A Four-Fold Classification of Data

One of the vexing issues while talking about data protection is the various ways in which data can be classified. Public or private, identified or identifiable, data or metadata; the glut of classifications makes it difficult to achieve consistency.

In The Master Algorithm, Pedro Domingos classifies data into four types:

  • Data that is shared with the world at large. This includes blogs, tweets, reviews on websites, etc.
  • Data that is shared with a limited circle of people. The simplest example under this category would be interactions on social media platforms.
  • Data that is shared with companies. This can often happen without the individual knowing that a company has data belonging to him.
  • Data that individuals do not wish to share with anyone, which is quite self-explanatory.

This is a simple enough classification. That said, there is scope for an overlap between the four types of data. As Domingos is quick to point out, the data from the second category could well fit the third as well, since modes of communication are often controlled by a few companies.

Despite this caveat, the classification is useful. Its simplicity works in its favour by helping more people be a part of the conversation around data protection. And one can hope that more conversations will act as a springboard for developing fresh insights into how we look at our data.

Namaaz, public spaces, and religion

Over the last couple of weeks, the practice of namaaz in the open spaces of Gurugram, Delhi’s southern neighbor, has become a deeply contentious affair. Hindu vigilante squads heckled and intimidated the worshippers till they dispersed.

When civil rights groups brought the matter to the Haryana government, Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar was quoted by NDTV as having said, “it wasn’t right to pray in open spaces.”

“If there is shortage of places for offering namaz, it should be done in personal spaces, inside homes,” Mr Khattar added.

I agree with Mr. Khattar. Religion is a private affair, and should have no demand on public spaces. I hope he holds to this view during the kawariya season this year.

Every July, millions of observant Hindus spill onto the streets of north India, ferrying water from the Ganga, at Hardwar, and at Garh Mukteswar, to their homes in Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Haryana. Recent estimates put the number of water carriers, called ‘kawariyas’, at 32 million. Governments of the northern states, including Delhi, through which many of the busiest routes pass, make extensive arrangements for the welfare and security of these pilgrims.

Roads – sometimes entire highways – are blocked, schools are closed, law and order becomes sensitive, and meat shops are shut down for fear of offending religious sentiments.

Here are some news clippings of the impact that the kawariya season has on public spaces and private lives every year:

“We found that the entire Delhi-Hardwar highway was closed to non-pilgrimage traffic. Our bikes went so fast it felt we were going to take off! On the way, there were places for us to rest and eat – all free!

Business Standard, August 10, 2013

“The Ghaziabad administration on Monday declared a seven-day holiday for all educational institutes located along NH-58 for the ongoing kanwar yatra. Schools, colleges, and management and engineering institutes along the highway will remain closed till August 1. It’s the first time such an order has been issued in UP for kanwar yatra. “The order is applicable to all types of educational institutes,” district magistrate Nidhi Kesarwani told TOI.”

Times of India, July 26, 2016

“Huge force would be deployed along NH-58 for people’s security and also to maintain the traffic. A large number of policemen in civil clothes will also be among the Kawariyas.” Inspector General, Police, Meerut range, Uttar Pradesh.

India Today, July 31, 2015

Besides this, all meat shops on the Kanwar Yatra route in the Ghaziabad district have been ordered to remain closed. All eateries on the route have also been instructed not to display non-vegetarian dishes till Maha Shivratri celebrations on July 21.

Financial Express, July 10, 2017

A Quid Pro Quo Life

While reading Pedro Domingos’ The Master Algorithm, a book about machine learning, I found the following extract that talks about life in the digital age:

Every transaction works on two levels: what it accomplishes for you and what it teaches the system you just interacted with. Being aware of this is the first step to a happy life in the twenty-first century.

To reassure us that this is a positive development, Domingos goes on to say that it is better to think of a computer as a tool to serve us rather than as an adversary. And what it learns from us helps it to serve us better.

I have three thoughts about this.

One, this element of reciprocity is already present in transactions between humans. A shopkeeper I buy something from, is learning about me and, by extension, his customer base. The presence of machine learning amplifies this part of our lives.

Two, this logic can be applied to the products offered by companies like Google and Facebook. This would be a more nuanced way of looking at our relationship with these enterprises than the simple, and now over-used, notion of data being the new oil.

Three, in the event that Domingos’ optimism is misplaced and a system happens to be malign, we should have the ability to walk away from a transaction.

