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Communications, Uncategorized

If you’ve ever felt disadvantaged by imperfect knowledge of the events that shaped the second half of the twentieth century; ever been party to a conversation where people of a certain age make knowing reference to mysterious characters and events like the Blake spy case, Profumo, or Keeler; or your shaky grasp of recent history and literature has ever been exposed. Don’t worry, it happens to us all! Right now, earnest pundits who’ve never even cracked the spine of 1984 are referencing doublethink, newspeak, and the Ministry of Truth, in support of their opinions about fake news!  But all is not lost. Here is your chance – through one man’s career – to join up the dots of modern social history.
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 Client Earth are activist lawyers committed to securing a healthy planet: using environmental law to protect oceans, forests, and other habitats as well as all people. A new book which tells the successful story of Client Earth over the last decade since it was founded, was launched in May. Written by founder and CEO, James Thornton and his husband Martin Goodman, the book charts the journey of the non-profit environmental law group from inception to the present day.   Just before the recent election, and following a legal challenge by Client Earth, the UK government was ordered by the High Court to produce new improved plans to show how it is going to comply with legal limits of air pollution in the shortest time possible. This is but one of their successes in holding legislators to account.  But also a perfect example of their approach. So, as a Trustee of an environmental charity, you can imagine my sense of anticipation at its publication. And the book does indeed chart the rise of public interest environmental lawyers in the USA since the 1980s, and makes valuable points about NGOs and the law.   Cutting his teeth on the ‘Save the Bay’ campaign, focussed on eliminating the run off of agricultural pesticides and fertilisers in 1983, and moving on to the dumping of heavy metals and chemicals in watercourses by Bethlehem Steel in 1984, some of James Thornton’s early successes concentrated on pollution of rivers and seas. Since then his, and his team’s, work has widened in scope, and its geographical boundaries. In 2007 he moved to England, qualified in British law, and established his first European office. This was shortly followed by offices in Poland, Brussels, Africa, and most recently China. Where he is working with the government to draft law and train lawyers.   The American passages are perhaps the best in the book. But, at risk of being accused of a bad case of ‘not invented here’, the move to Europe comes with the bold assertion that environmental law didn’t exist in the UK until Client Earth’s arrival. Thornton is absolutely right to say that environmentalists must create a new vision for their efforts. Presenting logical, but doom laden, arguments about the future of the Earth does not work for many citizens. Just as the referendum result in the UK and the election of Donald Trump in the US have both defied logical explanation so, Thornton and Goodman contend, we must correspondingly construct a new ‘brand’ for environmentalism based on hope. Along with this goes the acceptance that, having passed through the historical stages of agricultural then industrial civilisation, we are now entering a new epoch of ecological civilisation.   Personally, I largely agree with the authors’ assertion that enforcement of the law is one solution. I can also empathise with their view – based on my own experience – that some campaigning NGOs see their role as exposing problems. Not in fashioning the solutions. I am also firmly of the belief that it is naïve to believe that something – the ‘techno utopian card’ – will turn up to save us. So the thrust of the book is not at issue.  
Where I have a problem is with the book’s style and execution. Alternating chapters between two different authors leads to a disjointed and repetitive reading experience. Thornton’s chapters are clear, concise, and brief. Goodman’s are rambling, plagued by extraneous quoted dialogue, and gushing in their admiration of Thornton.
  Jonathan Porritt’s flyleaf endorsement may be correct in saying that ‘more important still are the vision, values, and gritty dedication of an amazing group of lawyers’, but I can’t escape the feeling that this book has something of the Hollywood movie about it. So, can our plucky heroes defeat the forces of evil?!   Published by Scribe Publications 2017 ( UK edition 978 1911 344 087  ©2017 M J Hoare

Is it All Over for Cash?   I make contactless payments just like anybody else, and it always alarms me to hear the person next in line decline their receipt. How on earth do they keep a tally of their spending, stop going overdrawn, and incurring bank charges? Maybe they are so spectacularly wealthy that it’s irrelevant, or they always run an overdraft, or maybe they just don’t care.   New figures from the British Retail Consortium suggest that, 10 years after their introduction in the UK, contactless payment cards have finally won over the British public. They now account for about a third of all card purchases, up from 10% as recently at October 2015. And, for the first time, notes and coins have been evicted from their position as the UK’s number one payment method.   Cards now account for more than half of all retail purchases, according to the BRC. And, in its latest annual payments survey, it claimed that debit, credit and charge cards had “firmly established their place as the dominant payment method in retail”, and were “increasingly displacing cash for lower-value payments”.   So, some adherents to the new doctrine are suggesting that this is the tipping point that signals the beginning of the end for cash? But wait. Cards have accounted for the majority of retail spending by value for years, but 2016 was the first year they also accounted for more than 50% of all transactions. It is also the first time that debit cards have overtaken cash. They now account for 42.6% of all transactions, putting them a fraction ahead of notes and coins, which fell almost five percentage points to 42.3%.   Contactless cards were introduced in the UK in 2007, and were slow to take off; a cautious public gradually accepting the technology in coffee shops and other low value outlets. The initial upper limit of £20 per transaction was increase in 2015 to £30. Subsequently, the technology has spread, and it is now possible to pay bus and tube fares, give charitable donations, and buy drinks at the bar with a flick of the wrist. So, much of the increased use must be down to the availability of the technology as to citizens rejection of cash.   Plus, customers’ psychological barriers have been gradually whittled away. Which is good news for shops! Handing over £20 in notes – and registering the diminishing cash in one’s wallet – is so much harder than flashing the plastic cash. So, if you subscribe to the theory that these cards make it too easy to spend money, one can imagine why retailers are keen to encourage the contactless revolution. Shops also have a vested interest in the demise of cash as it costs them money to transport and deposit it.   On the downside, the Bank of England last month suggested that the popularity of contactless cards was helping to fuel the rapid growth in consumer debt. Going overdrawn may also result in bank charges, further adding to that debt.   So could the UK end up going cash-free? Arguably we’ve been headed in that direction since the repeal on the Truck Acts – legislation that allowed workers to insist on payment in cash – in the 1980s. So it’s had a long gestation in the UK. Now Sweden is in the vanguard, and is expected to become the world’s first truly cashless society, with a study by Stockholm’s KTH Royal Institute of Technology predicting that cash could be history there by 2030.   Notes and coins may be dirty and a nuisance to transport but, in their favour, they are tangible stores of value. Electronic cash – Swedish style – is just a call on the local bank that issued it. What happens when all record of this month’s pay, and your bank account, mysteriously disappear due to a computer error? Who underwrites your money? A note issued by the Bank of England – which is wholly owned by UK government – at least carries a promise to ‘pay the bearer’ the relevant value. So you have some chance of redress.   But never fear, Victoria Cleland, chief cashier and director of notes at the Bank of England, reckons the folding stuff and loose change will be around in the UK for some time yet. “Cash is very much alive and kicking,” she said in a recent speech. The value of Bank of England notes in circulation peaked in the run-up to Christmas 2016, reaching more than £70bn for the first time. So, no need to worry about that stash of notes under the mattress just yet. But maybe you should swap those old tenners for new ‘Jane Austen’ polymer notes!

It Does You Good The flavour of the month may be data, especially in its ‘big’ form. But are we deluding ourselves into believing that big is always beautiful? Sure, big data identifies trends; helps to better understand and target customers; recognise and optimise business processes; and improve mechanical performance. It also has a role in public health, scientific research, and financial trading. But, should we show caution when it extends unchallenged into security and law enforcement, or the ‘optimisation’ of cities and countries? It cannot be assumed that all data will ultimately be used for social good. Sometimes projects based on mass data increase inequality, and consequently harm those they were designed to help.
Bigger the Better In 1907, Charles Darwin’s cousin Sir Francis Galton asked 787 villagers to guess the weight of an ox at a country fair. None of them got the right answer, but when Galton averaged their guesses, he arrived at a near perfect estimate. Beating not only most of the individual guesses but also those of alleged cattle experts. Thus the ‘wisdom of the crowds’ was born. Groups of people pooling their abilities to demonstrate collective intelligence and average judgement converging on the right solution. It’s a pleasing theory and tempting to apply to all sorts of decision-making processes. Until, that is you realise that the crowd is far from infallible. Good crowd judgement only arises when people’s decisions are independent of one another. Influenced by other’s guesses, there’s more chance that they will drift towards a misplaced bias. In other words groups, when fed with information, tend towards a consensus to the detriment of accuracy. Witness the recent election polling predictions.
Analysing the Detail Nothing in doing data analysis is neutral. How data is collected, cleaned, stored. What models are constructed, and what questions are asked. All tend towards discrimination. As Dana Boyd, in her excellent article, ‘Toward Accountability’ asks, “How do we define discrimination? Most people think about unjust and prejudicial treatment based on protected categories. But discrimination as a concept has mathematical and economic roots that are core to data analysis. The practices of data cleaning, clustering data, running statistical correlations, etc. are practices of using information to discern between one set of information and another. They are a form of mathematical discrimination. The big question presented by data practices is: Who gets to choose what is acceptable discrimination? Who gets to choose what values and trade-offs are given priority?” Even so, making data available to the public must be a good thing – it’s democratizing – right? But what if it’s not? For instance, what happens when big data is used in conjunction with a computer algorithm to predict crime? In theory analysing large amounts of crime data should spot patterns in the way criminals behave. Resources could then be deployed more effectively in the areas of predicted criminal activity. Result! Or, what happens when parents are encouraged to select their children’s school places on the basis of an education data ‘dashboard’. Benchmarking every aspect of a school’s performance against the mean should tell you everything you need to know to make a rational decision about your child’s future. Simple! Lastly, how good would it be if, when you applied for a job online, you were swiftly shortlisted for interview on the basis of your merits? Your CV having been analysed against the qualities of those who had previously succeeded in that role. Brilliant! But wait! Critics of this kind of data analysis raise a number of ethical concerns. They claim predictive policing, for instance, leads to victimisation, and unnecessary stop and searches in areas with high crime rates;   displacement of crime elsewhere; gathering of sensitive data, leading to invasions of privacy; and lastly, that it ignores the social, economic and cultural factors that cause crime. Advocates, on the other hand, argue that a variety of policing approaches are necessary; that research has found no evidence of victimisation; and that it makes police decision-making less biased. Surely no one can argue that giving parents access to school data is a bad thing? But what data? What constitutes a good school? Is it test scores, student makeup, parent ratings, or facilities? Presented with the data, does every parent have the time, language skills, and ability to interrogate the statistics? And, if they do, is everyone equally able to act upon their findings by dint of wealth or mobility? Oh yes, that job you applied for! Being filtered for interview on the basis your abilities is one thing. But what about your gender, ethnicity, or sickness record? You’ll never know, because you won’t get the chance to explain. Not that anyone would be so crass as to filter on that basis. But subtle clues, like blips in your career timeline or post-code may result in unwarranted inferences. Combine these factors with feed-back loops and machine learning and before you know it you may never work for a large company again.
Conclusion “Data scientists”, said Mike Loukides, VP of O’Reilly Media, “are involved with gathering data, massaging it into a tractable form, making it tell its story, and presenting that story to others.” So, I remain conflicted on the benefits of big data. It has its uses. But, rather than thoughtlessly surrender ourselves to its machinations – in the belief that the outcome will always serve the interests of humanity – we should remain sceptical, questioning, and downright belligerent. Especially when told that it’s for ‘our own good’. I plan to keep in mind a quote from Ronald Coase, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, when he said, “Torture the data, and it will confess to anything.”
Michael Hoare June 2107 Sources / Further Reading:

Communications, Public Affairs, Uncategorized

Gem Idea Graphic

The jewellery industry has been angst-ridden for most of the current century over the moral, ethical, and environmental damage done by the exploitation of gold and diamonds. Child labour, the blighted lives of miners, the spoil left by extraction, the financing of civil wars, and the buttressing of repressive regimes have each left their own stain on the industry. The Kimberley Process, the Dodd Frank act, OECD Due Diligence, and subsequent legislation, attempted to deal with these concerns, and bring forth order out of chaos. However, the plethora of initiatives in the supply chain remains perplexing for retailers, and those that want to trade ethically.

As CEO of the now defunct National Association of Goldsmiths (NAG) and a founding Director of the Responsible Jewellery Council (RJC), I worked with NGOs and others for over a decade to influence the practices and policies of miners, refineries, processors, wholesalers, retailers, and banks in their efforts to regulate and monitor the movement and provenance of gold and diamonds within the supply chain.

Today, rigorous policies – both imposed and self-policed – are impacting on the tracking of both commodities back to responsible origins.  But the work still isn’t complete, and the industry still needs to shore up its claims to social and ethical sourcing with transparency, trace-ability, and communication across the entire supply chain, before retailers can trade with complete confidence in the attribution of their stock. Platinum group metals have also been added to the scope of the RJC, but one of the unsolved problems remains the provenance of coloured gemstones!

Therefore the announcement of the launch of a technical feasibility study to include coloured gemstones into the scope of the RJC should be music to jewellers’ ears.  But, past experience of working alongside the Gemmological Association of Great Britain (Gem-A), whose work is the study and identification of gemstones, I am acutely aware how complex a task it is likely to be. Not just because of the range of stones, but because of the fractured supply chain.

Artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) – labour intensive and often in remote and inaccessible areas – still accounts for the majority of the worldwide supply, raising obstacles to transparency and trace-ability at even the production stage. Compared to diamonds, the supply chain of coloured gemstones is highly complex, making it nearly impossible to trace their trajectory from mine to end-user.

Mined in roughly fifty countries – located mostly in the global south – gemstones pass through numerous hands before being polished, transformed into jewellery and sold in the international retail market.  And – unlike diamonds – the coloured gemstone supply chain doesn’t have a history of being governed by a centralised cartel, so opportunities for human rights abuses, environmental damage, and illicit activity, are legion.

So, while the RJC’s intentions are entirely laudable, their desire to plug the remaining gaps admirable, I think we should all recognise that the road ahead will be strewn with moral and ethical boulders, and some will be very difficult to work around!

Bavaria 1

Michael Hoare

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