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