politics

A quadrillion lives are in your hands. We often hear people talk of “protecting future generations”,and there is certainly a lot of value in thinking of your children and grandchildren when thinking about the future – it makes it personal.

But there is an additional way of thinking about this, which carries equal moral authority – that of existential risk at a human-extinction level.

If you use a pan-generational lens, the lives of all of the potential future generations are at stake.

Think about that idea for a moment. The future of human history.

It changes our perspective: we are familiar in considering genocide as abhorrent, but we are not used to thinking of omnicide (or ecocide) as even a credible threat.

You can also contextualise this by thinking of the differences between (a) peace, (b) 99% extinction, and (c) 100% extinction. What are the relative differences between (a), (b), and (c)?

Arguably the Manhattan Project was the first time we’d formally assessed the potential for omnicide – the study looked at whether a nuclear blast would create a chain reaction in our atmosphere, potentially destroying all life.

With an economic lens, we could consider our current financial markets as a “flawed realization” – we may have reached a technological maturity, but our financial infrastructure may be dismally and irremediably flawed: and a systems change needed to remedy it. It certainly has succeeded in ephemeral realization – but this spike of value is countered by our global consciousness of our bounded condition and is degrading rapidly.

The image of our island Earth has taken a generation to kick in.

Humanities “production possibility” frontier depends on the resources available at any point in time, but the amount of accessible free energy is finite and bounded. Whether we are 1 billion or 10 billion.

The distance between the reality of physics and the reality of our economic and social structures are so great, that it’s hard to envisage any material solution.

When we look at facts, such as the fact we have lost four fifths of arctic ice volume since 1980, that cleantech is already a $trillion dollar industry (about 1% of planetery GDP), or that PWC think that there might be some kind of “business as usual” scenario in a 6C world  we know one thing: we have to change. Typically change doesn’t happen slowly: it waits a long time, then happens much faster than anyone expects. We need to remember that to create the problems of an industrialised world, we spent *multiples* (not fractions) of our GDP. While this has created many kinds of wealth, the systems-cost, the existential risks, are still struggling to be truly taken on-board.

I wonder, now, what change we will see in our generation, and if we will even be in a position to reflect on what was needed to make a meaningful difference.

I view environmental sustainability (including but not limited to climate change) as an existential risk. In the systems design of our economic, resource-scarce, finite and bounded ecosystem, there is a desperate need to create meaningful mechanisms to engage, at scale and in the mainstream, that enable people to discuss, understand and act on their environmental impact.

In an age of fiduciary, evidence-based decision-making, our balance-sheets are missing volumes of data.

We have tried to create laws, processes and standards (e.g. Kyoto, Climate Acts, ISO), and ratings (e.g. green scores) but none have managed yet to scale to hundreds of millions of people and businesses and dozens of countries in any meaningful way.

There are many, many reasons for this, but looking forward, we have new tools (the web, open data, new currencies, pervasive networks), and new ways to drive collaboration. In order to catalyse engagement, we can now create different starting points: the rest is down to collaborative (p2p) engagement between people with the absolute minimum of hassle (e.g. understanding methodologies, zero or low financial costs of change, and minimal time and effort) to improve our insight. We then need to automate everything, so the lowest barrier to entry is to do nothing at all (we’re all busy and/or lazy to change unless confronted).

One question is “how can we influence our Treasuries?”. I wonder who will be the first to truly bring change here – governments in the EU, China, or the USA? or Kickstarter and BitTorrent? Or who will be the first to join up our global data-ecologies to reveal the health benefits of energy efficiency, the true financial impacts of education, or the social benefits of codified law.

To catalyse change needs many forcing-functions: policy has a role and will play a greater role over time, but until then we will continue to rely on the goodwill and foresight of the small number of inventors, innovators, influencers that have actively engaged in trying to make a difference. We need to build more success stories, based on evidence, and redirect our collective energies at scale. And fast.

Essential reading
http://www.nickbostrom.com/existential/risks.html (you may find Existential Risks PDF easier to read)

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My slides from O’Reilly’s Strata conference “Making Data Work” today.

I described some of AMEE’s journey: through open data aggregation and distribution, accessibility, provenance,  and structure. But better data isn’t enough – no one (well, a few) really cares about the science or the technology. We need to engage with stakeholders to provide meaningful insight and relevance to their business. AMEE will be launching a new initiative this year to create an environmental score for every company in the UK.

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During the Olympics Opening Ceremony, the creator of the web tweeted “This is for everyone” to millions of people around the world.

Decades since their invention, we are still discovering and unlocking value from the innovations catalysed by the open web, open internet, and open source. The Open Data Institute‘s mission is to demonstrate and unlock the value in Open Data.

Today, I am joining Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Professor Nigel Shadbolt at the ODI, as its CEO.

The ODI is a start-up – the first of its kind in the world. We have ambitious plans, and aim to have a substantial and positive impact for many, many people.

  • Incubate and catalyse innovative new companies
  • Help large and small companies develop and derive value from open data
  • Provide the right environment to inspire, train, and develop world-class talent
  • Enable organisations publish high-quality open data
  • Help shape standards in this emerging space

We have had fantastic support across the political spectrum, from academia, from the private sector, and from individuals.

Open Data creates the potential for anyone to innovate. The web was created using, and exists because of, open source and open data. I want to explore how we can best deliver;

  • data presented in a structured, “machine-readable” form so that data can be used by and between services (for example, using Apps)
  • data that is addressable via the internet and can therefore be linked together

I believe that

“information causes change, otherwise it’s not information”
James Burke, dconstruct 2012

There are massive benefits of getting this right. Governments, businesses, and individuals around the world are gradually coming to understand the power of data. The World Economic Forum has now categorised Personal Data as a new “Asset Class”:

“Personal data is the new oil of the Internet
and the new currency of the digital world.”

Meglena Kuneva, European Consumer Commissioner

And this is just the beginning: there is an emerging shift in our collective understanding of the power of connected, addressable information.

The ODI will help us reveal this power, guide us towards best practices, fair usage, and empower a new generation of innovators to create value – and in this definition I include economic, environmental, and social value.

What is Data?
This may seem like an obvious question, and to help anchor our language I want to be clear what this means. We live in an age where almost everything is, or will be, digitised. We are familiar with government spending data, health statistics, company financial reports, school assessments, and our own personal records. We are less familiar with data that is collected when we (as governments, businesses, or individuals) use the web, or devices that generate new data (such as location data from your mobile phone, or using Facebook).

I see two trends here: one is a growing set of opportunities for innovation – creating new services that improve our lives, the other is a growing sense of anxiety – that we are monitored and not in control of our information. I want to address both these areas.

What is Open Data?
Firstly Open Data does not mean “all data”, or that it’s a free-for-all. For example, your personal health data is extremely private. There are benefits, for example aggregated anonymous statistical analysis can help us make better decisions. There are also risks – we know that companies, governments, and individuals are not always as well equipped to handle information as we may want.

Examples (please send me more – I am keen to learn!)
- Public data released around MRSA has contributed to reducing death rates
- Company data released around environmental data has helped to catalyse the transition to  more energy efficient operations
- And even remarkable stories involving individual data could help to find new cures…

 

NB: I will remain on the board of AMEE.

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Two pieces really struck me today. I think we can expect to see this form of direct action increasing. The issues (control of resource, environmental sustainability, and social sustainability) are intrinsically linked, but the shift that appears to be happening is of awareness, urgency, and engagement in direct action.

Chomsky’s piece in the Guardian is “what next for Occupy“;

“Coverage of Occupy has been mixed. At first it was dismissive, making fun of people involved as if they were just silly kids playing games and so on. But coverage changed. In fact, one of the really remarkable and almost spectacular successes of the Occupy movement is that it has simply changed the entire framework of discussion of many issues.”

The other was NASA’s James Hansen & Co. starting direct action against the distribution of coal – below is an open letter that Hansen has sent to Warren Buffet (I’ve copied as his website seems to be offline at the moment).

Coal Trains and Warren Buffet Request

The following Letter to Warren Buffet can be found on my website.

Sent By Mail:

Warren Buffett
Berkshire Hathaway Inc.
3555 Farnam Street
Suite 1440
Omaha, NE USA 68131

Dear Mr. Buffett:
We want to inform you that on Saturday, May 5th, from midnight to midnight, we intend to prevent BNSF coal trains from passing through White Rock, British Columbia to deliver their coal to our coastal ports for export to Asia. We have chosen May 5th to take this action because it has been designated an International day of action by 350.org, with the theme “Connecting the Dots.” We can’t think of a more important connection to emphasize than the one between burning coal and putting our collective future at risk.

Who we are and why we are prepared to engage in civil disobedience to stop your coal trains:
We are a group of citizens in British Columbia, Canada who are deeply concerned about the risk of runaway climate change. There is a broad scientific consensus that we must begin to sharply reduce greenhouse gas emissions this decade to avoid climate change becoming irreversible. At the same time, governments and industry are eager to increase the production and export of fossil fuels, the very things that will ensure climate change does get worse.

