Friday, April 03, 2020

Slides and datasets

These are strange times to be thinking about data. In the tightening grip of pandemic and amidst all the uncertainty there is a thirst for hard information, for the facts. But where should we look for them? As a nation we seem to have quickly turned to daily government briefings, gathering around our devices, reverting to older ways, putting our trust in media and the messages our political leaders broadcast. And what we hear is a mixture of science and politics with a liberal dose of affect management thrown in. It is a war, we are told, and we will win. Meanwhile the facts dance around in the background periodically taking shape as data - numbers, graphs, comparisons, trends, spikes, predictions and all the rest. On Monday they danced before us on PowerPoint (courtesy of Microsoft) as if to claim authority over the slippage between actual and reported cases, the distorting effects of testing, and over what actually counts as a death attributable to the virus. Controlling the pandemic will be about controlling the numbers, whichever way you look at it. Managing the response will be about managing the data. To say that data combine with government to enact power may sound suspiciously like some kind of postmodern denial but actually it just illuminates what data do and what science does. After all science is political, too. In this instance, data and science intermingle with a political view of the governance of human behaviour to encourage us to comply with official advice. Encourage is the key word here, and that's because we are a liberal democracy in which it is 'our problem' and by working together we will win, or so we are told. And of course we hope to be rewarded for our efforts with a change in the shape of the graph - what Boris calls 'squashing the sombrero'. Together we can change the data. Swifter intervention may have been a more effective approach but a politically and ideologically unpalatable one. It would also have involved thinking about data differently because stopping the spread looks very different to slowing it down. Whatever the outcome we are in a strange sort of lock down - strongly encouraged, open to interpretation and largely consensual. I hope we survive. Every Tuesday evening we allow ourselves 5 minutes of national release as we loudly applaud the NHS. Brexit seems like a dim memory. Now we all love the welfare state.

No comments: