Vimla Appadoo: Hi, I'm Vimla Appadoo and welcome to the Distributed Futures podcast. On this podcast, we have guests on to talk about the role of technology, society, and politics and thinking about the future. We use this podcast to discuss what might happen in the future and how. And today we have Chris Northwood is our guest. Chris, would you like to introduce yourself?
Chris Northwood: Absolutely, thanks very much for having me on. So, I'm Chris Northwood. And I am a software developer working for a tech-figured startup in Manchester. I’m the author of The Full Stack Developer. I'm also standing as a liberal democratic candidate for council in Manchester.
Vimla Appadoo: Incredible. That is a lot of stuff to do in 5 days a week.
Chris Northwood: Oh yeah, it keeps me busy.
Vimla Appadoo: [Laughs] Could you tell us a little bit more about your book and what it's about?
Chris Northwood: Absolutely. The book is a book I wrote in a small breakout in my career where I felt like I needed to start doing something. So, I started writing a book of everything, every skill I thought I was using in my role as a software developer. And looking back, it's like the skills I wish I knew I needed to know when I started-- cuz I think a lot of software development skills focus on the technical skills. Actually, by the time you get out there and start working in teams and start working and building real products, the non-technical skills which can sometimes be devalued are just as important. So, how do you work in a team? How do you build the right thing? And how do you as well as building the thing in the right way? So the book is kind of 50/50 split between kind of the technical foundations that I think you need to be a full stack web developer and the non-technical skills that you need to know to be an effective person in a team that is making your products.
Vimla Appadoo: Amazing. Yeah, I couldn't agree more. I think being on the non-technical side and working in technical teams, I can see it from the other side of the importance of working with developers or engineers who are able to communicate what's going on in a way that everyone can understand but also to bring the team along on the journey as well. And it's so important.
Chris Northwood: Yeah. So yeah, so I've had some good feedback from it. I've had feedback which is like I was expecting this to be a really technical deep dive. And I say, “Well, that's not-- There's enough of those books out there. So I wanted to do something that was a little bit different.
Vimla Appadoo: Yeah, exactly. And what's the relationship between technology and politics? How did you bridge that gap?
Chris Northwood: I think for me, it comes down to the fact that what I realized after two of my careers. So, I spent most of my career working in the public sector. Then I left that I left my job with PVC to go work at the private sector and ended up working for a major retailer on digital transformation program. And I very quickly realized that I had absolutely zero motivation to do that job and my mental health took a hit for it. What I realized at that point is what motivated me was not doing cool techie things and writing really intricate, interesting pieces of software, it's actually solving problems that have a positive impact in the world. I've always been interested in politics and seeing cuz I think it's one of the things that really shapes the way we live and in 2016/17, with the way the Brexit aftermath unfolded in politics and then as I continued to unfold, I decided that what I wanted to do was actually put myself forward and be part of the solution rather than just being a Twitter a vocal person on Twitter. I started getting involved, I started supporting candidates and that comes on that same drive to want to leave a positive impact the world, wants to make a positive difference to the world that I had been realizing hopefully been realizing through my technical career.
Vimla Appadoo: Yeah. That also explains the kind of technical startup element as well. As someone who knows a lot about technology and is also in politics, what gaps do you see in the political sphere for that kind of knowledge?
Chris Northwood: So, I think there's a lot of misalignment in politics between what politics should be there to solve and how you get ahead in politics. So, the way you get ahead in politics is through being nice, and being personable, and getting elected and often that's within your own party is to get the point to where you've been selected. And that's a lot of the way forward. And I think the way that is not aligned with actually how to have good governance, how to then effectively execute, and how to necessarily do your job as a representative because politicians elected politicians are representatives of the communities that they have been elected to serve. And I think that technology is something that can help that. So for all of his flaws, there's one thing that Dominic Cummings said that I think was very insightful. And he got probably got rights which is that politicians often use their instincts and rather than using data to make decisions. And he obviously through the levy stuff that was a very much data driven campaign and obviously can see the success of that of how they use the data. One of the things you want to do in the civil service was to introduce the ability to have dashboards where better visualization of the data that the civil service has in a way that politicians could then use to make better decisions. And I think that that also requires some amount of sloppiness from the politicians themselves in order to be able to understand and interpret that data and also to be able to interrogate and scrutinize it. So asking, what is this data really telling me? And I think that kind of use of technology and the analysis of data is something that politicians can really use in order to help them do better governance when they once they have been elected into a role.
