It is said that French mathematician Blaise Pascal, Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, and Winston Churchill all said: “I would have written you a shorter letter, I just didn’t have the time.” They may all have originated that sentiment, some may have quoted others, or all the attributions could be faulty. How to know? How to sift through the unmediated annals of citation history?
A similar predicament faced we three hosts of the Small Data Forum podcast as we gathered for our latest – and thirty-fifth – instalment of this semi-structured ramble-chat through the uses and abuses of data big and SMALL in politics, business, and public life.
Like so many of our fellow workers in the knowledge economy, we three musketeers had all been working from home for the past six weeks of lockdown U.K. (though we all had plentiful WFH experience before the pandemic). And like so many organisations, we have been forced to pivot our focus and output.
For a podcast obsessed with Trump and Brexit, Facebook and Cambridge Analytica since our foundation back in May 2016, we now talk about little else than the consequences, data, and language of COVID-19.
So it was that we all fired up Zoom shortly before 8am on International Labour Day, soon to be renamed Global WFH Day. The scale and unfamiliar exponentiality of how coronavirus has ripped through the world and our Untied Kingdom (sic) corner of the world is dizzying. Thomas reminds us that when our attention first turned to the pandemic – episode 33 on Friday 13 March – 11 Britons had died. Three weeks later, episode 34 on 3 April, the toll had soared to 5,000, a 454-fold increase. And as we sipped the first coffee of May, according to NHS data (incorporating care homes), the grim number was pushing 27,000, another, five-fold leap.
We consider ourselves data savvy, but we don’t know our Rs from our elbow. The fundamental quality of living through the VUCA world of coronavirus is unprecedented, Rumsfeldian doses of uncertainty; oodles of unknown unknowns. We muse on the hubris of Boris Johnson’s 5 February speech at the Old Naval College in Greenwich, where the PM imagined Britain as a superhero figure ready, willing, and able to take on the virus in a post-Brexit reverie.
Turns out we – and he – were more like Monty Python’s Bicycle Repair Man. Sam is encouraged by the clear-thinking rationality of the Chief Scientific and Chief Medical Officer representatives of SAGE – though definitely not that interloper, Dominic Convolvulus – and the sustainable rise to prominence of “Mr Relative vs Absolute Risk”, Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter, a true proponent of the art of statistics.
Neville produces score cards for those who stood in for Johnson as the emcee at the U.K. Government’s 5pm fright-fest, giving Priti Patel and Michael Gove nul points for empathy (and Patel fewer still for her Numberwang levels of data literacy), while giving a cautious thumbs-up for Matt Hancock’s calm assurance. The metronomic presentation of updates of the same PowerPoint slides – anchors in a fog of general confusion – also wins plaudits, though Neville has observed a significant increase in motorway traffic near him. “Where can they all be going?” we ponder. It’s not like there’s a Maidenhead Militia to rival the looney-tunes scenes from Michigan’s State House.
We question the point of having members of the public ask questions of the Five O’Clock show host, whose focus is necessarily uber-local and likely both myopic and underinformed, with Neville likening this development to the bear pit of the BBC’s Question Time – just without the right of reply; it’s a noble, but fundamentally flawed idea. Sam reminds us humans like single-factor, simple cause-and-effect explanations – something that coronavirus will never yield to – and recalls the straight line instinct singled out for condemnation by the Rosling dynasty’s Factfulness. How the world needs Hans now …
With more and more governments ending elements of lockdown on the condition that their citizens wear face masks to ensure R < 1.0, we discuss the innovation of designer-face masks and the advent of face masks as a fashion statement. Neville cites an article in Ad Age on the birth of the designer face mask, sporting the logos and insignia of favourite musicians, movies, and sports teams. Baby Yoda, anyone? On Etsy, more than 50,000 sellers have now sold at least one face mask; 500 have sold more than 10,000.
The response and behaviour of bigger brands goes under the microscope. Given the inevitable, on-rushing global recession, Sam is interested by the different responses of global megacorps – particularly in the well-traded consumer goods sector: P&G is increasing spend, Unilever is holding spend constant though pivoting, while Coca-Cola (and other fizzy pop companies too) have paused all marketing.
A new take on “Dirt Is Good” from Unilever
Brands and CEOs getting it wrong for Neville are Richard Branson, Mike Ashley, and Victoria Beckham, though Beckham’s decision to unfurlough the staff she’d decided to furlough despite her vast personal wealth, wins approval. Belated empathy is better than none at all. Sharp intakes of breath abound when we reflect that Shell is cutting its dividend for the first time since 1945, while global banks are seeing Q1 collapses in profit of up to 95%.
Thomas wonders – optimistically – if COVID-19 will usher in much bigger changes, from universal basic income to eliminating tax avoidance. He is both inspired and appalled by the predictions of rebel economist Nouriel Roubini, one of those who saw the global financial collapse coming in 2007-9 and has been writing a series of increasingly Cassandra-like articles on the economic impact of the pandemic. Indeed, Thomas asks if our collective response could witness this pesky microscopic mugger being the catalyst for complete, societal reinvention. While sympathetic to the idea, both Sam and Neville believe things might not be or get quite awful enough to stimulate the wholesale realignment of the world that it so desperately needs. Not least to prevent COVID-21.
What started as a slow-burn episode then truly catches fire.
First, Thomas is justly furious with the U.K. Government for endangering the lives of frontline NHS workers. With more than 100 dead from catching COVID-19 as part of their job – many with inadequate, reused, or non-existent PPE – he likens nurses and doctors to the cannon fodder of the World War I trenches, ‘lions sacrificed by donkeys’. “We take it with a shrug as if it’s normal. But it’s not f*cking normal!” he rages.
Neville is most appalled by the frightful mess and effective mass genocide in care homes. In a classic “swords into ploughshares”flourish, he urges future governments to abandon the folly of investment in nuclear weaponry and build a proper NHS for the globalised world.
And Sam concludes we may well have to sacrifice personal liberty for contact tracing apps if office workers are ever to get back to WFW rather than WFH. He casts a rare (for this episode) sideways glance across the Pond, appalled at the hugely irresponsible mass gatherings in U.S. cities in the name of liberty. “It’s all very well having liberty, but you need to be alive. It’s all very well having democracy, but you need to be able to not – wilfully or mindlessly – poison and kill weaker members of that society just for your right to be able to have a beer with your mates.”
As I said 1,200 words ago, we would have recorded you a shorter podcast, we just didn’t have the time.
And to end on a note of optimism: happy 100th birthday, Colonel Tom!
Listen to Episode 35