Elaborately Learned Superstition

Check out this excellent paragraph from that Jane Jacobs masterpiece, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Talking about the urban planners of her time, she writes:

And to put it bluntly, they are all in the same stage of elaborately learned superstition as medical science was early in the last century, when physicians put their faith in bloodletting, to draw out the evil humors which were believed to cause disease. With bloodletting, it took years of learning to know precisely which veins, by what rituals, were to be opened for what symptoms. A superstructure of technical complication was erected in such deadpan detail that the literature still sounds almost plausible. However, because people, even when they are thoroughly enmeshed in descriptions of reality which are at variance with reality, are still seldom devoid of the powers of observation and independent thought, the science of bloodletting, over most of its long sway, appears usually to have been tempered with a certain amount of common sense. Or it was tempered until it reached its highest peaks of technique in, of all places, the young United States. Bloodletting went wild here. It had an enormously influential proponent in Dr. Benjamin Rush, still revered as the greatest statesman-physician of our revolutionary and federal periods, and a genius of medical administration. Dr. Rush Got Things Done. Among the things he got done, some of them good and useful, were to develop, practice, teach and spread the custom of bloodletting in cases where prudence or mercy had heretofore restrained its use. He and his students drained the blood of very young children, of consumptives, of the greatly aged, of almost anyone unfortunate enough to be sick in his realms of influence. His extreme practices aroused the alarm and horror of European bloodletting physicians. And yet as late as 1851, a committee appointed by the State Legislature of New York solemnly defended the thoroughgoing use of bloodletting. It scathingly ridiculed and censured a physician, William Turner, who had the temerity to write a pamphlet criticizing Dr. Rush’s doctrines and calling ”the practice of taking blood in diseases contrary to common sense, to general experience, to enlightened reason and to the manifest laws of the divine Providence.” Sick people needed fortifying, not draining, said Dr. Turner, and he was squelched.

It is my case that bloodletting in the 19th century was like government regulation in the 20th and 21st. There exists a “superstructure of technical complication” that makes wonks and boffins believe in their omnipotence, but they are as wrong as Dr Rush.

We will look back on this with wonder 100 years from now. Dang, I feel like I’m trapped in the wrong century. That said, better this one than any that came before.

Do Coasian Solutions Work in Real Life?

One of my students from the Graduate Certificate in Public Policy – Satish Terala (@satisficed– wrote a rejoinder to my Pragati blog post on why I should get compensated by my neighbour who is building a house. While he is sympathetic to my cause, he believes that the trade will not actually takes place. His post follows:

Anupam Manur in his post “Dealing With Construction in Your Neighborhood” sets up an interesting problem – construction activity in his neighbourhood undertaken by his neighbour is disturbing the peace and tranquility of his life. Anupam then rightly concludes that his neighbour’s actions are imposing a negative externality on him (actually the entire neighbourhood) and then invokes the Coase Theorem to solve for it. The solution would involve the offending party (his neighbour) paying Anupam a certain amount. Anupam would then promptly buy a new pair of heavy duty earbuds, soundproofs his house and perhaps gets some extra cleaning help.

Sounds simple enough. But why did that not happen in this case. I would surmise that getting his neighbour to understand the economics of externalities and Coase theorem is still not going to help matters here. Why is it that then perfectly rational actors fail to trade even when there are gains to be had by doing so. The answer to this comes from another equally important but not as famous theorem called the Myerson-Satterthwaite theorem.

In presence of private information about the value of certain good (Anupam’s peace and tranquility) to the buyer and the seller, Myerson-Satterthwaite theorem says that no mechanism exists that guarantees that a trade will always happen. The problem here is that of information-asymmetry. In a Coasian world, all information about the externality is public and bargaining will ensure that an efficient outcome for both parties is reached.

In Myerson-Satterthwaite’s world, people’s valuation of the good are private i.e. the buyer only has a vague sense of the what the seller is willing to accept and similarly the seller only has a notion of what the buyer is willing to pay (for the math inclined: buyers view of sellers cost is uniformly distributed on the interval [0,1] and vice versa). This private information induces sellers to act as if the costs of their goods are higher than they actually are and similarly for the buyer to act as if good is of lesser value than their private valuation of it. The theorem then shows that the gains of trade are not sufficient enough for either of the players to honestly reveal their costs and values. This implies that no fool proof mechanism can be designed that guarantees a trade will happen even when there is a price that would be agreeable to both parties.

Turns out that worst case scenario is the case of a single buyer and a single seller. As the number of buyers and sellers increase, these informational problems disappear and markets become ‘efficient’.

So Anupam might then just be better off buying those heavy-duty earbuds himself; Coase is not going to help him much in this case.

Note: While I highlight only the applicability of M-S theorem in case bargaining does occur, there are many other reasons why bargaining might not even occur. Social norms, inability to assign the responsibility of the externality, hold out problems and other issues often have large transaction costs dissuading the participants from even bargaining in the first place.

