31 October 2011

India's bureaucracy goes digital

Living in Britain, I've always been sceptical of public sector IT projects. If you'd like to know why, you need only monitor the progress of government efforts to move NHS paper medical records onto a national computer network. Not only did the projected costs of this spiral past £11 billion, but in the end the idea was shelved altogether. So when I learned that India was trying to shift its entire bureaucracy online (and bear in mind, this is one of the biggest and most tangled bureaucracies on the planet), I'll admit, it sounded like a white elephant waiting to appear.

In the course of writing Geek Nation, though, and now having done a feature for the BBC World Service science series Discovery about electronic governance in India... my mind has been changed. Although there have been pitfalls along the way, India is slowly and successfully digitising every scrap of paper in its bureaucratic ministries and regional government departments from land records all the way down to birth certificates. It's even rolling out a national biometric identity scheme (photo above), with the aim of processing a whopping million people a day. And much of this is thanks to India harnessing its legions of skilled IT professionals. It's transforming the lives of ordinary people by making government more accessible, transparent and less corrupt. Don't believe me? Then tune into the BBC World Service tonight at 7.30pm.

12 October 2011

London Science Book Club 5

Tonight was the latest meeting of the London Science Book Club, and our pick was Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear by Canada-based journalist, Dan Gardner. It's essentially a book about the way we misuse and misinterpret statistics, in areas as broad as breast cancer occurrence and fears around nuclear power. It's full of wonderful snatches of research, particularly by the psychologists Kahneman and Tversky, who ran some famous experiments trying to understand why and how people make errors. And it will make you think very differently about the stats you hear about in the news. One funny example I read recently, proving how easy it is for people to blind us with numbers is this: When Elvis Presley died in 1977, there were 37 Elvis impersonators in the world. By 1993, there were 48,000. So extrapolating, every 3rd person will be an Elvis impersonator by 2010. This is ridiculous of course, yet it's the kind of thing that happens in news reports all the time.

Risk
also happens to be well-written and beautifully researched, if a little more focused on examples than human stories. The only thing missing, a couple of us noted, was some deeper explanation of why humans behave so irrationally when it comes to some fears. Having read Antonio Damasio's book Descartes' Error in our first book club, we were all aware of the neuroscience of behaviour and how it has shaped our understanding of what it means to be human - with all our faults. Is there something about odds that we just can't seem to grasp? Are we just a bit thick, or is there more at play?

In all though, a big thumbs up for Risk! We really enjoyed it.

Also, some good news for new members: Owing to work and family commitments, we have had a couple of people drop out of our small club. So if you're based near London and would be willing to get together with us once every two months over a good non-fiction science book, then please send me an email or a tweet (contact details available here).

5 October 2011

Final book talk of the year

By my reckoning, I have done 21 book talks and literary festivals on three continents for Geek Nation this year. Now, the last one is approaching. And it's in Sheffield. The Off the Shelf literary festival starts this weekend and my part will be played on Monday night, with an illustrated talk at the Showroom Cinema at 7pm. Since it's a special occasion, I'll be giving away a free signed copy of Geek Nation to the best question from the audience. So book your tickets now (or get them on the door on Monday)!

In other news, Geek Nation will be out in paperback in Europe in February with a fresh cover (above). Well, actually, it's the Asian cover slightly remixed, but it looks super cool. If you'd like to be one of the first to get your hands on a copy, you can pre-order it now on Amazon UK.

3 October 2011

Mathematics in the dock

A few years ago I met a mathematician called Norman Fenton at Queen Mary, University of London, who told me about the disturbing problem of miscarriages of justice happening in British courts because jurors, judges and lawyers were failing to understand statistics. The most famous case in recent years is that of of Sally Clark, who was sent to jail for killing her two young children, before mathematics proved that it was likelier that they were both victims of cot death. The solution to bad statistics like this sometimes comes in the form of Bayes' Theorem, a formula that forensic scientists use to calculate the odds of one event given the prior odds of other related events. Number-crunching evidence using Bayesian reasoning, Fenton said, was a much more accurate way of assessing a suspect's guilt (in fact with one of his colleagues, he invented a piece of software that does all this number crunching for you).

But while lots of mathematicians support the use of Bayesian reasoning in courts, judges have historically shown a hostility to formulae for fear of confusing jurors. Explaining Bayes' Theorem to people isn't easy, even with diagrams. Fenton has been an expert witness in some high-profile trials, including that of murderer Levi Bellfield back in 2007, and he knows first hand just how easy it is for people (including scientists) to misinterpret forensic evidence. So I ended up writing a feature about our encounter for New Scientist in 2009, explaining the common statistical fallacies that happen in courts, and how they might be avoided.

Then last year, in an appeal case known as RvT (the redacted judgment is available here), a High Court judge effectively ruled that Bayes' Theorem can't be used at all except in limited circumstances, such as with DNA evidence. Experts have told me on and off the record that this could lead to many more miscarriages of justice in the future. It has sent shockwaves through the forensic science community. Fenton has been so concerned by the ruling that he is forming a research group to figure a way to get this mathematical tool back in the courts. If you'd like to read more about the whole story, check out my feature in The Guardian today.

For anyone who would like to investigate the issue more deeply, there has been a spate of academic publications recently looking at it, including this draft paper by Fenton and his colleague Martin Neil, one in the Criminal Law Review by Redmayne, Roberts, Aitken and Jackson, and a paper in Science & Justice by Berger, Buckleton, Champod and Evett.

1 October 2011

How useful are makers to manufacturing?

If you're in London anytime during the rest of this year, I strongly recommend you get yourself down to the Victoria & Albert Museum in South Kensington because they have a brilliant exhibition celebrating the power of making, crafting, tinkering and fixing. Curator Daniel Charny has assembled a little bit of everything, from enormous artistic makes, to the ingenious ministerial Red Box (the lock is at the bottom so you can never forget to close it) and personal 3D printers.

I was there last night to see the exhibits and then take part in a panel debate about manufacturing, organised as part of the Battle of Ideas. And to my surprise, it became a pretty heated discussion (and not just because the room had no air conditioning). James Woudhuysen, professor of forecasting and innovation at De Montfort University, said that knitters, crafters and individual makers had no value in real manufacturing because the scale at which they work is just too small. And this left Sandy Black, professor of fashion & textile design & technology at the University of the Arts London, having to defend people who work in sustainable fashion. Meanwhile I was somewhere in the middle: I'm an advocate for big scientific projects and industrial-scale technology, but at the same time I really can see the value in individual makers. Not only are they one end of a manufacturing spectrum that includes all inventors, but they help nurture a culture that values products as more than disposable engines of economic growth.

Claire Fox
, the director of the Institute of Ideas, which organised this entire debate series, commented that she neither had the time nor inclination to fix things. But while I don't want to force people to knit their own clothes or mend their own toasters, one aspect of maker culture that I think everyone should experience at least once is the satisfaction that comes from fixing something. I was taught to sew, knit and do DIY by my parents, and I still get a buzz from stretching the lifespan of stuff I own by repairing it, or transforming some piece of clothing with a little imagination. Whether it's driven by necessity or desire, making satisfies a human urge. We are a creative species.

So try it for yourself just once. Make something. You'll love it, I promise.