from the world's big
How governments are responding to the public's demand for more data transparency
Innovative use of blockchain tech, data trusts, algorithm assessments, and cultural shifts abound.
- A study published last year by the Pew Research Center found that most American's distrust the federal government, and there's plenty of evidence to suggest that the situation has yet to improve.
- Governments have more access than ever to our private information, which creates an inherent tension between how they can use data for the public good while ensuring they aren't abusing citizens' privacy rights.
- As emerging technologies mature, it will become more evident to the public which models are the most effective ways for governments to achieve the levels of transparency they've committed to delivering.
Government transparency is a central tenet of liberal democracies. In many countries, including the United States, transparency is enshrined into the constitution and laws, such as the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act.
Nevertheless, trust in government is on the decline. A study published last year by the Pew Research Center found that most American's distrust the federal government. Recent events such as the coronavirus pandemic, bailouts, and the Black Lives Matter protests casting a shadow over the Trump 2020 presidential campaign aren't likely to have improved the situation.
However, it's important to remember that this is hardly only an American problem. The Edelman Trust Barometer measures the trust in NGOs, business, government, and media. In 2020, the Barometer showed a drop in trust across many nations, including Canada, Australia, and the UK.
While governments risk decreasing public trust through their handling of events such as the pandemic, such events also create more pressure for governments to demonstrate transparency. The virus crisis results in inquiries into fields such as public health expenditure, while the protests are prompting calls to address institutional biases.
The increasingly prevalent use of technologies such as big data and AI means that governments have more access than ever to our private information. This creates an inherent tension between how governments can use data for the public good while ensuring they aren't abusing citizens' privacy rights.
European countries have recently been wrangling with this tension, as a privacy row has been brewing over the use of virus track-and-trace applications. An extremely effective way to curb infections happens to involve surveillance of the public with unprecedented precision and scale, and who's to say what all the implications of allowing it may be? Who will gain access to this data, either legitimately or by hacking? What will they do with it? Once the pandemic ends, what happens to these access privileges?
Using emerging technologies inevitably increases the scope and scale of government data collection. However, technology can also be put to use by governments that want to demonstrate their commitment to improving transparency.
Using blockchain to secure citizens’ data
The Austrian government has recently turned to blockchain as a means of establishing transparent communications about the COVID-19 crisis, between authorities, institutions, and citizens. Communication specialist A-Trust has launched the QualiSig project, on Ignis, part of the Ardor blockchain platform.
The project will use transparent, encrypted communications visible on the blockchain, and decentralized data storage to secure data against attacks. Citizens can control the use of their own data using qualified digital signatures.
Alexander Pfeiffer, Danube University Krems researcher, and partner to A-Trust, has a high degree of confidence that blockchain can help to increase trust in governments. "The more such solutions are used by government agencies and their partners, the more likely it is that citizens will regain confidence in the operations of these government authorities," he wrote in an email. "In addition, it will also be possible to work much more efficiently and on a much higher level of mutual trust between the parties involved."
This is the second time the Austrian government has engaged Jelurida, the Swiss firm that operates Ardor, in projects designed to improve transparency. In May this year, the Austrian government announced funding for a sustainability project designed to pinpoint sources of waste heat that could be redirected back into the energy grid. The "Hot City" project is a collaboration with the Austrian Institute of Technology and plans to use the Ignis chain for providing rewards to citizens submitting data about waste heat that can be harnessed for the public good.
An outspoken advocate of using blockchain to increase transparency, Lior Yaffe is the co-founder and director of Jelurida. "For the Austrian government, funding applied blockchain technologies has been a major priority for several years," he told Big Think. "Now, the Hot City and QualiSig projects show how a public blockchain can be used to store and display specific datasets, thus increasing transparency."
Demonstrating transparency in the electoral process
The potential for using blockchain to demonstrate electoral transparency has been hotly discussed for years now. The first such experiment took place in Denmark back in 2014, when the Liberal Alliance party used blockchain for one of its local elections.
