Who needs philosophy?

Definitely not folks who work with technology. Most definitely not engineers. I was one of those people, an engineer. (There is a certificate somewhere that attests to that.) Philosophy for me was about looking out into the distance and thinking about whether I was really thinking or dreaming or existing in some sort of fugue state induced by the Mumbai heat searing metal compartments of local trains. The word ‘Philosophy’ conjured images of busts of men whose names were as strange as the non-spelling of ‘Irinjalakuda’ is to the English language. Even though I went through Sophie’s World, it seemed her world was never mine to hold and understand.

Around six years ago, I read a paper, and something shifted. It was called ‘Classes versus Prototypes: Some philosophical and historical observations’ by Antero Taivalsaari[1]. The paper spoke about Plato and object oriented programming in the same breath. I knew about object oriented programming but I didn’t understand its relationship with Plato.

I encountered object oriented programming in a book by Timothy Budd and was smitten by it. Budd’s book is innocuously (and sincerely) titled ‘An introduction to Object Oriented Programming’. It does not have the identity of the murderer tucked away in the last page, but I read it as though such a revelation was sure to come.

Budd starts about how people who are new to object oriented programming understand it better than those who have worked on procedural programming. Procedural programming models the world as a set of steps, a process or a procedure. In other words, you instruct the computer to perform actions by coding these actions as a series of procedures. On the other hand, object oriented programming was about seeing the world anew, as a set of objects that belonged to certain categories and the relationship between them. You change the world by performing different operations on these objects. Budd argued that it is easier for someone who has not thought of manipulating the world in terms of procedures to start conceptualising it in terms of categories, objects that belonged to those categories, and the relationship between them. An untutored mind could adopt to this new way of seeing rather than the one that was already moulded and ossified. As a regular student, keen to see the world in radical new ways, I was eager to reshape my mind, and read the whole book in one go.

I never realised until I read Taivalsaari’s paper that what had gotten me excited about Budd’s book and object oriented programming in the first place was the philosophy behind it, which is to see the world as a set of objects that are related to each other. What I didn’t understand back then was that philosophy was about a way of seeing the world in order to understand it, and every discipline, including computer science rests on philosophy.

Every discipline tries to understand the world, and therefore, every discipline has a certain philosophical foundation that tells you how that discipline perceives the world. Plato and Aristotle thought that the world has a certain fixed ‘order’, and we discovered that ‘order’ as we understood the world. For a long time most disciplines in the Western canon adopted this approach to looking at the world, and computer science was no different:

What Plato and Aristotle thought:

“… categories were thought to be well understood and unproblematic. They were assumed to be abstract containers, with things either inside or outside the category. Things were assumed to be in the same category if and only if they had certain properties in common. And the properties they had in common were taken as defining the category.[2]

Relationship between Aristotle’s model of the world and object oriented programming:

“His [Aristotle’s] classifications were based on the same idea that underlies object-oriented programming today. A group of objects belongs to the same category if the objects have the same properties. Thus, categories of objects are defined by common properties that a group of objects (the extension of the category) share.[3]

For a second, think about the consequences of adopting Plato’s and Aristotle’s philosophical position for different disciplines:

  1. There is one ‘ideal’ world out there
  2. All of us ‘discover’ this world when we understand it

Image 1 – Is there an ‘ideal world’ we all discover? Or the world we perceive is the world we know?

But, if you think that the world is not fixed, and the world is what we perceive, what we make of it, you adopt a different philosophy, a different way of looking at the world. A lot of disciplines, including computer science, started grappling with this different way of seeing the world, a way of seeing that was rooted in being human. By virtue of the bodies we inhabit, we understand the world a certain way. We perceive the world a certain way because we as humans are made a certain way; our bodies influence our cognition: if we adopt such a philosophical position, then we understand cognition as ‘embodied’. This in turn means that there is no ‘ideal’ world out there for all of us to perceive the same way, but the perceptions differ based on the vessel doing the perception. And as there are many kinds of human beings, there are different ways in which this classification can be done, this understanding can happen.

Consequences of adopting an ‘embodied’ understanding of cognition, and therefore a different philosophical position for different disciplines:

  1. Each of us understands the world in our own way, and that understanding is shaped by our bodies
  2. There is no ‘ideal’ world for us to understand, but there are ‘interpretations’

It is a dramatic shift in thinking about the world, a fundamental philosophical shift. It means moving away from thinking there is one world we all are trying to understand, to thinking about everyone’s perception as a valid interpretation of the world.

Different disciplines from economics, cognitive science, linguistics, computer science, psychology – all of them grappled with this philosophical shift. And in a series of blogposts, I hope to explore this shift, and what it means for research and practice. (There will be politics too – after all, what doesn’t have politics?)

[1] Taivalsaari, A. (1996). Classes vs. Prototypes Some Philosophical and Historical Observations. Journal of Object-Oriented Programming10(7), 44-50.

[2] Lakoff, G. (2008). Women, fire, and dangerous things. University of Chicago press.

[3] Taivalsaari, A. (1996). Classes vs. Prototypes Some Philosophical and Historical Observations. Journal of Object-Oriented Programming10(7), 44-50.

On Janaagraha’s response to FoV’s critique of the ASICS survey

The Hindu had published Fields of View’s critique of the Annual Survey of India’s City Systems (ASICS report) by Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy. We had critiqued the survey at two levels — the methodology used and the broader framing. The critique of the methodology examined the survey design, the questionnaire, and the ranking. The critique of the framing looked at the broader frame the survey subscribed to, that of looking as a ‘city as a service’.

Janaagraha wrote a response to the critique that was recently published in The Hindu. Overall, Janaagraha’s response is more of an iteration of what the ASICS report does (which has already been explained in the report) instead of a substantive argument responding to FoV’s critique. In the post below, we provide our argument as to why that is the case by examining Janaagraha’s response in its entirety. The post is divided into five parts, and every part begins with Janaagraha’s response in italics and our argument follows.