These two things are irreconcilable, and since we can’t dispute the scientific findings or change the laws of nature, those of us who care about the future must do what we can to reduce the production, export and burning of fossil fuels – especially coal.

Since we know what is at stake we feel a moral obligation to do what we can to help prevent this looming disaster.  On Saturday May 5th that means stopping your coal trains from reaching our ports.

Our actions will be peaceful, non-violent, and respectful of others. There will be no property destruction. We are striving to be the best citizens we can. We will stand up for what we believe is right and conduct ourselves with dignity.

Why we are involving you:
We know that you have canceled plans to have your utilities build coal fired power plants. Like us, we are sure you know that coal is the dirtiest of fossil fuels; when burned it produces the most global warming pollution per unit of energy. We assume you are familiar with the growing number of scientists – including NASA’s Dr James Hansen, and IPCC member Dr Andrew Weaver – who warn us that if we burn the world’s accessible coal reserves we will destroy the benign and hospitable climate that has allowed human civilization to flourish.

What we can’t understand is why you allow your railway, Burlington Northern Santa Fe, to continue shipping vast amounts of US coal out of Canadian ports to be burned in Asia. No matter where this coal is burned, it brings us closer to a climatic point of no return.

Mr Buffett, you have spoken eloquently about the need for shared sacrifice. But with all respect sir, when it comes to climate change it appears that other people are doing all the suffering while you profit from the very causes of the problem. That’s not fair, and we urge you to apply the same moral reasoning to the climate crisis as you have to the problem of economic inequality in your country.

You are in many ways an important figure of conscience in the world. We appeal to you to seize this opportunity and make a bold decision on coal. With your support we can ensure a healthy future for our children and people around the world.

We acknowledge that this action is taking place on unceded Coast Salish territory.

Sincerely,

British Columbians for Climate Action
http://stopcoal.ca
@stopcoalBC

cc:
Chief Willard Cook, Semiahmoo First Nation (sent by fax)
Andrew Weaver, University of Victoria
James Hansen, Columbia University
Bill McKibben, 350.org

Specific details on our intention to stop your coal trains on May 5th:
For 24 hrs on May 5th we are prepared to stop all loaded coal trains traveling west/north that approach mile 122 (White Rock pier) on the New Westminster Subdivision, Northwest Division, of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway.  From dawn to dusk on May 5th we will also stop all unloaded coal trains traveling east/south approaching mile 122.

We will not interfere with other freight trains using this line on May 5th, nor will we interfere with the movement of Amtrak Trains using the New Westminster Subdivision on that day:

  • Cascades # 513, passing mile 122 at approximately 7:40 a.m. en route to Bellingham;
  • Cascades # 510, passing mile 122 at approximately 10:30 a.m. en route to Vancouver;
  • Cascades # 517, passing mile 122 at approximately 6:45 p.m. en route to Bellingham; and
  • Cascades # 516, passing mile 122 at approximately 9:50 p.m. en route to Vancouver.

We will step off the tracks well in advance of the arrival of Amtrak service. Our spotters to the south and north will give us notice of the approach of any freight traffic, and we will step away for these trains as well. A 21 MPH speed restriction is in place for some distance both sides of mile 122 of the New Westminster Subdivision, which is the site of a well used foot crossing that is safe and familiar to both pedestrians and train crews.We are confident that we can safely remove ourselves from the tracks to allow the passage of Amtrak service and freight trains.

Our spotters in the USA and Canada will provide us with notice well in advance if coal trains are moving anywhere on the New Westminster Subdivision on May 5th. We ask you to stand down all coal traffic on this day in order to avoid a confrontation at mile 122 and potential disruption of passenger rail service.

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Educational biomes?

April 10, 2011 by

I’ve got some thoughts about a different way to create a distributed education. One I think could break through silo’s in our Psychogeography and Biogeography. Please bear with me and, of course, if someone has already done this, please let me know!

Background

A familiar problem but always a new one to first-time parents: how to choose a school.

In the UK, there are useful Ofsted reports, as well as excellent emerging services like School-o-scope.

But these don’t seek to address some of the macro-issues that exist and, being a data-geek, it got me thinking.

The catalyst was hearing that there is a “really good school” down the road, that happens to be a Catholic school.

Firstly, let me state clearly that I have no issues with other’s belief systems. I am non-religious, but I do strongly believe in secular systems to promote equality (including equality of beliefs).