At the time, the chair of the party's IT group made a bold prediction. "Voting is the most important process in a democratic society," he said. "Here, there is no doubt that new technology will play an increasing role going forward."
However, as things stand in 2020, blockchain in elections hasn't moved forward at quite the pace many had previously predicted. Most local and national elections still take place using the same pen-and-paper process that has been in place for decades.
Nevertheless, the Indian election commission is among the latest to join the many government bodies that continue to experiment in this area.
Using transparency to combat corruption
Countries that have had problems with corruption going back generations have an especially steep mountain to climb when it comes to gaining public trust. Ukraine is one such example. As part of a bailout agreement in 2015, the International Monetary Fund demanded that the country's government do more to fight corruption.
In 2017, the Ukrainian government engaged blockchain firm Bitfury to store all of its data on the blockchain, in an attempt to demonstrate better transparency. In September that year, the justice ministry successfully used the technology for auctioning seized assets, and later transferred state property and land registries to the platform.
"We want to make the system of selling seized assets more transparent and secure," Deputy Justice Minister Serhiy Petukhov told Reuters, "so that the information there is accessible to everyone so that there aren't concerns about possible manipulation."
Creating a culture of transparency
While technology can be a useful tool for governments to demonstrate transparency, it's not the only means. Some countries, particularly those in northern Europe such as Norway and Denmark, are renowned for their culture of governmental transparency.
Canada also ranks highly in transparency from an international perspective, although its Corruption Perceptions Index score has been dropping.
It's intriguing that domestic perceptions don't always appear to align with these rankings. Against the backdrop of the COVID-19 crisis, some quarters of the Canadian academia have been highly critical of Justin Trudeau's government.
"Canada has a culture of secrecy. And it's one of the worst things about Canada," Amir Attaran, professor of law and epidemiology at University of Ottawa, told the CBC. "Our lack of transparency is a Canadian cultural trait, and it's one that hurts us. It's also part of a larger belief that the government knows best. But it doesn't."
In the same piece, Jean-Noé Landry, who works for a non-profit that advises governments on data transparency, takes a more nuanced approach. He attributes a culture with a high level of government trust as a potential pitfall when it comes to demanding transparency in a crisis such as COVID-19. As he puts it, Canadians "trust the government more in these kinds of situations, and maybe we lower our guard a bit and go along with them. [COVID-19] is not the type of thing where we should be lowering our standards."
Inside the algorithms
One government that has been almost universally lauded for its handling of the coronavirus pandemic is New Zealand's. Even before the crisis, the government there has been taking some impressive measures to demonstrate transparency. One example is its "algorithm assessment" program, launched in 2018, designed to introduce more transparency into how the government is deploying AI for its citizens.
Fourteen government agencies used a self-assessment method, underpinned by the government's own "principles for safe and effective use of data and analytics." The outcome was a report that acknowledged the need to retain human oversight over machine-led decisions and recommended using independent experts in the areas of privacy, ethics, and data expertise.
"We must prepare for the ethical challenges AI poses to our legal and political systems," stated Clare Curran, New Zealand's Minister for Digital Services, "as well as the impact AI will have on workforce planning, the wider issues of digital rights, data bias, transparency, and accountability are also important for this Government to consider."
Data trusts, a work in progress
In the UK, the Open Data Institute (ODI) has been working on several pilots to implement "data trusts" in collaboration with various government agencies, in an attempt to create more transparency. The ODI defines a data trust as a "legal structure that provides independent stewardship of data." They aim to increase access to data, along with providing confidence in the use of it.
The Institute worked on three pilots with varying degrees of success. The pilots attempted to bring transparency to food waste, illegal wildlife trade, and smart city implementation with a focus on parking data for green vehicles.
The findings from all three pilots were consolidated into a "lessons learned" document that highlighted the need to flesh out the overall concept and gain a shared understanding of what it means to all stakeholders for data trusts to become successful.