Satish is a technology professional based out of Boston. He has degrees from UC Berkeley and University of Toronto in ‘doing marginally useful things’. He still hopes to finish his GCPP – some day.

Why do Women get Charged More for Haircuts? Some Explanations

There is nothing so mysterious as the commonplace, said Sherlock Holmes. I was surprised by one such ‘commonplace yet mysterious’ incident reported in this article. The author, drawing on her personal experience, has reported that hair salons charge more (well, almost double) for the hair cut from women compared to men. Why would a barber, more interested in earning profit than anything else, want to charge more than the cost of service, even at the cost of being competed out?

There are two plausible explanations.

Basic economics tells us that when firms exercise market power, actual price need not be based on the cost of service. In fact, it is a standard undergraduate exercise that profit markup will depend on the willingness to pay (aka demand elasticity). If women, for some reason, are more willing to pay for their personal care products, it makes economic sense to charge differentially. This practice, known as ‘price discrimination’, is ubiquitous; it is the reason why book vendors charge differently for the domestic and international editions of their books (which have almost similar content).

The second explanation could be related to switching cost. Switching costs refer to the costs that must be incurred by the consumer for changing their current service provider.

Assume that, on average, men have greater mobility. They use modes of transportation which are more flexible and personalized (bikes, cars). When presented with a bad deal, they can easily say no and walk away. Now assume women, on average, use less flexible modes of transportation (say taxis or autos). Once they are in the salon, it will be more costly, both in terms of money and convenience, to say no and walk away. Knowing this, a barber would offer less favorable price deal.

In fact, this ‘theory’ can be empirically tested. If a number of salons are located nearby, the switching cost will be low and prices will be driven down to their cost of service by competitive pressure.

Sherlock Holmes has also said that it is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. It is possible that none of the explanations make sense and something else is going on. But certainly it is a mystery that needs to be examined more closely.

Dealing With Construction in Your Neighbourhood

Dealing with construction activity near your place is a real pain. There’s a house that is being constructed right opposite my place and it is alarming how much it has disrupted my life. My productivity and peace of mind has been severely affected. This is a perfect example of negative externality, where a third-person (me) is affected by a transaction of which he is not a part.

The construction noise, from digging the borewell to cement mixers, have made it impossible for me to work from home. I find it hard to think about regulating platform economies or give a webinar while a guy outside my place is hammering on iron. That adds a couple of hours of travel to work and back.  Then, there’s the problem of fine dust that is deposited in all corners of my house. I have to either pay extra to the domestic help or spend a couple of hours to clean it myself. Not to mention, the added health risk of inhaling the particulate matter. All of these presents a real cost to the neighbours of a house that’s newly constructed.

The externality presents a market failure. The price of a house (whether it is rent or the cost of production) does not include the damage/suffering caused to others who will not benefit from that house construction. How do you solve for this  externality?

Most people would silently go through the suffering with minor complaints made to the owner and a lot of internal whining. Very few would have the power to stop the construction or put significant hurdles in the way, so as to increase the project timelines. Neither of it is an efficient solution. The owner has a right to construct a house on a plot of land that he has purchased and the neighbours have a right to peace and quiet and a right to expect their house not to get inundated by cement dust.

The only solution seems to be a Coasian solution. The owner can pay an amount to compensate for the damage caused to the neighbours and carry on with the construction activities. The externality will be internalised this way. The receivers of the payment can use the money to hire cleaners, install an air purifier, or invest in sound proofing. The additional payment gets added to the cost of construction, which can be passed on to the eventual occupiers of the space. The rent can be slightly higher to reflect this charge or if the owners decide to stay there themselves, they will bear the cost over many years that they live there.

Now, I’m off to find the owner and give him a lesson on Coasian solutions to externality and try extract compensation payments.

The Government Should Regulate Cooks

Yet another wedding, yet another truckload of wasted food. If, in reality TV show style, we were to try to identify the “root cause” in this instance, it was the cook (or the team of cooks, rather). Each of the seven respondents this correspondent surveyed expressed their displeasure at the quality of the food. One even called it her “worst ever Indian wedding dinner”.

This wedding was only one isolated instance – it is all too common an occurrence in these parts for copious amounts of food to be wasted all because of a cook who ended up cooking badly. And it is all the fault of the cooks, most of whom have never gone to culinary school (we don’t have too many of those in India), and many of whom haven’t gone to school either.

When thousands of people in India die of hunger everyday, and farmers continue to kill themselves in Vidarbha (and elsewhere), this wastage of food is indeed criminal. It comes at a high human cost. And that it comes out of sheer incompetence of unregulated cooks makes it indeed tragic.

