The previous post, Beyond freedom of information lies open data, discussed the need for greater sharing of raw data collected by the government with the public. The present drip-feed of information practised by the government is often misleading and quite insulting to our intelligence.
By coincidence, two examples of frustratingly incomplete information appeared in the Straits Times last Saturday, 22 October 2011. In one news story, Deputy Prime Minister and Home Affairs Minister Teo Chee Hean provided figures on the number of executions since 2004, suggesting a decline. In another, Teo said the number of rejected applications for Permanent Residency have risen sharply. Both are presented in such a way as to appear that the government is heeding public opinion.
The box at right gives you the data as published in the Straits Times on executions, provided in response to a question by opposition member of parliament Pritam Singh who had asked for a breakdown of Singaporeans, Permanent Residents and foreigners executed. Teo clarified that in this period there were no Permanent Residents among those hanged.
Now, the first impression is that there is a gradual decline, and that the figures are nothing like those provided on 12 January 2001 to the late J B Jeyaretnam in parliament, figures which I obtained from the Hansard:
But when I showed Once a Jolly Hangman author Alan Shadrake the latest figures, his first question was: How many are currently on death row? We don’t have data, but he believes, based on newspaper reports of convictions in court, there are 30 – 40 .
If so, what it means is that at some point in the future, the old pace of executions must resume, otherwise the backlog keeps growing.
Thus, the highly processed data Teo Chee Hean provided doesn’t really tell us much. We can’t use it to assess the situation in any meaningful way. The government probably wanted to create a certain first impression and hoped that people would leave it at that, but it does not take much to wonder if first impressions might mislead.
Of course Shadrake could be wrong in his estimates, but it’s not for Shadrake to prove himself right or wrong. It should be our government, which is funded by public money, to come clean with full disclosure.
The other thing you’d have noticed is that the format of the 2011 table is different from that of 2001. One splits it by crime, the other by nationality (well, not quite, since “foreigners” are treated as a single category). This is frustrating, making it difficult to put together a complete picture. The government should release detailed data consistently over the years (name of prisoner; court case number; offence with specific reference to law broken; trial, appeal and hanging dates; age at time of offence; age at execution; ethnicity; religion; gender and nationality; etc).
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The news report also tells us that the number of successful applicants have fallen, but figures given were only for the years 2008 to 2010:
What about the years before that?
What about the total number of applications received? Even for the years 2008 to 2010, we can’t see what the total is. Adding the number of successful and rejected applications do not yield the total, because there could well be plenty of applications that were received but not acted upon and carried over to future years for consideration.
This is hopeless. Such drip-feed do not make for an informed public.
Moreover, the minister refused to answer the second part of Pritam Singh’s parliamentary question about the specific criteria for approval. Teo said “It would not be appropriate to reveal the specific criteria for approval of PR applications as this could encourage individuals to attempt to circumvent or abuse the system.” But for the government to operate behind a cloak of opacity would also be undesirable – as this might encourage officials to exploit the system for private or unacceptably ideological ends.
The government should release lots more data about immigration policy implementation. For example, annual tables should be provided, showing:
- Numbers – Pending applications brought froward from previous years + new applications received – applications rejected – applications approved = pending applications carried over to following year
Then, parallel tables for successful and unsuccessful applicants:
- Working/non-working status – Whether working at time of application or non-working. If working, what occupational category? If not working, what relationship to the root applicant (i.e. spouse, child, etc)?
- Qualification and income level – For those who are working, highest qualification attained, what field, and what current income band?
- Language proficiency – Applicants’ test scores on standardised English proficiency tests*
- Other demographic data – Gender, age, nationality, most recent country of residence prior to arrival in Singapore.
(*I know we don’t yet have standardised English proficiency tests for Permanent Residency applications, but we should.)
Needless to say, in the spirit of Open Data, the tables should be in machine readable format.
(The two Straits Times stories mentioned can be seen archived here.)
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Coming back to misleading conclusions from incomplete information, what are they eating?