The ODI continues its work in this regard, exploring the use of data trusts and other data stewardship models.
Trust in flux
The events of 2020 so far have amounted to a perfect storm as far as testing government trust goes. Social distancing and shelter in place rules mean that there's a more significant reliance than ever on technology. However, governments need to continue to walk a tightrope of ensuring that they deploy the best technology available while demonstrating transparency.
As emerging technologies mature, it will become more evident to the public which models are the most effective ways for governments to achieve the levels of transparency they've committed to delivering.
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Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.
Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.
But science loves a good challenge<p>The mystery remained unsolved until 2005, when French scientists <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~audoly/" target="_blank">Basile Audoly</a> and <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~neukirch/" target="_blank">Sebastien Neukirch </a>won an <a href="https://www.improbable.com/ig/" target="_blank">Ig Nobel Prize</a>, an award given to scientists for real work which is of a less serious nature than the discoveries that win Nobel prizes, for finally determining why this happens. <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/spaghetti/audoly_neukirch_fragmentation.pdf" target="_blank">Their paper describing the effect is wonderfully funny to read</a>, as it takes such a banal issue so seriously. </p><p>They demonstrated that when a rod is bent past a certain point, such as when spaghetti is snapped in half by bending it at the ends, a "snapback effect" is created. This causes energy to reverberate from the initial break to other parts of the rod, often leading to a second break elsewhere.</p><p>While this settled the issue of <em>why </em>spaghetti noodles break into three or more pieces, it didn't establish if they always had to break this way. The question of if the snapback could be regulated remained unsettled.</p>
Physicists, being themselves, immediately wanted to try and break pasta into two pieces using this info<p><a href="https://roheiss.wordpress.com/fun/" target="_blank">Ronald Heisser</a> and <a href="https://math.mit.edu/directory/profile.php?pid=1787" target="_blank">Vishal Patil</a>, two graduate students currently at Cornell and MIT respectively, read about Feynman's night of noodle snapping in class and were inspired to try and find what could be done to make sure the pasta always broke in two.</p><p><a href="http://news.mit.edu/2018/mit-mathematicians-solve-age-old-spaghetti-mystery-0813" target="_blank">By placing the noodles in a special machine</a> built for the task and recording the bending with a high-powered camera, the young scientists were able to observe in extreme detail exactly what each change in their snapping method did to the pasta. After breaking more than 500 noodles, they found the solution.</p>
The apparatus the MIT researchers built specifically for the task of snapping hundreds of spaghetti sticks.
(Courtesy of the researchers)
What possible application could this have?<p>The snapback effect is not limited to uncooked pasta noodles and can be applied to rods of all sorts. The discovery of how to cleanly break them in two could be applied to future engineering projects.</p><p>Likewise, knowing how things fragment and fail is always handy to know when you're trying to build things. Carbon Nanotubes, <a href="https://bigthink.com/ideafeed/carbon-nanotube-space-elevator" target="_self">super strong cylinders often hailed as the building material of the future</a>, are also rods which can be better understood thanks to this odd experiment.</p><p>Sometimes big discoveries can be inspired by silly questions. If it hadn't been for Richard Feynman bending noodles seventy years ago, we wouldn't know what we know now about how energy is dispersed through rods and how to control their fracturing. While not all silly questions will lead to such a significant discovery, they can all help us learn.</p>
A study looks at the performance benefits delivered by asthma drugs when they're taken by athletes who don't have asthma.
- One on hand, the most common health condition among Olympic athletes is asthma. On the other, asthmatic athletes regularly outperform their non-asthmatic counterparts.
- A new study assesses the performance-enhancement effects of asthma medication for non-asthmatics.
- The analysis looks at the effects of both allowed and banned asthma medications.
