As Katherine Purvis of The Guardian noted, “Blockchain enthusiasts are hopeful it could be the next big development disruptor. In providing a transparent, instantaneous and indisputable record of transactions, its potential to remove corruption and provide transparency and accountability is one area of intrigue.”

In the field of international migration and refugee affairs, however, Blockchain technology is still in its infancy.

One of the few notable examples is the launch by the United Nations (UN) World Food Programme (WFP) in May 2017 of a project in the Azraq Refugee Camp in Jordan which, through the use of Blockchain technology, enables the creation of virtual accounts for refugees and the uploading of monthly entitlements that can be spent in the camp’s supermarket through the use of an authorization code. Reportedly, the programme has contributed to a reduction by 98% of the bank costs entailed by the use of a financial service provider.

This is a noteworthy achievement considering that organizations working in international relief can lose up to 3.5% of each aid transaction to various fees and costs and that an estimated 30% of all development funds do not reach their intended recipients because of third-party theft or mismanagement.

At least six other UN agencies including the UN Office for Project Services (UNOPS), the UN Development Programme (UNDP), the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), UN Women, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the UN Development Group (UNDG), are now considering Blockchain applications that could help support international assistance, particularly supply chain management tools, self-auditing of payments, identity management and data storage.

The potential of Blockchain technology in the field of migration and asylum affairs should therefore be fully explored.

At the European Union (EU) level, while a Blockchain task force has been established by the European Parliament to assess the ways in which the technology could be used to provide digital identities to refugees, and while the European Commission has recently launched a call for project proposals to examine the potential of Blockchain in a range of sectors, little focus has been placed so far on EU assistance in the field of migration and asylum, both within the EU and in third countries with which the EU has negotiated migration partnership agreements.

This is despite the fact that the use of Blockchain in a number of major programme interventions in the field of migration and asylum could help improve not only their cost-efficiency but also, at least as importantly, their degree of transparency and accountability. This at a time when media and civil society organizations exercise increased scrutiny over the quality and ethical standards of such interventions.

In Europe, for example, Blockchain could help administer the EU Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund (AMIF), both in terms of transferring funds from the European Commission to the eligible NGOs in the Member States and in terms of project managers then reporting on spending. This would help alleviate many of the recurrent challenges faced by NGOs in managing funds in line with stringent EU regulations.

As crucially, Blockchain would have the potential to increase transparency and accountability in the channeling and spending of EU funds in third countries, particularly under the Partnership Framework and other recent schemes to prevent irregular migration to Europe.

A case in point is the administration of EU aid in response to the refugee emergency in Greece where, reportedly, there continues to be insufficient oversight of the full range of commitments and outcomes of large EU-funded investments, particularly in the housing sector. Another example is the set of recent programme interventions in Libya, where a growing number of incidents of human rights abuses and financial mismanagement are being brought to light….(More)”.

You weren’t supposed to have to think about politics

Bonnie Kristian at The Week: “You were not supposed to have to think about politics.

Not this much, anyway. Good citizenship was not supposed to entail paying obsessive attention to a 24-hour news cycle. It was not supposed to demand conversational knowledge, at any given moment, of at least 15 issues of national importance. It was not supposed to be the task of each American to have An Informed Opinion on What the Government Should Do about every matter of state.

America’s founders never wanted politics to be a major occupation of your mind. It was not supposed to feature prominently among your worries. Most of the time, it was not supposed to be your responsibility.

I know, I know, we learn in grade school that America is a democracy, and each of us must do our part to ensure good governance “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” This may be inspirational for children, but it is not entirely true.

The United States’ government has democratic elements, yes, and, in some ways, it has become more democratic with time. (In other ways, it hasbecome less democratic, and I’ll leave it to the reader to decide whether the net change is a loss or gain.) To say our country is a republic rather than a democracy is also misleading, but it does remind us of an important point: Our federal system is representational. It is not direct democracy. Each of us does not weigh in on everything. Instead, we periodically vote on representatives who will weigh in on our behalf while we do other, better things.

This is with good reason. At the most practical level, direct democracy was always impossible for a country of the United States’ size. And even now, assuming technology could be secure enough to use without concern over hacking and other malicious manipulation, there is cause to reject direct democracy: A system designed to force every responsible citizen to pay constant attention to politics is not desirable.

We elect representatives to do the great bulk of our politicking for us because we have more important things to do. We have families to raise and jobs to work and homes to maintain. We have our own areas of interest and expertise, our own relationships to cultivate. And, crucially, we have limited time, energy, and mental space. Some of us may choose to make politics our hobby or occupation, but all of us should not have to make that choice.

Politics is one aspect of our society. It is one part of many. We all no more need to be politicos, amateur or professional, than we all need to be philosophers or writers or tailors or dog rescuers or plumbers. Philosophy, books, clothes, rescue dogs, and working toilets are all important, just as politics is, but they are not everyone’s concern all the time. They are some people’s profession and the hobbies of others, but for most of us, these and any other field of work or pastime are only occasionally encountered…(More)”

People Power

Report from the Commission on the Future of Localism (UK): “…When we think about power we tend to look upwards – towards Westminster-based institutions and elected politicians. Those who wish to see greater localism often ask politicians to give it away and push power downwards. But this is looking at things the wrong way round. Instead, we need to start with the power of community. The task of our political system should be to support this, harness it, and reflect it in our national debate.

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Our Commission has heard evidence about what makes a powerful community. While different communities build and experience power in different ways, there are common sources. We heard how the power of any community lies with its people, their collective ideas, innovation, creativity and local knowledge, as well as their sense of belonging, connectedness and shared identity. We need to bring this into political life much more effectively via a renewed effort to foster localism in future.

However, our Commission has also heard about a fundamental imbalance of power that is preventing this power of community from coming to life and restricting collective agency: top-down decisions leaving community groups and local councils unable to make the change they know their neighbourhood needs; a lack of trust and risk aversion from public bodies, dampening community energy; a lack of control and access to local resources, limiting the scope of local action….(More)”.