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Whitehall’s White Elephant?

Whitehall’s White Elephant?

Reading Time: 3 minutes


On 16 March, the UK Government released The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy.

Amongst other things (like the adoption of ‘Homeland Security’ language and assertions of a ‘whole society approach and a ‘reservist cadre’) the report confirms £9.3 million of investment to “bolster our national resilience with a new Situation Centre at the heart of government, improving our use of data and our ability to anticipate and respond to future crises.”

Lovely stuff.

A bit further into the document, at page 106, it describes the purpose of the Situation Centre is to “provide live data, analysis and insights to decision-makers on what is happening in the UK and around the world, strengthening our ability to identify, understand and respond to national security issues and crises.”

On the surface, this sounds good but it also has the potential to feed an illusion of control, control that may not actually exist. It could also become a facility which tries to be all things for all people and which becomes difficult and expensive to maintain.

Information is helpful (mostly)

One of the defining qualities of an emergency is that there is an initial information vacuum. I’ve mentioned in previous posts, that accurate information might not be available for some time. However, that cannot be a barrier to making decisions.

Attempts to speed up the availability of information can be useful in supporting decision making with evidence.

However, access to granular information could also result in COBR micro-managing rather than maintaining a strategic focus.

A Police Commander that I worked with described a similar situation with policing. With increased access to CCTV comes the temptation to ‘police by CCTV’, however, CCTV images alone do not give complete situational awareness.

I’m sure that it would be fascinating to collect the data and see what it shows. I attempted this myself several years ago (mostly as a proof of concept/experiment). Heavily inspired by Oliver O’Brien at UCL, I pulled together relevant data from existing feeds and presented this in a single dashboard. This went on to be the forerunner of a proprietary system that London still uses, but after 5 years without any maintenance, lots of the links in my own prototype are now broken. A relic still exists if you’re interested.

If I was able to knock this dashboard up relatively quickly with zero experience, I would be shocked (although not altogether surprised) if the bulk of the investment is going on this data tool.

Information can be misleading

The more data you have access to the larger your cohort of analysts and data scientists need to be.

But analysis can introduce bias into how information is presented and interpreted by others.

Tim Harford’s Cautionary Tales podcast touched on this recently in the episode Florence Nightingale and Her Geeks Declare War on Death. Harford described how Nightingale introduced data analysis to show decision-makers that deaths due to poor sanitation could be averted. However, in doing so she also showed that graphs can be persuasive whether or not they depict reality.

Similarly, after taking a module in my undergraduate degree called How to Lie With Maps with Professor Robert Mayhew I still find myself looking for clues that I’m being misled.

Unless there are some seriously competent and equipped analysts to support the Situation Centre (staffing of the centre isn’t mentioned in the report) then there is every possibility that incorrect conclusions will be drawn. And in times of national emergency, the consequences of that could be catastrophic.

My 3 hopes for the Whitehall Situation Centre

Towards the top of my wish list for a situation centre would be:

  1. Be Interoperable – the situation centre should be able to ‘talk”, in data terms, to other relevant centres. Collect the data once, use it many times. I suspect this will be built in for defence and security information, but there will be less interest in information gathered at the local level through Strategic Coordinating Groups. The report released last week covers a lot of ground – Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy and therefore interoperability across the range of responders would be helpful too.
  2. Be Open – the report makes it clear that significant shifts in policy are needed to fulfil the objectives.  This includes a ‘whole of society’ approach and therefore I think if members of the public are being asked to do stuff, they should be able to operate with a similar information picture. There will be situations that don’t allow for full transparency of information, but the default should be openness.
  3. Be Bold – I suspect the £9.3m will be quickly eaten up by consultants, and what we’ll end up with are some projectors and smartboards. Instead, the facility should look to use cutting edge technologies and innovations and be future proof. They won’t want to spend this type of money regularly, so it needs to anticipate what the trends and technologies are going to be over the next 10 years and be an early adopter.
How to lie with Flood Maps

How to lie with Flood Maps

Reading Time: 3 minutes

The title of this post is drawn from Mark Monmonier’s entertaining book, which I remember from my Geography degree. Maps can be fantastic ways of conveying complex spatial information. However, like speeches and presentations, maps can also be subject to bias, in both what is presented and what is ignored. Exercising a degree of skepticism when reading a map is good practice, and helps minimise misinterpretation.

Following severe storms and flooding in many areas of the UK last week the Environment Agency issued this tweet with a picture of a map (which I’ve included as an image so you don’t have to click away)…

At the time, many areas of the east coast were being flooded directly and consequently the level of media attention was relatively high, with several outlets picking up on this ‘good news story’. I’ve included a couple of lines from this Evening Standard article from 8 December which included this map.

Thames Barrier saved London from flood chaos in tidal surge

Submerged: vast swathes of London would have been underwater if the Thames Barrier had not shut. This apocalyptic picture shows the devastation London would have faced if the Thames Barrier hadn’t protected the capital from the worst tidal surge in 60 years.Vast swathes of London would have been submerged but for the defences, experts predicted.

The original EA tweet is technically accurate, the shaded area shows the areaprotected by the barrier. However, to tweet it during active flooding may have led to some misinterpretation. It is NOT a map showing the area which would have been flooded had the Thames Barrier have been non-operational last week.

Whilst the events of last week were significant, they were not approaching the 1 in 1000 year flood events that the EA modelling is based on. Had the Thames Barrier not been in place last week, tide levels would have peaked at 0.2m below the top of flood defences. So rather than ‘vast swathes of London being submerged‘ actually, all of the water would have been confined to the river channel.

My main issue with the map is not that it exists, but the way in which it has been interpreted. It’s a useful planning tool to describe possible flood extent (which is one of London’s top risks), but don’t be fooled into thinking that because a map is released at the time, it represents the current situation.

And whilst I’m moaning about maps…why choose to only show that area? Predicted flood impacts clearly extend beyond the map view chosen, so why exclude the other areas? Yes, I expect people are familiar with those particular river bends from Eastenders, but it would have provided a more complete picture similar to that in the London Regional Flood Risk Assessment (although this shows flooding of mutiple types).


Don’t be intimidated by maps – they can help uncover patterns and spot relationships that other ways of presenting data can’t, just keep a couple of things in mind when reading and interpreting them:

  • What does the map show ? – try to find out as much as you can about the data. When was the data collected? Was it summarised or simplified before being displayed?
  • What doesn’t the map show ? – this might be as simple as features, or in this specific case, it might be that it doesn’t show what other people have suggested it does
  • Who made the map? What are they trying to get you to take away from looking at it?

Have you spotted any misleading or hard to interpret disaster maps? I’d love to see other examples!