WADA uncertainty<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU0OS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMDc4NjUwN30.fFTvRR0yJDLtFhaYiixh5Fa7NK1t1T4CzUM0Yh6KYiA/img.jpg?width=980" id="01b1b" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2fd91a47d91e4d5083449b258a2fd63f" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="urine sample for drug test" />
Image source: joel bubble ben/Shutterstock<p>When inhaled β-agonists first came out just before the 1972 Olympics, they were immediately banned altogether by the WADA as possible doping substances. Over the years, the WADA has reexamined their use and refined the organization's stance, evidence of the thorniness of finding an equitable position regarding their use. As of January 2020, only three β-agonists are allowed — salbutamol, formoterol, and salmeterol —and only in inhaled form. Oral consumption appears to have a greater effect on performance.</p>
The study<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU0Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTIzMDQyMX0.Gk4v-7PCA7NohvJjw12L15p7SumPCY0tLdsSlMrLlGs/img.jpg?width=980" id="d3141" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ebe7b30a315aeffcb4fe739095cf0767" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="runner at starting position on track" />
Image source: MinDof/Shutterstock<p>Of primary interest to the authors of the study is confirming and measuring the performance improvement to be gained from β-agonists when they're ingested by athletes who don't have asthma.</p><p>The researchers performed a meta-analysis of 34 existing studies documenting 44 randomized trials reporting on 472 participants. The pool of individuals included was broad, encompassing both untrained and elite athletes. In addition, lab tests, as opposed to actual competitions, tracked performance. The authors of the study therefore recommend taking its conclusions with just a grain of salt.</p><p>The effects of both WADA-banned and approved β-agonists were assessed.</p>
Approved β-agonists and non-asthmatic athletes<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU1MC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMzkxODk0M30.3RssFwk_tWkHRkEl_tIee02rdq2tLuAePifnngqcIr8/img.jpg?width=980" id="39a99" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="b1fe4a580c6d4f8a0fd021d7d6570e2a" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="vaulter clearing pole" />
Image source: Andrey Yurlov/Shutterstock<p>What the meta-analysis showed is that the currently approved β-agonists didn't significantly improve athletic performance among those without asthma — what very slight benefit they <em>may</em> produce is just enough to prompt the study's authors to write that "it is still uncertain whether approved doses improve anaerobic performance." They note that the tiny effect did increase slightly over multiple weeks of β-agonist intake.</p>
Banned β-agonist and non-asthmatic athletes<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU1Mi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNjI3ODU5Mn0.vyoxSE5EYjPGc2ZEbBN8d5F79nSEIiC6TUzTt0ycVqc/img.jpg?width=980" id="de095" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="02fdd42dfda8e3665a7b547bb88007ef" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="swimmer mid stroke" />
Image source: Nejron Photo/Shutterstock<p>The study found that for athletes without asthma, however, the use of currently banned β-agonists did indeed result in enhanced performance. The authors write, "Our meta-analysis shows that β2-agonists improve anaerobic performance by 5%, an improvement that would change the outcome of most athletic competitions."</p><p>That 5 percent is an average: 70-meter sprint performance was improved by 3 percent, while strength performance, MVC (maximal voluntary contraction), was improved by 6 percent.</p><p>The analysis also revealed that different results were produced by different methods of ingestion. The percentages cited above were seen when a β-agonist was ingested orally. The effect was less pronounced when the banned substances were inhaled.</p><p>Given the difference between the results for allowed and banned β-agonists, the study's conclusions suggest that the WADA has it about right, at least in terms of selection of allowable β-agonists, as well as the allowable dosage method.</p>
Takeaway<p>The study, say its authors, "should be of interest to WADA and anyone who is interested in equal opportunities in competitive sports." Its results clearly support vigilance, with the report concluding: "The use of β2-agonists in athletes should be regulated and limited to those with an asthma diagnosis documented with objective tests."</p>
Certain water beetles can escape from frogs after being consumed.
- A Japanese scientist shows that some beetles can wiggle out of frog's butts after being eaten whole.
- The research suggests the beetle can get out in as little as 7 minutes.
- Most of the beetles swallowed in the experiment survived with no complications after being excreted.