There is only one solution to this – the government should regulate cooks. Not just wedding cooks – since wastage of food at weddings and other parties are only part of the problem – the government should regulate anyone who wants to cook. The other day my daughter refused to eat an idli. We decided to salvage our karma by feeding it (the idli) to the neighbourhood street dog, who took one bite and promptly ran away.

Whether you want to make yourself a 2-minute Maggi, or Shantavva in Santemarahalli wants to make a ragi ball, or chef Madhu Menon (hope he doesn’t edit this bit out) wants to make bloggers’ b***, you should need a licence from the government, which certifies that you are a cook of a high enough quality that what you cook will not go waste.

That’s the only way we can save millions of our population from hunger. There is already enough wastage of food because farmers cannot coordinate on what to grow, and because of inefficiencies in the food supply chain, and because of the way agricultural markets are regulated. We don’t want badly cooked food to add to the wastage. And the only way to ensure that is by having the government regulate cooks.

PS: As Ravikiran Rao, a former editor of the former avatar of this publication, likes to put it, “#thatzwhy we need strong regulation

PS2: Some readers might be advised to consume irony supplements along with this article

Pashtun Protection Movement: A Radically Networked Society in Action

If you have been trawling the internet in search of reliable news and opinion about the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM), there’s some good news. Beena Sarwar has an excellent backgrounder in Scroll.in. 

What caught my attention was the social media’s role in mobilising widespread support given that there is a blanket censure  of PTM by all major media houses in Pakistan. Sarwar describes this role as follows:

Their (PTM’s) demand for constitutional rights directly challenging Pakistan’s powerful security establishment was blatantly censored from the mainstream media. The pattern has continued with subsequent rallies.

But in this digital age, news of the Swat demonstration could not be suppressed. The social media activists or citizen journalists who trended the hashtag #PashtunLongMarch2Swat included gender studies lecturer Tooba Syed from Islamabad. Making the four-hour journey to Swat by road, she movingly documented her experiences on Twitter.

Without social media, “the movement would not be possible”, said one of its leaders, 34-year-old lawyer Mohsin Dawar, a former student activist associated with Left politics.

The rapid rise of social media in Pakistan (17% internet penetration, growing fast) and mobile phone subscribers (over 70%) makes television coverage (73%) less crucial than before. But censorship still violates the people’s right to know, as a statement endorsed by over 100 journalists in April emphasises. [Scroll.in, 6 May 2018]

So, the PTM is a textbook example of what we call a Radically Networked Society (RNS) — a web of hyper connected individuals, possessing an identity (imagined or real), and motivated by a common immediate cause.

In PTM’s case, the Pashtun ethnicity provided the common identity, Naqeebullah Mehsud’s cold blooded murder by the Karachi Police became the immediate cause, and Twitter, WhatsApp, Signal, and Facebook enabled the movement to scale. 

The oppressive and all-powerful Pakistani State has ensured that media houses have no reportage of the protests. And yet, it has been unsuccessful in stopping the spread of information via the RNS route. This typifies the nature of information flows — information propagates rapidly in networked societies, at a pace too fast for hierarchical states to arrest.

From past instances of RNS mobilisations, we know that governments tend to use excessive force in desperation if extended internet shutdowns do not work. And Pakistan Army has a long history of using force on its non-Pakistani citizens. Unfortunately, looks like this is likely to be the next step. Watch out for the Karachi rally that the PTM has called for on May 13th.


Of Saints and Humans

I know I’m late by many decades but I finally read Orwell’s Reflections on Gandhi today. I’m jotting down a few key lines from this essay.

But I could see even then that the British officials who spoke of him with a mixture of amusement and disapproval also genuinely liked and admired him, after a fashion. Nobody ever suggested that he was corrupt, or ambitious in any vulgar way, or that anything he did was actuated by fear or malice. In judging a man like Gandhi one seems instinctively to apply high standards, so that some of his virtues have passed almost unnoticed.

Here, Orwell says that the mark of a saint is the standards used to judge him/her.