Part 1

“Life in India’s cities is an urban nightmare that we just cannot wake up from. Potholed roads, garbage fires, flooding, traffic congestion, air pollution are daily bugbears that our citizens have been facing for decades, clearly indicating a systemic failure of governance in our cities. Fixing urban governance is key to fixing our cities, and hence the importance of diagnosing and measuring what’s broken in our governance. ASICS aims to do just that. ASICS is an objective evaluation of 23 Indian cities across 20 States on 89 questions, covering 150 parameters, and 3,900 points of investigation. It takes a systemic, data-driven approach towards urban governance. ASICS is a diagnostic tool indicating the health of urban governance systems in a city and therefore, its ability to deliver good quality of life in the medium to long term. The evaluation is based on the ‘City-Systems’ framework consisting of four distinct but inter-related components — spatial planning, municipal capacities (both human and financial), political leadership, and lastly transparency, accountability and participation. ASICS is based on the premise that fixing systems across all these components are critical to city governance.”

The beginning of Janaagraha’s response is about what the ASICS report does; there is no new information, either to clarify the methodology or the framing.

Part 2 

“One of the significant criticisms raised by the authors was that ASICS argues for ‘city as a service’ model. ASICS see quality of life comprising of two distinct but inter-related aspects — ‘quality of urban infrastructure and services’ and ‘quality of citizenship’. Thus ASICS is not about evaluating the relationship between the city and the citizen as one of service provider-client, but rather about the extent of ownership and empowerment of both the city government and the citizens in the running of the city. ASICS evaluates the extent of devolution and empowerment of our Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) and strength of formal institutional platforms, such as ward committees and area sabhas, for citizens to participate and actively engage with their government in line with the provisions of the 74th Constitution Amendment Act (CAA). ASICS looks at parameters such as mayoral tenure, powers of the council over staffing practices, voter turnout in municipal elections, and extent of functional devolution in practice. It examines availability of information on civic services, service levels, financial information, status of public works, revenue collections, spending, etc , all of which would enable citizens to gain a better understanding of the functioning of the ULB and make their engagement more objective and meaningful.”

Janaagraha claims that the ASICS report does not argue for a ‘city as a service’ model, contrary to what FoV’s critique claimed. The evidence Janaagraha offers is that the ASICS report evaluates the quality of citizenship too, and not just quality of infrastructure. There are two aspects to our response:

 

  1. As we mentioned in the critique, when engaging with the primary question of ‘Who is a citizen?’, there is an inherently limited notion of citizenship that the survey espouses. For example, to gauge citizen participation, there are questions on online information access. This question, by its very conception, excludes wide swathes of citizens who do not have access to online resources. Incidentally, even though mobile phone penetration is high in India, smart phone is not. In addition, cities need to contend with multiple literacy-levels, and diverse languages. Even a preliminary engagement with the complexity of citizenship, and the associated challenge for cities would mean the parameters used for evaluation have to be expanded.
  2. Though quality of citizenship is said to be a criteria on which ASICS evaluates cities, the way the criteria is conceived demonstrates that it is still within the ‘city as a service’ frame. Citizen participation does not translate to just providing feedback about services, which is what a customer does. The relationship of a citizen to the city is that of responsibility, of ownership, and of being a guardian and a partner of the city’s future.

Part 3

“ASICS is based on an analysis of relevant laws, policy documents and websites of city & State governments. One may argue about the unfairness of evaluating cities based on the quality of State legislation. But given India’s quasi-federal governance structure, where governance of cities lies in the domain of the State governments, the quality of urban governance is also a commentary on the quality of State legislation. As the report clearly indicates, to deliver good quality of life in urban India, reforms are required across all levels of government — Centre, State and the city government, with the king’s share to be undertaken by the State governments.”

Above is Janaagraha’s response to what the critique has pointed out as the ‘unfairness of evaluating cities based on the quality of State legislation’. Janaagraha agrees that India has a quasi-federal governance structure. Knowing this, we are puzzled as to the rationale for designing a survey that penalises cities for something that is not under their control, by their very admission. It is, again, conceptually unfair and therefore, not well designed.

Here is a snapshot from just one section showing different questions that evaluate the cities, while the power lies with the State.

A snapshot of the issues with questions in ASICS Survey by Janaagraha

Question No. in Evaluation CriteriaQuestionIssue
1Is there a provision for a state spatial planning board which is mandated with planning policies and reforms for the state, and is the final approving authority for regional and municipal SDPs ?TC&P Act is created through a state passed law, therefore, either awarding cities points or docking points from such a score is irrelevant.
2Does the Act require 3 levels of SDPs (master plans) for metropolitan cities: regional, municipal and ward(s) /localTC&P Act is created through a state passed law, therefore, either awarding cities points or docking points from such a score is irrelevant.
2a, 2b, 2c, 3, 3a, 3b, 3c, 4, 5, 6-TC&P Act is created through a state passed law, therefore, either awarding cities points or docking points from such a score is irrelevant.
7a, 7b-Plans are made by the relevant city development authority, to score the ULB (elected city council) on the timeline and validity is irrelevant
8a, 8b, 8c-Whereas 8 looks at a "clear decentralised procedure" for approval of plans, 8a, and 8b go onto scoring the ULB based on the state's actions.
9, 10TC&P Act is created through a state passed law, therefore, either awarding cities points or docking points from such a score is irrelevant.
11Do the SDPs reflect a stated articulation of future vision and development priorities?The stated objective is to look at "objective" parameters, whereas in the evaluation of this question, the ULBs are evaluated on a score of 10 based on if the SDP mentions metrics for the objectives. Also, these plans are created by the respective city development authority/agency.
12Do the SDPs at each level, integrate the plans and priorities of various sectoral public departments and agencies?
14Are there provisions in the act for modifications to notified SDPs?TC&P Act is created through a state passed law, therefore, either awarding cities points or docking points from such a score is irrelevant.
15Has an MPC been constituted?The state constitutes the MPC, why is the ULB being scored on this point? Under Article 243ZE, Constitution of India