Vimla Appadoo: Yeah, I think it does fill me with hope that we can start moving towards a more data driven society, but it also makes me scared because data can often be misleading or not give us the full picture and, or even silo us into boxes that we don't necessarily self-identify with. And so what risks do you see with that?
Chris Northwood: Well, I think the risks are the same as the risks we've kind of any type of analysis in that especially if you're using data about people. So for example, I think one of the things that we do quite well in this country, I think, is traffic engineering. So there are a lot of complex models that map how traffic moves around our cities in our country and that feeds into transport planning. So using data in that kind of way, I think, is probably a more neutral way of doing it. But at the same time, you also have the-- if you focus purely on that you lose the bigger picture. And I think that that's the risk of that kind of data. I think if you’re using data to make decisions about people and you kind of have this this this tension between you want to reflect the needs of the people you're serving and I think there's also this ongoing argument about how much is it the responsibility of politicians to also be leaders and therefore influence the people they're serving. And I think people some different political parties take very different approaches on that. And definitely activists were in party. So we're in the Labour Party. I think over the past few years you've seen this shift from when Corbyn was leader. And there was a lot of grassroots movement saying we need to be doing a better job of pushing forward socialism and our job as the Labour Party is to actually activates this kind of static shift. And I think this might be uncharitable but with a shift of Starmer. He this the more recent kind of iteration of the Labour Party leadership is much, much more of a we need to go to people where they are in order to kind of win back the votes that maybe we actually we put off because we perhaps went too far the other way before. And I don't know which one is the right answer, but there's probably something in the middle there.
Vimla Appadoo: Yeah, I agree. And we've seen a rise in, like you said, data driven politics through campaigning and elections. The bit I am less certain of is how it's being used to make decisions. And if I'm being quite honest without getting too political, I'm not sure I would trust a politicians data analysis team to make the decisions on my behalf at the moment based purely on data.
Chris Northwood: Yeah, I would definitely agree. I think it depends if it's the politician doing it or is it the government doing it cuz I think the especially in the UK where we have a very strictly enforce or in theoretically I think it happens in practice. Neutrality of the civil service is the-- I kind of trust the civil service a bit more, but they obviously are working within a system that is designed or kind of to meet the goals that are set by the politicians. I also think there's a huge amount of immaturity in dealing with data. So the Liberal Democrats had disastrous results in 2019. And I don't think there's many people in the party who disagree with that. And that's there was this investigation that was done to say what happened. What can we learn from the 2019 election results? It was published and it's publicly available, so I'm not kind of sharing internal party secrets. But basically what happened was in March of 2019, there was a MRP poll done which is one of these very highly detailed, very highly predictive results. And it basically said that the Liberal Democrats could win 100 seats. And this was basically at the height of Lib Dem popularity. And it was obviously the we just available in the European elections, we were one of the biggest parties there and best results, best results ever. But then there was a by election in Brecon and Radnorshire where we won, but we only just one and the MRP predicted we would win in a landslide. But then the key mistake that was then made by the party leadership was going and saying they'd never looked back and said why didn't we win by a landslide that over they even noticed that what the MRP predicted didn't come true, but they still plan the entire general election campaign on that. And we ended up with the decision for Jo Swinson to stand with his banner of I could be your next prime minister because there was a-- if he could trust the MRP, there was a real chance of the Lib Dems being a really senior partner in a coalition government. But they never really realized that the data would change. The Lib Dem supports had fallen off. And there were many reasons why that might have happened. But the maturity of dealing with data is someone's like, they said, “Oh, this data is brilliant. It's perfect.”And obviously also fed into the data told you what you wanted to hear as well. So there was this reluctance to challenge the data. And I think that comes as immaturity of having to deal with data and that kind of analysis.