So, some data (please send me better data if you have it);

  • Catholic schools provide 10% of school places
  • Catholic schools receive 90% state funding as opposed to 100% for pure-state schools
  • Catholic schools maintain 30% intake of non-Catholic denomination
  • Catholic primary schools: 74% were rated good or outstanding, higher than the average of 66% across the UK

From this point on, I’m going to stop referring to “Catholic” as the points I wish to explore are not even specific to faith as an issue.

We have an interesting perspective here: state funding of a belief system producing better results. State-funding of 90% of the school with only 30% of the intake who are “non-demonination”.

This got me thinking;

  • Do I think faith-based schools are acceptable: yes
  • Do I think the state should help fund them: I have no general issue here, other than balance
  • Do I think private faith-based schools have the right to discriminate against kids who don’t “believe”: it’s up to them
  • Do I think state-funded, faith-based schools have the right to discriminate against kids who don’t “believe”: definitely not. This is prejudice at the entry-level to society. It does not create a path to equality.

I then went down a line of  “how do you break an embedded system” which is fairly immutable, and being annoyed that my child wouldn’t have fair and equal access to a “state-funded best school”, because of a belief system he is not old enough to comprehend.

How could we cultivate more diversity? What would be the implication of disallowing state-funded schools to be predjudiced against children based on a notion of faith that the kids don’t even comprehend?

But it occurred to me that there was a much bigger question.

Having grown up in place where there was one school (and buses to take us all there), this wasn’t a parameter I’d had to consider. Now, living in London where there are hundreds of schools, a high population density, and huge cultural diversity, I had some immediate observations:

  1. 1. There is fierce competition. Parents naturally want to get their kids into “the best” school. The parents have the Ofsted reports and anecdotal evidence to go on. They produce a preference list. Then cross their fingers.
  2. 2. Schools have a selection process that is defined by each individual school’s Admissions Authority, and then broadly the distance (“catchment area”) you are from their school. I’m sure the school’s AA’s go to great pains to ensure fair distributions, but I have not found a data source that aggregates and makes all the rules public (ie. data mineable).
  3. 3. In a school near me, over 70% of the kids speak English as a second language. This obviously reflects a local population-density along specific cultural lines.
  4. 4. In “one of the best” schools near me, less than 30% of the kids are allowed in unless they follow a particular belief system. Such imbalanced “nodes” can act as magnets that affect the local population.

So, how could you address the ghettos of cities (middle-class, low-income, monoculture pockets, etc — my definition of ghetto is a physically local group who live there because of social, economic, or legal pressure – this applies to Chelsea as much as Silvertown). What would you do instead?

We have geo-coded data emerging that maps that detail ethnicity, religion and related metrics. We know the data on all the schools. We could get the rules of every school and simply game the system to individual advantage. But, wouldn’t there be a better way?

A 20 mile cycle around East London on Saturday helped me get a feel for the psychogeography, and a possible solution.

Using data to evenly distribute diversity

My proposal is this;

“We wish to create an outcome of less prejudice, more integration and better learning. This should start at school.”

We can posit the following;

  1. 1. We have a legacy notion of distance. In this case, the physical distance surrounding a school.
  2. 2. In cities, we have vast cultural diversity in dense areas. Often this is ghettoised. It is mapped.

What if;

  1. 1. We redefined distance as the temporal distance (TD) surrounding a school. In other words, how long it takes to get there, not how far.
  2. 2. We insist all state schools (including belief-based schools) create a completely equal entry system rather than devolved selection criteria (the AA’s can add flavour, but not affect the macro-distribution). This uniform distribution would be based on the ethic, cultural, belief, gender and related distribution profile of kids within the TD of the school. We have this data .

Imagine chartering a bus and traversing a TD of cultural diversity, which takes the diversity of the city to the heart of their education platform: the schools.

So, now go and mash up travel data, schools data and the census data, and create shards of cultural diversity that can get to school. I think this could break through substantial silo’s in our Psychogeography and Biogeography.

Starting points

Tom Carden has done the TD for the Tube Map. Note that the scale is minutes, not distance.

Bill Rankin (and many others I’m sure) have done geo-coded maps of diveristy. For example:

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RIP Dr David Fleming

December 5, 2010 by

A tragic and untimely loss.

David is still a huge inspiration, his thinking, consideration and actions have touched so many people. I am glad we had the opportunity to share ideas, conversation, and a beer.

Cheers to you David, and thank you.