The ‘Town and Country Planning Act’ is a law passed by State governments. Hence, using its features as a marker for a city’s governance and functional processes is unfair. It may be argued that documenting and evaluating such absences of this law (or certain features of it) will push cities to negotiate with the state government in order to improve their urban governance. However, this assumes a high level of city-state government synergy, and more importantly, an inherent value in strengthening the law. When a city such as Bangalore, which receives high focus from the state government, has been unable to push changes to the state law to improve its urban planning or governance, it would be a monumental task for other cities, which include non-capital cities, to press for the same. Further, Town and Country Planning Acts have mostly enabled urban planning to take place in a top-down approach through city development authorities in direct contravention of the spirit of the 74th Amendment to the Constitution.

Part 4

“As the authors have rightly pointed out, lack of capacities in urban local bodies is a huge hurdle which affects institutional aspects such as maintenance of accounts, budget preparation, audits, and aspects of service delivery such as approval of building plans, environment protection, road design etc. ASICS believes in fixing the City-Systems and identifies that gaps in financial and human capacity is a significant handicap in the ability of ULBs to deliver better quality of life to citizens in a sustainable manner. The author’s assertion that the ASICS report recommends outsourcing of many functions of the ULB appears to be a misreading of the recommendations. Firstly, ASICS suggests exploring options such as ‘outsourcing’ only in functions such as revenue collection where the lack of adequate number of field staff has severely impacted the ability of the ULBs to collect their dues. States like Jharkhand have demonstrated that engaging professional agencies through a transparent tendering process can help ULBs to plug the personnel gaps due to significant vacancies in Accounts and Revenue departments. States and ULBs must explore a gamut of options such as building a professional Municipal Cadre, facilitating lateral hires, to address the debilitating levels of vacancies in key departments.”

 At the outset, we wish to state that we are in full agreement that personnel gaps, and skill-based gaps have to be filled.

We argue it is not a misreading when our critique states that ‘ASICS report recommends outsourcing of many functions of the ULB’. In the recommendations section of the ASICS report (page 17 & 18 at http://janaagraha.org/asics/report/ASICS-report-2017-fin.pdf), “outsourcing” is mentioned five times as potential ways to fix the problem under ‘Urban Capacities & Resources’. One could argue that it is ‘only’ five out of seventeen recommendations, and therefore not the primary motive. Unfortunately, as researchers we do place these five recommendations in perspective with the other recommendations and the survey questions. A few questions that arise are, are these recommendations only possible because of this ‘objective’ survey or have these recommendations been made in the past (10, 20 or 30 years) by other groups without the benefit of such an ‘objective’ study? Are the other recommendations feasible and under what conditions? If these recommendations are implemented and the status quo does not change? Would the fall back then be to ‘outsource’?

In the spirit of debate and engagement, it is wonderful when a response leads to further questions just as it is futile if the state of debate does not progress.

Image 1 – A screenshot of the recommendations in the ASICS report, with all the recommendations to outsource highlighted.

Part 5

“The authors have evocatively questioned the choice of benchmark cities in the survey — London, New York and Johannesburg. The benchmark cities were chosen to evaluate the institutional and governance mechanisms within a democratic framework which enabled these cities to provide the high standards of services and infrastructure to be recognised as global hubs of opportunity and talent. Cities are economic growth drivers, innovation hubs, job creators and providers of social, cultural and educational opportunities. It is undisputable that New York and London are melting pots of culture and diversity and global engines of economic growth and prosperity. These are qualities that most cities aspire to have, and these cities are desired destination to live, work and play because of the underlying strong institutions, policies and processes by which they are governed. ASICS is not about pushing Indian cities to become a London or New York, rather it suggests looking at these cities and seeing what Indian cities can learn from them. ASICS underscores the importance of systemic approach to solving urban India’s challenges and recommends that all of us must collectively do what is necessary to strengthen our ULBs as institutions, and the systems and processes of their governance.”

Janaagraha’s response still does not provide any reasoning as to why “looking at these cities” (these cities being London, New York, and Johannesberg) to learn from them is more useful than looking at any other city – Buenos Aires, or Beijing. The reason we questioned this choice of the three cities as any form of benchmark continues to be the following:

“For instance, in Mercer’s Quality of Living Ranking of 2017, London is nowhere in the first 10 or even 20; its ranking is 40. In The Economist’s World’s Most Liveable cities, both London and New York are not in the top 10. The recent edition of the UN Habitat’s biannual ‘State of World Cities’ report says that ‘the most unequal cities in the region, and probably the world, are in South Africa’. If it is not about quality of life, what do London, New York, and Johannesburg stand for?”

The response from Janaagraha is: “It is undisputable that New York and London are melting pots of culture and diversity and global engines of economic growth and prosperity.” (emphasis ours)

For starters, this claim has been disputed by Mercer’s, by The Econonmist and by UN Habitat. Moreover, as we argued in our critique, the budgetary inflows for Indian cities are limited as property tax is the only major source of revenue. Not only is this not true for London and New York, the budgetary and regulatory environment is also completely different. Consider this snapshot of London[1], New York[2], Mumbai[3], and Bangalore[4]:

Comparison of London, New York, Mumbai and Bangalore

ItemLondonNYCMumbaiBangalore
Population8.79 million (2016)8.55 million (2016)21.3 million (2016)11.5 million (2016)
Number employed by city council369,942(estd.)327,793 (2012)104000 (2017)18000 (2017)
Avg annual budget(last 3 years) US$31.5 billion (FY2014-2017)US$78.13 billion (FY2015-2018)US$4.9 billion (FY2015-2018)US$0.97 billion (FY2015-2018)
Sources of revenueRing-fenced education grants, Settlement funding assessment, council taxes, special and specific grants, HRAs, capital grants and receiptsBusiness taxes, capital IFA (Inter-fund agreements), Disallowance of Categorical Grants, Federal Categorical Grants, Miscellaneous Revenues, Other Categorical Grants, Other Taxes, Personal Income Tax,Real Property Tax, Sales Tax, State Categorical Grants, Unrestricted inter-governmental aidOctroi taxes and duty, property tax, various receipts, interests, grants, supervision charges, service charges, development chargesFees, fines, service charges, cesses, property taxes, recoveries, statutory deductions, GoI grants, GoK grants, interests
Avg exp on IT(LAST 3 YEARS) US$47.22 millionUS$515.4 millionUS$46 millionUS$160 million
Per capita (city council) employed0.042086689420.038338362570.0048826291080.001565217391
Per capita (city council) budget3583.6177479138.011696230.046948484.34782609

 

 

 

[1] http://ukpopulation2016.com/population-of-london-in-2016.htmlhttps://www1.nyc.gov/site/planning/data-maps/nyc-population/current-future-populations.pagehttps://data.cityofnewyork.us/City-Government/Expense-All-Funds/am45-6syqhttp://www.nyc.gov/html/dcas/downloads/pdf/misc/workforce_profile_report_12_30_2013.pdf, https://www.london.gov.uk/sites/default/files/gla_migrate_files_destination/2015-16MayorsCapitalSpendingPlan.pdfhttps://www.london.gov.uk/sites/default/files/gla_migrate_files_destination/2015-16%20Final%20Budget.pdfhttp://www.londoncouncils.gov.uk/sites/default/files/images/londoncouncils/LGFrevenuefundingfinallargge.JPG, http://www.londoncouncils.gov.uk/node/4929http://www.londoncouncils.gov.uk/sites/default/files/Policy%20themes/Local%20government%20finance/Total_Funding_15-16_01_0.jpg.

[2] ibid

[3]https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/bengaluru/citizen-services-likely-to-be-hit-as-bbmp-employees-set-to-protest-on-monday/articleshow/62973932.cms, http://bbmp.gov.in/documents/10180/2746234/Final+BBMP+Budget+Book+Revised+9-6-2017+-+Copy.pdf/377be30a-60e8-46de-89d8-6c4c67da8b53http://des.kar.nic.in/docs/Projected%20Population%202012-2021.pdfhttp://bbmp.gov.in/budgets.

[4]http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-41464636http://www.mcgm.gov.in/irj/go/km/docs/documents/MCGM%20Department%20List/Chief%20Accountant%20(Finance)/Budget/Budget%20Estimate%202017-2018/1.%20MC’s%20Speech/Budget%20A%2CB%2CG/ENGLISH%20SPEECH.pdfhttp://www.mcgm.gov.in/irj/go/km/docs/documents/MCGM%20Department%20List/Chief%20Accountant%20(Finance)/Budget/Budget%20Estimate%202015-2016/1.M.C’s%20Speech/English%20Speech%20Budget%20A,B,G.pdf.

[5] Appadurai, A. (1993). Number in the colonial imagination.

Dissident data – The Subject Matter(s) – Part 1

Quick note from FoV:

Fields of View is thrilled to host ‘Dissident Data’ a new blog series by Dr. Niveditha Menon, who is a senior research advisor at the Centre for Budget and Policy Studies. Here is the Part 1 of the second post. You can read the first post here

When I was in the field collecting data for my dissertation on domestic violence, my advisor, Mike, recommended that I write about my experiences every day. I was not very disciplined, so I would only do them every week. These were not technically field notes, but my own reflections on what I was experiencing when I was in the field. I decided to make them into letters that I sent every week to people who were interested in hearing from me. This is an entry:

I know I have glorified the process of data collection in previous letters. But it can be really hard… I sometimes get so angry I don’t know what to do with myself. The anger is fine.  But after a while, I feel myself getting a little cynical about the lives of the women I encounter. I remember feeling shocked at my own reaction in one interview when one woman (whose husband was not beating her) said that she was very happy with her husband. A voice in me said – yeah well, how long is that going to last? I realized immediately that I can’t think about the world that way, or I am not going to be a very happy person.  

I recently interviewed a woman whose story made me mad during the interview. I wanted to shout, scream, do something for this woman and do something to her mother-in-law. Usually, this anger hits me after I have finished with the interview and usually, I try and control myself when I am interviewing. But during this interview, I felt like screaming obscenities at the world and I don’t even know any good ones. Well, it passes. It always does.

What I didn’t realise then and am able to see so clearly now is that it doesn’t always pass. It stays, much longer than it should. These emotions of anger and helplessness were the first formative lessons in data collection that I learnt in the field, and in various forms, they have stayed with me ever since. These are the stories and lessons that I still go back to when I have to understand anything about oppression or violence, and about how the world is not tilted along the right axis for many people.

I brought these feelings to bear, to some degree, in my writing. When I wrote my case notes, I would bring a mental picture of the women I had been interviewing. By concentrating on her face, I would try to remember what she said and how she said it. Sometimes, this made the writing process very hard, because I would remember their faces flicker with emotions that I couldn’t even begin to name. I would remember the shuttering down of something dark and lightening up of something joyful. Somewhere in the middle was a story that I probably did not do justice to. And that feeling of impotence has survived all these years . . . that I could listen more, that if I could talk more, that if could do more, then it would all be better.

I remember thinking (with all of my feelings of inadequacy, cynicism, and anger) that the research that I was doing could not even begin to address the level of structural inequalities that I was seeing and recording. No amount of empathetic writing or theoretical understanding could take away the pain and hurt that the women I was interviewing were experiencing. It started to feel as though all of research is pointless, and the role of the researcher, even more so.