Vimla Appadoo: Yeah. And I think that's true of data as a whole. I don't think that's just politics. I don't think we fully know how to use data at all at the moment and to unlock it really because data is collected all the time. And I don't think any organizations putting it together in a way to concretely look for good or to tell a story. And I remember being in the public sector and continually getting frustrated that we weren't connecting up datasets to help people. It's kind of a blip. But if we know this about them and we know this about them, why can't we offer them this, or tell them about this, or encourage them to do this? It's like, well, we don't have access to any of that so we can't put it together. So it's there. Okay, I know it's there. So yeah, I think there's quite a far way away to go in data sharing agreements, but also storing it safely and making it clear how it's going to be used and all of that kind of stuff.
Chris Northwood: Yeah, I think there's always a challenge in the government which is this very large presence and all of us all our lives and I think different political parties that have different opinions, or whether or not that the size, that presence is a good or bad thing. But I think there's a risk of if you have these kinds of datasets of the chilling effects. So one of the big arguments in the early noughties was around ID cards whether or not we should have ID cards in the UK. And there was a big split. And ultimately I think it didn't pass. And I think the real fear is that yes, it could make your serving citizenship easier and users instead interacting with governments easier. There's also the risk of what happens if it gets misused? Could I be refused treatments of the NHS because I have unpaid parking fines? And then that value becomes misaligned. And I think we actually see this a lot where I think as you said, it's about how you tell the story. And I think sometimes the story that gets told is not actually the right one. You might have a similar conclusion, but yeah, the so I think like take for example, the very recent thing that happened with the GameStop stocks where this story has been told is there's this ragtag bunch of Redditors who have decided to take on the hedge funds by inflating or the making the price of GameStop higher than they probably otherwise would be which then exposes the hedge funds to losses. But I saw a tweet this morning and I will put my hands up and say I haven't fully investigated this to know how true it is. But it sounds very plausible which is basically saying, you look at the who holds the stocks and actually a lot of the purchases in the kind of after the very initial set were by hedge funds as well. So it's also hedge funds playing off over hedge funds or the stock but the story is not about that the story is, “Ah, I’m hedge fund’s bandit. Oh, now there's interference.”And it's the system isn't letting retailers play or the retail investors play the same way that the big boys play. And that's the story that's happening back to the data behind it is different, but it's not all the data behind it is complex and nuanced. And it's harder to tell that story.
Vimla Appadoo: Yeah. And it can often take time too and like it, I think we often take it for granted that data analysis doesn't happen instantaneously. And it's a perspective, there's no right or wrong when it comes to data analysis. And because you can always make a statistic, say what you want it to say. That's the new ones. And I think that's where my distress comes from because it doesn't feel like there's a debate when it comes to statistics or data. It's kind of it feels quite binary.
Chris Northwood: Yeah, I think it's still blows my mind how statistics can seem very unintuitive. So when I learned about Bayesian probability, and basic probability is the idea that you kind of have to, let's say, have a test that is 99% accurate. And it told you that you were positive for, let's say, COVID, for example. And you might say, “Oh, it's 99% accurate.”Therefore, there's a 99% chance of me having COVID. But the problem is that when you take into account that the prevalence of COVID within a particular community is a certain percentage that actually it's 99% accurate in both ways. So you multiply all together and end up with the statistics being a lot lower than you would initially do. So and I think this is the thing that statistics happens in a counterintuitive way to the way a lot of humans think. And that makes it harder to talk and tell a story about it. And I think also the just the way you tell a story about the same thing is challenging. So 90% or 90% chance of success sounds not bad, but a one in 10 chance of failure sounds actually slightly worse even though that they’re same. Starting with those two things in different ways is challenging.
Vimla Appadoo: Yeah, absolutely. I went to a webinar a few months ago and the thing that always stood out in my mind, it was about data and storytelling. And was if climate change activists had got their story right at the very light in the 70s and they knew how to talk about the data in a way that was convincing, we would have solved climate change years ago. And it hit me and I thought, “Oh my god, yeah.”Because we can visualize like carbon tons and we don't understand but as humans, we don't see time. So we can't think in that way. And it really hit me of like the way we talk about data and numbers are so important to lead into action.
Chris Northwood: Yeah, it's a good point. Because I wonder if it's we even have it right today. The big number we talked about is we have to keep the earth below 1.5° Celsius of heating. That's the goal. And currently it's heading towards 2 ½/3°. And you get to someone in this and you say that and they say “Of 3° warmer that's not a huge difference, is it?”But actually is when you look at the permafrost and the flooding is like it's so-- I think it's the maybe we still haven't got that story right. Although that I do think the climate change movement is I think it's a statistic, emoticons worldwide have in the UK. But as of right now, 65% of people agree that climate emergency is real and needs tackling.
Vimla Appadoo: Well, that's positive although it's almost 35% that don't so. [Laughs] And as a technologist in politics, how many other technologists do you see in the political arena?
Chris Northwood: It is interesting. And I don't know if it's just the bubble I'm in. So in the Lib Dems, there's quite a few. I think the Lib Dems have this reputation of being full of stuffy academics and engineers. And the party is full of policy wonks who really like getting into the nitty-gritty of policy detail. And then will rubbish at telling our story. And that's probably fair and accurate.[laughter] But oh yeah, there’s in the inner city center of Manchester we have the three candidates standing. There's John Bridges in Deansgate, myself in Piccadilly, and Alan Good in Ancoats and Beswick. I mean Alan and the software engineers, so we kind of kind of get it. I think that's also probably because Manchester has this very large tech sector now. But I think there are definitely technologists involved in the party. But I think the problem is the party staff are not are not technologists. So the Lib Dems have just hired a CTO because they've realized we can't outsource IT. And I've many thoughts about the Lib Dems IT system, so definitely very good. I think it's because the political parties especially in the UK are not particularly well funded unless you're the big two and you either get corporate backing or union backing which provides this color funding. So if your especially your smaller party, then your most of your staff are people who are basically working for you for minimum wage and not far off it because they really want to work for your party and they're probably in their early 20s and a lot or most are living in your homes. So there's especially cuz most political parties with the exception of the SNP are in London. So there's this kind of very privileged group who really gets to work for the political parties. And if you come to university under the politics degree, or PP degrees of like that then you probably haven't necessarily been taught technology. You probably potentially have some understanding of economics and those kind of systems but not necessarily technology. And I don't think people really kind of appreciate the role it plays in society now especially in local politics. A lot of the local politics it's generally a part time role. It's often not especially well paid. It can’t cover expenses. Manchester is different. Manchester is pays their captors much more than most places it’s like 18 and a half 1000 pounds a year for what is notionally a part time role, but I think most people use that as a kind of full time income especially by the time it's popped up. And so you get a lot of retirees and I have worked with Lib Dem counselors, or candidates who basically say, “I don't understand Facebook. I don't understand. I want to do things the way they've always been done. And I don't understand data. I don't understand this kind of thing.”I think that there's that generational gap that people who get to be fairly senior leaders in politics do it because they've done the grind and they've moved up and they also have the time which generally puts people in the old category to do that. And there are obviously some people in that category who are excellent at it. By the way, I would say probably just skew slightly less in terms of tech savviness.