For those who didn’t know him, I strongly recommend reading and distributing his works.

In particular, his contributions available via:

http://www.theleaneconomyconnection.net on Nuclear , TEQs (tradeable energy quotas), Energy and the Common Purpose and Peak Oil.

David was a co-founder of the Green Party in the UK, and amongst many things, developed the idea that we might have a personal carbon budget…

Others have already written far better than I can here:

http://transitionculture.org/2010/11/29/dr-david-fleming-1940-2010/

http://www.neweconomics.org/blog/2010/12/01/david-fleming-1940-2010

http://www.darkoptimism.org/2010/11/29/in-memoriam-david-fleming/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Fleming_%28writer%29

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In response to

Westminster Media Forum “BBC 2016 Charter Renewal” meeting 2004-02-25 at Millbank Tower.

Inverting the Model

Working at the junction between the macrocosms of broadcasting (TV and Radio) and the internet (everything) is always stimulating. You always have to assume that you know nothing about either. Both have such different language and thought processes it’s often a leap of faith even to communicate. The only thing shared is ego size.

If Web content creators ever felt 2nd-rate to newspapers, TV or print, they are not alone. I’ve been to many “broadcasting” meetings where you can hear the radio guys explode because the TV folks just don’t acknowledge them. TV sits in its Empire with its own eyes and voice.

A lot of people have actively and tangibly been recreating the TV and Radio “distribution” over the last decade. There isn’t a good word to describe it – Broadcasting over the Internet is just a thing you can do. Webcasting, Streaming, Downloading, etc. fall into the same trap as Broadcasting (Terrestrial, Cable, Web) in describing distribution technology – none describe the medium. Unfortunately the Internet does all of them.

We are, today, at a new junction point and our BBC could be its champion.

It has built one of the most formidable and difficult to achieve reputations in the emergent globalised world: that of a trust-network.

It is the “most popular content website” precisely because of its perceived impartiality. The existence of BBC online has helped people discover the “Digital World” – to look at Britain is starting in the wrong place.

Our “unique service” captures the eyes and ears of the world. It is “owned” by the people. There is no capitalist-agenda at its core: it exudes egalitarianism, fights governments, loses, wins, but cares. Of those I’ve met who work for or with our BBC have a sense they are protecting our culture. There are notable exceptions to this, but this is not my aim here – the global public perception is of quality and “moral purpose”.

So, we are faced with change. The BBC publishes vast quantities online, and is consumed fervently worldwide. This year will see significant change – placing live on-air and archive content from both TV and Radio online, in some cases with a 7-day rolling archive.

You can visualise a day, not very far from now, where all of BBC output from all sources is available online, including the entirety of BBC archives – to a global audience, for free. However, its competition and critics are diverse and growing.

So, let’s turn the model on its head. Phase out the license fee and charge an optional online subscription fee for BBC Online. 10m people paying 33p a day recoups £1.2bn per annum. For an online service, this fee is tiny. For the BBC it has considerable worth. Some lucky subscribers also get “normal” TV and Radio transmission thrown in for free by virtue of their geographic location, and its public-access remit is upheld.

Our BBC doesn’t need to change what it makes, or why – people already come to use its archives, to watch news, trust in the communities it builds, its transparency and who it links to. It forces greater accountability and could change “how” content is made. Also, the sticky problem of UK taxpayers subsidising the rest of the world for online content goes away, or rather, turns through 180 degrees.

It can be transparent about the money raised in ways that profit-organisations cannot: publish its revenue hourly, online. Give viewers a sense of what is being made, and what their money makes achievable in real-time.

Take it further and let people influence what is funded after the base financial targets are hit – publish budgets for uncommissioned programmes and let individuals “donate until the budget is hit”. Then make the programme and release it on air, online and on DVD.

If we want a Digital Britain. If we want to catalyse the world’s thinking on globalised media and its responsibilities: use the BBC’s scale and experience, and put its direction in the hands of its global audience.

Gavin Starks
European Chairman, International Webcasting Association

Biography
Entrepreneur and Webcasting innovator, Gavin has pioneered streaming
media since 1995. He is a founder and European Chairman of the International
Webcasting Association. After helping to build Virgin Net in 1995
he created award-winning webcasting company, Tornado Productions,
selling it in 2003. He has worked at Jodrell Bank Radio Observatory,
had his music performed, and his research published, internationally.
http://www.webcasters.org

v1.0 Gavin Starks, 4th March 2004
v0.5 Gavin Starks, 29th Feb 2004

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