At the time, the very wise Mike told me – I can’t dwell on what isn’t, or I can never do anything with what is. I must admit, I didn’t quite understand it at the time. I was so lost in my own self-flagellation and my own navel-gazing that I didn’t get it. It was only years since that I understood that he was trying to tell me (at least) two things. First, the pain and anger I was feeling was an abstract one. It was on behalf of someone else and something else. It cannot be made mine, even if I tried. So, it had to be channelled into a more productive arena; it can be channelled into more empathy, for instance. Second, the feelings of frustration and impotence that I was experiencing are not the same as being self-reflective. These feelings of impotent guilt cannot (or perhaps, should not) be used to punish myself. It has to be channelled outward into asking questions of possibilities – What can be done? How do I do what I do best to make it better? How do I contribute? What can I change?

Over the years since that advice was given to me, what I have learnt is that these emotions that we take to and take from the field act as anchors. They make us empathetic, they make us accountable, and they make us human. Our knowledge of the complexities behind simple statements (of fact) comes from these complicated feelings we have towards and about those who have shared their lives (and data) with us. Any knowledge (or data) that we have derived from these interactions are, thus, almost always tinged with this emotional content. And this is really what I remember when I remember the lessons that I have learned in the field. So, no, these complicated feelings do not always pass. Perhaps, they shouldn’t.

Dissident Data – a new blog series

Quick note from FoV:

Fields of View is thrilled to host ‘Dissident Data’ a new blog series by Dr. Niveditha Menon, who is a senior research advisor at the Centre for Budget and Policy Studies. It is an idea that has been brewing awhile, and without much more ado, here it is, Niveditha’s first post introducing the series.

A long time ago, when I was working in an interdisciplinary lab, we organised a workshop to showcase our work. To prepare for the workshop, I was to give a colleague a brief description of the project that I was working on at that time. I handed her a five-page document describing everything about the project. We had just started working together, so she found it prudent to keep her shock and dismay to herself. Later, when the workshop was over, we had a chat about how useless it was to give her a five-page document for an infographic that she was trying to create. What I needed to give her, she said, was a story. I replied – but I don’t know how to tell stories. She said that that’s what I have been doing any way — my research is a story about data.

Those of us who are researchers (and some of us who are not) have to contend with various forms of data. If I may be permitted to generalise, the quantitative amongst us typically think of numbers and figures and graphs when we think of data, and the qualitative think through narratives and themes. But underneath it all, what we are trying to convey is a story that we see in our data that we think is important to understand our world better. This blog series is about unpacking the story that is hidden in our data, be it the trials and tribulations of contradictions within our data, or the euphoria of finding something unexpected.

I come from a qualitative feminist sociological tradition, so I work with a particular framework of feminist and anthropological methodologies that does not treat data as abstract. For me, all data – whether quantitative or qualitative – are relational and are produced by the specific socio-cultural and economic contexts in which the questions are framed and the researcher is located.

My advisor once told me that data doesn’t speak. It is not an animate object to have its own language. It exists because I have caused it to exist. It is a thing shaped by me, and can speak to only that which I see or which I allow others to see. It is moulded by the nature of my questions and the tonal voice in which I have asked these questions. Many researchers do not subscribe to this contention. Yet, I am sure that they also have had to confront the fundamental questions around the nature of data: How is data produced? What are the rules related to data collection? What kind of data is necessary to make an argument? What is to be done when data misbehaves?

Of course, there are tomes written by researchers of all disciplines trying to answer these questions. We simply have to google ‘epistemology’ to engage with any of these authors. This blog series will not revisit these themes and debates, although it will heavily draw upon them. Instead, this data blog series will engage with the relationship between the production of data and the presentation of it. It is about the personal journey that researchers take with our data in our quest for a better understanding of the world and how it works.

The rationale for documenting such a process is two-fold: (1) to lay bare the difficult decisions, dilemmas, and contradictions of data that we all encounter in our working and daily lives, and (2) to engage with the fundamental role that researchers and non-researchers have in the process of producing, analysing, and representing data. It is, in some ways, a space to engage with the myriad ways we submit to the authority of data, and to self-reflect on the implications of this submission.

This tentative mandate, however, is subject to change, as the series evolves. But for the next few blogs, authors, broadly defined as those who are producers and conveyers of data, will be drawing from their own to tell a story of their relationship with data.

Fields of View and IWI

In order to demonstrate the components and capabilities of the Inclusive Wealth Index (IWI), Fields of View is planning on using it in a game as a policy design exercise. This computer supported game will simulate different scenarios, and will enable physical interaction among the participants. The game looks at different aspects of the IWI: interconnectedness of parameters, relating qualitative and quantitative parameters, different indices, and possibilities of change for the future.

The target audience of the game are undergraduate students of economics and sustainability studies, in addition to policy-makers. It is assumed that the participants understand the mechanism of national budgets, and can perform basic mathematical operations.

This game has been designed to complement traditional teaching methods. The learning objectives of the game are as follows:

  • Understanding the components that are used to calculate the IWI, and how it compares other development indices such as GDP, HDI, etc
  • Learning how changes in national policies can alter different indices, and what advantages the IWI offers in understanding these changes
  • Encouraging players to develop a futures orientation, and apply the same to shape real-life sustainable economic policies

In this case, the players will be asked to prepare a national budget for a given country—using their judgment based on the national indices (IWI, GDP, etc.) they’re given. Based on these standard development indicators, the players will determine a fiscal budget plan and basic monetary policy.

The game is divided into a briefing, gameplay, and debrief session. In the briefing session, participants will be given a survey to determine their decision-making preferences—which will give them some information about the socio-political context of that country. As part of the gameplay session, the players set national targets (ex. levels of employment, sustainability, poverty levels), and use preferred strategies to achieve them. The game proceeds in multiple rounds, wherein each round simulates one year of operation. The country’s economic prosperity (after each round) will then be published to the participants, and will be calculated using indicators like GDP, HDI, and IWI. Finally, the debrief session looks at the advantages and disadvantages of using different development indicators, and examines the ability of the IWI to reflect upon a country’s economic health.