Vimla Appadoo: Yeah. I mean, I'm not in politics by which from the outside looking in it feels that way. But what I'm really interested in understanding, so they've always been rumors that Mark Zuckerberg is going to run for president one day or the influence that large technology companies have on politics is huge. And I'm interested in that relationship and what feels like ever prominent role of technology in politics aside from data just knowing about technology.
Chris Northwood: So I think the interesting thing is how do you scrutinize an industry if you do not understand that industry? And I think that's a challenge. I think there's a unique challenge in the US around like US government is very, very heavily influenced by money and donations. And I think big tech is going to become a big influence because it is now a big money spender. In the same way that big oil might have been decades ago, a number one and lists to a degree. I think in the UK, it's slightly better. I think the UK has I've been in political parties in the UK it is our ticking time bomb in terms of the amount of data that political parties have on people. And compliance with GDPR is definitely variable I would say. So, I think there's efforts that have been made. But so, for example, the conservatives got fined recently because they run, I believe, as an algorithm across people's names to kind of guess what it's trying to infer what race or ethnicity they might be in order to, I guess, deliver different messages to people. And for example in the Liberal Democrats we want to collect what people's primary language because if there's a large Chinese community, it's more impactful to perhaps write to them in one of the Chinese alphabets and language to get your message across in a much more impactful way. So you can definitely see why people are motivated to do that but it is challenging. And especially because a lot of it is happening due to the fact that political parties have the electoral roll and you don't always know how the electoral roll is then being used. I think this is ticking time bomb especially for campaigning data about how it's used I think in terms of Facebook. In the UK, so I do call off I've run a lot of Facebook ads for the City Centre Liberal Democrats and there you can see what the targeting options are. The most of just say US only after them cuz obviously they have taken that data or the ability to target away from people to be GDPR compliant. But I'm assuming that behind the scenes Facebook has done those inferences and they're just all these is probably capable of doing them. If they're dots on people in the UK and EU, they just chosen not to and to be complying with the law. But there's nothing to stop them doing doing that in future. And I think they have a different view of the UK and the EU. As I say, the US is a spending limits so Facebook wouldn't be able to do that here because that would count as a donation. And the value of that data would actually go to the market rate, and it would almost certainly go above the spending limits for 16 elections. In the US, the situation is so different that you would absolutely be able to use that data. And you saw Bloomberg tried to run for the Democratic candidacy and he just dropped a billion pounds to support that. And then it got him nowhere. But that is a completely different world over there.
Vimla Appadoo: Yeah. And we are far removed from it. It is a good thing. But I'm worried that it's not going to stay this way for long. But you say we're at the cusp of just understanding all of that and UK politics and how it can be manipulated or used. And unfortunately, I think in many ways it will be left to fine. By the time you've done it, implemented it, and acted on it, to then get a fine a year or two later. It's almost too late anyway. And I can imagine a scenario where people budget for the fine in order to get the outcome that they want.
Chris Northwood: Yeah, I think there are probably cases where that has happened where especially just with people putting out more leaflets than have been intended of being punished for spending breaches is something that does happen. And often you will, especially in severe cases, you will be removed from office and they'll be running in the by-election, but then you can stand again and you still have the benefit of saying, well, you won the first time around. And you know how damaging that scandal is going to be to you.
Vimla Appadoo: Yeah, and in terms of the way people give their consent to this data, so electoral data we don't really have a choice whether people have that or not and the same goes for redress or a lot actually considering how much we give giveaway without realizing. How important do you think consent is in all of this and for people to have more of that control?
Vimla Appadoo: Yeah. Oh, gotcha. Yeah. And like Facebook and Instagram think I'm single, but also wanting to have a baby like really bizarre stuff is really, really strange. And now because I've got a pet rabbit, all I keep getting is dog treats and food. Apparently, it’s a thing.
Chris Northwood: Yeah.
Vimla Appadoo: It's surprising how much they get wrong. But it's also surprising how much they get right. And I'm having the-- we're in a privileged position to have the consciousness to realize that's what's happening