The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, that one is sometimes willing to commit sins for the sake of loyalty, that one does not push asceticism to the point where it makes friendly intercourse impossible, and that one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one’s love upon other human individuals. No doubt alcohol, tobacco, and so forth, are things that a saint must avoid, but sainthood is also a thing that human beings must avoid. There is an obvious retort to this, but one should be wary about making it. In this yogi-ridden age, it is too readily assumed that “non-attachment” is not only better than a full acceptance of earthly life, but that the ordinary man only rejects it because it is too difficult: in other words, that the average human being is a failed saint. It is doubtful whether this is true. Many people genuinely do not wish to be saints, and it is probable that some who achieve or aspire to sainthood have never felt much temptation to be human beings. If one could follow it to its psychological roots, one would, I believe, find that the main motive for “non-attachment” is a desire to escape from the pain of living, and above all from love, which, sexual or non-sexual, is hard work. But it is not necessary here to argue whether the other-worldly or the humanistic ideal is “higher”. The point is that they are incompatible. One must choose between God and Man, and all “radicals” and “progressives”, from the mildest Liberal to the most extreme Anarchist, have in effect chosen Man.

Here, Orwell brilliantly argues that it is a fallacy to see a human as a failed saint. May be a saint is a failed human too. Or that both of these streams are fundamentally incompatible.

Another brilliant section is on the limit of Gandhian morality in the conduct of international relations. It highlights that in an amoral world, morality can be a handicap, much less a weapon.

It is difficult to see how Gandhi’s methods could be applied in a country where opponents of the regime disappear in the middle of the night and are never heard of again. Without a free press and the right of assembly, it is impossible not merely to appeal to outside opinion, but to bring a mass movement into being, or even to make your intentions known to your adversary [..] But let it be granted that non-violent resistance can be effective against one’s own government, or against an occupying power: even so, how does one put it into practise internationally? Gandhi’s various conflicting statements on the late war seem to show that he felt the difficulty of this. Applied to foreign politics, pacifism either stops being pacifist or becomes appeasement. Moreover the assumption, which served Gandhi so well in dealing with individuals, that all human beings are more or less approachable and will respond to a generous gesture, needs to be seriously questioned. It is not necessarily true, for example, when you are dealing with lunatics. Then the question becomes: Who is sane? Was Hitler sane? And is it not possible for one whole culture to be insane by the standards of another? And, so far as one can gauge the feelings of whole nations, is there any apparent connection between a generous deed and a friendly response? Is gratitude a factor in international politics?


Blogging Is Not Dead Yet

In the first episode of this weekly podcast, Amit Varma and Hamsini Hariharan discuss the launch of Pragati Express, and their favourite pieces for the week. Here are some of the pieces that were spoken about in this podcast:

  1. The Freedom Fighters of Pakistan by Chintan Girish Modi
  2. Breaking New Ground by Manoj Kewalramani
  3. A Strong Law is Not Enough by Rishi Majumdar
  4. We Will Not Protect You by Alok Prasanna Kumar
  5. I Want My Free Sub by Gaurav Sabnis
  6. The Future of The Internet on the Seen and the Unseen


India’s plagiarism policy is facepalm

I could’nt believe my eyes when I read in this week’s Science magazine. Here’s an excerpt from Pallava Bagla’s report on UGC’s new plagiarism policy:

The new policy creates four tiers for addressing plagiarism, which is defined by UGC India as “the practice of taking someone else’s work or idea and passing them as one’s own.” The first tier, for what it calls “similarities up to 10%,” would carry no penalty. The second tier, in which 10% to 40% of a document is plagiarized, would require students to submit a revised manuscript and force faculty members to withdraw the plagiarized paper. In cases where 40% to 60% of the document is plagiarized, a student would be suspended for a year and the faculty member would forfeit an annual pay raise and be prohibited from supervising students for 2 years. Students who plagiarize more than 60% of their thesis would be kicked out of the program, while the penalties for faculty members would be extended to a loss of 2 years of pay increases and a 3-year ban on supervising students.[Science]

This is not lenient. It’s breathtaking. By failing to seriously penalise persons who copy as much as 40% of their work, the UGC is effectively condoning massive levels of plagiarism. Whether or not universities are able to catch and act against those who plagiarise, the signal this sends to students and the academic community is perverse. It’s telling them — “it’s okay to copy!”

Now, plagiarism is rampant in Indian academia, a manifestation of the rot that has set in our education system and intellectual life. Instead of attempting to stem that rot and turn things around, the UGC seems to have decided that it might as well legitimise the copying culture. This, to put it mildly, is not expected of the regulator of higher education.

Plagiarism is theft. Condoning theft perverts the settings of the moral compass of young minds. The cascading effects of this will be disastrous for Indian society.

What should the UGC have done? Set the plagiarism threshold very low. The tiniest plagiarism fetches a warning. At 10% you get kicked out. Then announce a transition window of two years to allow everyone to understand and adjust to a new, stringent regime.

As it stands, the proposed plagiarism policy is not, as V S Ramamurthy asks, merely “a joke”. It’s a license to copy.