The system dynamic model of the game can also be used as an interactive way of engaging players with the IWI. For example, an online interactive visualization could be developed for policymakers and students to see the effects of different policies on the future economy. The inputs and interventions will be based on data from the Inclusive Wealth Reports, and from information generated by the game.

Eventually, the IWI could become a more appropriate and comprehensive indicator than GDP or HDI to measure the sustainable development of an economy. But we have realized that this requires serious involvement of different types of audience, such as students, policymakers, politicians, educators, economists, and other such groups.

To draw audiences from different backgrounds to understand the IWI and explore the implications of planning with IWI, we are in the process of building a game called Levers of Change. All the players will be responsible for a country’s well-being, and will plan for investing in different forms of capital, such as the human, natural, and produced capital. Players should be able to balance their economic growth with sustainable development to achieve sustainable goals. The game will challenge players to plan accordingly to ensure global sustainability.

The game design process relies on the functions and indicators in the IWR 2014 report. IWI accounts the wealth of all major socio-economic and environmental parameters and is represented as an index through incorporating several complex statistical models and mathematical formulas. We are triangulating data of quantity and price of produced crops, permanent cropland and pastureland from Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) to calculate wealth of agricultural land. Similarly, we triangulated statistics on forest area, and stock of timber for all listed countries from FAO. We are also validating data on production, and reserves of oil, coal, and natural gas from US Energy Information administration to calculate the wealth of fossil fuels. We apply the similar procedure for the data on production, reserve, and price of all minerals from US Geological Survey to measure the wealth of minerals.

The most interesting part of the study is to calculate wealth of natural capital. Mathematical functions to calculate the wealth of different natural resources involve multiple numbers of independent variables, such as quantities or natural stock of resources, real prices, and rental prices. The major challenges in calculating natural capital are to identify all independent variables for the model and to validate units of all variables.

Joint Road Forward – a new project

It is well known that in the immediate future, cities will continue to see growth across any of the given parameters: size, demographics, pollution, economy, etc. With this future scenario and with the advent of more data collection, we wanted to look at tools and methods that would be more inclusive of people during the urban planning stage.

It is in this context that we recently started a new project to look at the issue of mobility in cities. The project is a collaboration with International Institute of Information Technology, Bangalore , TU Delft, The Netherlands and KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden, focused on mobility in Indian and European cities. For this study we have selected Bangalore and the Randstad region in The Netherlands.

In this project we wanted to take a broader view of mobility and study how it is connected with the overall city in terms of livelihoods, commerce, livability and well-being. We plan to review the capability of current planning methods to incorporate the broader definition of mobility, and, to design new tools and methodologies to improve upon them.  

We are in the initial stages of our work which began a few months ago with a discussion on transport planning. We started studying the data from transport surveys. Transport is a key activity for livelihood (irrespective of location) in a city and often is an inevitable part of our expenditure when our work and home are located further away. This allows us to look at current approaches to transport planning.

Here I have to mention the that we stand on the shoulder of giants, i.e., transport planning already has a number of approaches to model travel in a city. One can look at speed (read: travel time), cost, comfort (or quality of service), etc. while designing transport infrastructure for a city. We are currently in the process of reviewing current planning methodologies.

We find that transport surveys indicated that there are groups of people who get excluded during transportation planning. Studying all the commuters allows us to create an inclusive map of travel demand across Bangalore. We will soon publish some of our methods and initial data. We have published an article on an approach to modelling people and their transport needs at APCOSEC’16 scheduled to be held in Bangalore in November 2016. A pre-publication copy and our presentation which are being prepared will be available on our website soon.

What articles did people read on Bangalore’s lakes foaming?

As part of Fields of View’s Research in Play series, we had invited citizens to become researchers for a week and pursue the question – ‘why are Bengaluru’s lakes foaming?’

We had three researchers — Angshuman Das from IIIT-B, Soundarajan R from APU, and Karthik Natarajan, an independent designer and architect join us.

First, the team undertook desk research and went through different news and journal articles on Bangalore’s lakes. Following is a guest post analysing how many people read what articles based on Facebook and Twitter data.

Authors of the post below: Angshuman Das, IIIT-B, Soundarajan, APU

Graph 1: Including the citylabs article.

Graph 2: Excluding the Citylabs article.

Top 3 articles read as per above data:

*http://www.citylab.com/weather/2015/10/an-indian-city-is-getting-inundated-by-creeping-toxic-foam/409468/

In this article, problems faced by the pedestrians and cars due to heavy foaming like traffic jams, foul smell, skin problems were presented. It mentioned that cleaning of the lakes would be a very difficult task as there was a lot of pollution in that area. The article also blamed the corrupted Government officials for not taking sufficient measures to prevent frothing. Documentary photographer Mr. Ghosh presented some clear photographs of froth formed in the Bellandur Lake.

http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/bengaluru/Dirty-foam-bubbles-out-of-Varthur-Lake/articleshow/47091168.cms

In this article, views of the local residents regarding the frothing of Varthur and Bellandur Lake were present. A member of citizen action group, Whitefield spoke about the unbearable stench in that region due to foaming. Some residents consider encroachments in and around lakes as the main cause for pollution of the Lake. Most of the residents also blamed the BWSSB for releasing untreated sewage in the Lakes .It also briefly mentioned about poor quality of Lake water (presence of high quantity of ammonia and phosphate, low dissolved oxygen).

       3. http://www.ndtv.com/bangalore-news/toxic-foam-overflows-from-bengalurus-varthur-lake-759273

In this article, views of angry local residents living near Varthur Lake were present. Residents spoke about the filthy quality of Lake water, presence of urine and faecal matter ,high levels of toxicity in the Lake water. Professor TV Ramachandra from IISc Bangalore is worried about the increasing pollution in the Lake, presence of untreated sewage, carcinogenic nitrates which are causing the froth. While most of the residents blamed the Govt. officials for being negligent, the state’s Pollution Control chairperson Dr.Acharya replied that more sewage plants would be constructed across the city to prevent disposal of untreated sewage into the Lakes. 

For more information regarding the reasons for frothing of lakes, constituents of Bellandur Lake water and case study of Bellandur Lake over a period of 10 years, you can refer to these research papers:

http://www.ijirset.com/upload/2014/march/67_Assessment.pdf

http://wgbis.ces.iisc.ernet.in/energy/water/paper/bellandur_wastewater.pdf

http://www.moef.nic.in/sites/default/files/nlcp/P%20-%20World%20Case%20Studies/P-50.pdf

Smart Cities and the Internet of Things

Since 2008 the urban population has been rapidly outgrowing the rural population; huge numbers of people migrate to the cities for a variety of different reasons (economic, environmental and health), even in developing countries the majority of people are expected to be living in cities by 2017.

This means two things – more stress on the environment in already crowded natural resource draining areas and far less individuals living in rural spaces. With more and more agricultural workers moving to the cities, farming areas are quickly being taken over by large companies and mechanized. This has a knock on effect environmentally and also socially as farming on a large scale requires carbon emitting equipment and the corporations leading this do not have the local peoples’ interest in mind – or even the consumer’s. Organic farming is quickly being phased out in favour of mass scale agriculture.

Whilst from a GDP perspective this is seen as beneficial especially for developing economies, this does not represent the full impact on human and natural capital. How can we more intelligently measure this impact on environmental and social sustainability?

With over 30 billion sensor enabled objects being connected to networks by 2020 and a huge amount of sensors already available, the impact of economic disparity and environmental damage can be measured across a number of different metrics. The key factor is being able to turn large amounts of data into something meaningful, take insights from it and find a point to target; collecting and aggregating data is unfruitful unless change is found. Being able to quantify data that was not even possible to collect before allows the bridging of the gap between the physical world and computer based systems – creating the possibility of new initiatives which otherwise wouldn’t have been possible to imagine. The real challenge is finding what data to measure, how to combine it and what insights/meaningful data can be derived from these aggregations.

This is especially important for inorganically growing cities like Bangalore. The definition of a Smart City is ambiguous; whilst it relates to technology the idea of automated traffic lights and timed sprinklers does not make a city ‘Smart’. It more importantly describes how a city can engage its citizens to enhance public resources and maximising its potential in a sustainable fashion.

These old bones will never lie. Will they?

Imagine you are standing at the excavated gravesite of an ancient warrior. The grave is filled with spears, bows, and other weapons, proud possessions of the warrior and the skeletal remains. Close your eyes and imagine this Viking warrior.

Now tell me – did you think of a man or a woman?

Till about a few decades ago, if you had asked most archaeologists, they would have said, mmm, a man. For the hunter-gatherer is a man, the woman stays at home, gives birth, minds the chickens, and does other things that history isn’t particularly concerned with. Not only those archaeologists’ point of view is patriarchal, but they also did not have access to the secrets bones can tell, if only you know what to look for.

On the other hand, if you are trained in understanding bones and are critical of making unsubstantiated assumptions about gender, then you may look at the grave, examine the skeleton, and surmise on the basis of available evidence that it could be a woman. Akshay Sarathi, a graduate student of anthropology (archaeology) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is one of those who is trained in and practises this new way of seeing. In his talk ‘Archaeology of gender’ organized by the Center for Budget and Policy Studies (CBPS) on Tuesday September 01, 2015, he spoke about new methods of decoding fragments from the past and the dangers of preconceived assumptions and gender biases colouring many a finding.

Citing different examples, Sarathi explained the difficulties in assigning gender and gender-based reasoning purely on archaeological evidence. For instance, if there is a site that shows shell-fish catching in a historic era, do we assume that men did the fishing? Or women? If there are three skeletons, where the man’s hand is on the woman’s groin, what do you make of it? Your guess is as good as mine, he said.

On the other hand, there are instances where there are texts and other sources that provide insights on the basis of which interpretations can be made. He cited the example of the Ishtar, who he described as a ‘transgressive’ goddess. There are multiple copies of a text that has survived, of Ishtar’s journey to hell and back. Such textual sources and other material help in interpreting available archaeological evidence, but it isn’t always the case that you would find such supporting evidence for theories.

Queen_of_the_Night_(Babylon) (1)

(By Hispalois (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Sarathi spoke about how the study of bones gives additional insights, previously not accessible to archaeologists who were not trained in that area. He cited the example of a mass burial of women, considered to be ‘virgin sacrifices’, but on examining the bones, you find that all the women show signs of having given birth, a pitting observed in their pelvic bones, which would have had to bear the stress of childbirth, debunking the ‘virgin’ theory.

But it is not that you can exactly tell whether the person was a male or a female by studying the bones, because that understanding is supported by statistics, available data, and interpretations, all of which can only provide a tentative understanding in many cases.

Sarathi’s talk touched upon that tentativeness in understanding history, which is usually obfuscated in certain ‘definitive’ versions of history. There is a pressure to sound certain, even if the evidence available can only give you a tentative hold on possible interpretations. Self-reflexivity was another theme, being able to critically examine your own biases and prejudices constantly, something everyone, be it in the sciences or social sciences, needs to practice. The tentativeness and self-reflexivity go hand in hand.

I was struck by how similar the situation is in the media, be it news media or popular media. There is a pressure to sound certain, provide ‘definitive’ accounts, and trade in certitudes, even though you know you only have a tentative understanding. Self-reflexivity is mandatory, but it is hard to put into practice. Where does this pressure for sounding certain come from? Is it because it is easier to work with simple narratives, rather than ones filled with ifs and buts? Or is it because a simple narrative is the one most suited for maximum control?

Overall, the talk was funny, thought-provoking, and accessible, even to someone with no formal training in either archaeology or gender. Now am off to figure out how I can get my hands on ‘Breaking and Entering the Ecosystem – gender, class, and faction steal the show’ by Elizabeth Brumifel, something Sarathi said was a must-read to understand this new way of seeing, even though, he sighed, the author has a few archaic ideas about women and weaving.

A human centric look at electricity consumption and design towards a “Smart Campus”

It was almost a year ago when we concluded a project named “The Smart Campus Simulation Tool”. We are looking to release the simulation tool to open source. In this post, we wanted to explore the problem context which informed our design.

To us a Smart Campus represented a socio-technical system that would be “malleable” enough for us to achieve our objectives. We approached it to be a socio-technical system, the technology (the adaptive sensor based control system) has to work with the social context of an academic institute. At the end of the day, people have to accept and be willing to make changes to their lifestyles.

We wanted to look at the issue of electricity consumption for the IIIT-Bangalore. The institute had invested in a fair amount of energy saving equipment such as solar panels and more efficient water heating systems. But, they were not clear about the eventual savings in energy, the electricity consumption patterns or if there was a strategy to reduce the overall consumption in the campus.

An overview of campus simulation model.
An overview of campus simulation model.

Consumption of electricity is a difficult notion to comprehend and convey. For example, when a switch is thrown, does one wonder where the electricity is generated from? It may so happen that a forest is being cleared in Chattisgarh so that you may be able to spend an extra hour on Xbox. Furthermore, we have an inherent expectation (if you grow up with some privilege,) that electricity “has” to flow if a switch is turned on. People who have no access to electricity are vulnerable in many ways to the extent that their social mobility may suffer due to lack of electricity. People who have intermittent access or pay huge bills are also cautions about consumption. Nevertheless, we seldom question the source of generation. 

Causal relationships like the one above between your consumption and environmental degradation are common and are uncomfortable (but true). Such examples try to guilt you into changing your consumption behaviour. However, it is not an easy to make lifestyle changes nor is it easy to ponder on the utility before doing everyday mundane tasks. Responsible use of electricity requires changes to behavioural and cultural practices as well as upgrades to the technical systems around us. Looking at both social and technological aspects was the cornerstone of our approach. 

We tried to look at the campus as a location which enables different people to achieve their academic goals. People in the campus perform various activities that allow them to achieve this goal. We looked at activities that consumed electricity. We then developed a simulation tool that assumed the use of sensor -based control and behavioural modification to try and check if a technology-assisted behavioural change was possible. The results of the simulation would be the base to design a serious game. The game in conjunction with sensor-based control systems would address both social and technological aspects of the issue.

Our simulation mainly consists of:

  1. a model for generating activities (explanation for what this activity means below) for various actors present on the campus,
  2. an agent based model for minimising electricity usage while keeping the comfort level of individuals at an acceptable level.

We define an activity as any action that an individual takes during the course of one’s day in the campus. A good way to model an activity is to collect detailed information using “energy dairies”. As a small academic institute, the campus had limited types of actors. We therefore chose to use a survey-based approach to collect information on daily routines. We conducted a survey to understand various daily routines for all the individuals on the campus. We also conducted interviews with some of the administrative and housekeeping staff.  We used this information to create a model for the generation of activities for various actors on the campus.

The smart campus simulation setup.
The smart campus simulation setup.

To model the “smart” systems of the campus, we created a control mechanism based on autonomous agents trying to collectively bring down the electricity consumption of the campus while keeping track of inhabitant’s comfort levels. We modelled the rooms and work areas as the autonomous agents. Each such agent was responsible for the operation of various devices that would consume electricity. It was then tasked with the objectives of minimising usage of certain devices by:

  1. negotiating the electricity consumption with other rooms (agents).
  2. Directing uses to use more common areas.
  3. Restricting when possible, the use of high power consumption devices such as air-conditioners and elevators.

In all of the above cases the it is assumed that the individual can override the agents, thus, keeping the human at the centre of the system.  (This also allows us to collect information on what sort of activities will not be compromised in the name of energy savings. ) However, a denial from the system to allow the operation of devices resulted in a decrease in the satisfaction of the inhabitants. The agents were asked to minimise the use of electricity with as little discomfort as possible for the inhabitants.

Once the models were ready we created a simulation tool and calibrated it based on the data collected by the campus for over a year on a daily basis. We could then play out scenarios such as:

  • What happens when we want to aggressively minimise consumption
  • or, what happens when the comfort for the inhabitant is paramount and
  • finally, what happens when we set a electricity consumption target for ourselves?
Calibration of the simulation, Real Data: Red, Simulated Data: Blue
Calibration of the simulation, Real Data: Red, Simulated Data: Blue

 

Results from using a aggressive savings scenario.
Results from using an aggressive savings scenario

 

Results from allowing a maximum savings scenario.
Results from allowing a maximum savings scenario
Results from using a popular choice for devices, scenario.
Results from using a popular choice for devices, scenario

It was very interesting for us to see the results and present it to the inhabitants of the campus. We are now trying to work with students to create and deploy the sensor systems at the campus. We see a potential for extending this tool to include larger spatial/network levels such as a neighbourhood or a set of neighbourhoods as opposed to a campus. We are also looking at including multiple sources of electricity, given that decentralised power and micro-grids can become popular. Furthermore, we are also exploring the possibility to include other resources such as water consumption and sewage as well into the analysis. For a more detailed description to the tool and to some other people doing similar work please refer to our paper “Krishna, Harsha, Onkar Hoysala, Krishna G. Murali, Bharath M. Palavalli, and Eswaran Subrahmanian. “Modelling technology, policy and behaviour to manage electricity consumption.” In Humanitarian Technology Conference (R10-HTC), 2014 IEEE Region 10, pp. 40-45. IEEE, 2014.”. We hope to produce and publish more results soon. In the meantime please free to check our tool at:The Smart Campus Simulation Tool