Showing posts with label Social Issues. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Social Issues. Show all posts

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Colombia's national agricultural strike can use some facts and numbers to aid the public discussions

Today, there is the largest yet march in the cities of Colombia during the country's nationwide agricultural paro (strike) by the campesinos (farmers). It's been 10 days so far. Students (suspending classes), truck drivers, health workers, together with miners, potato and other small farmers, coffee growers will all march today. The situation is fairly grave. You can read about the demands of the farmers here, but in summary, they are asking for financial help from the government for seeds, fertilisers, fuel and highway tolls. (FYI: Colombia's highway toll costs have been the highest in our year-long South America trip so far.)

Photo source: &, screen captures from here and here

A lot of emotions, but how much is all this financial help?

Not clear.

All the reporting by newspapers like this, this and this, only ever talk about whether the farmers and the government have reached an agreement, that the road block continues, that the food prices are rising due to shortage, that there are more blocks and marches, etc. Nothing concrete about how much all this financial help amounts to, not even a summarised high level figure.

Minimum: half a million US dollars.

The best I could gather was from this article, that the government has asked for 1 billion pesos (~half million USD) to be added to the agricultural budget. My best guess is that this is the minimum, because Colombia is not that expensive, but it's not that cheap either. Nothing on the news can tell me what the range of this ballpark figure could be though.

More likely: 20 million US dollars.
As this article suggests that earlier this year when there was a one-day strike by the farmers, this is the amount the government promised, but never materialised.

Note: none of the figures above says the time period. Is it over a year, or many years? No clue.
Also note the large range between the two figures.

Facts and numbers can help bring neutrality to the conflict.

As an outsider, there appears to be strong popular support for the farmers in the country, all based on sentiments though. It is a us the people versus them the government situation. 

There is very little facts and figures being discussed. Had the government analysed the costs of the agricultural financial help being asked for, and let the people know the consequences and the financial size of the negotiation talks, people would then have an idea to what degree their government can afford to help the farmers. These farmers are indeed quite poor, so images of their leathery and sunken faces shrouded in an earthy poncho arouse a lot of sympathy from the media and social media. 

Without concrete numbers, people are acting solely on emotions. Instead of posing the question, "can we as a nation help the farmers, and how much", it is instead a finger pointing exercise by the people to the government that they have forgotten about the country's farmers. The government has next to no sympathy from the people. Aggressive riots continue that are met by hoards of police in full riot gear. Bloody conflicts pursue day after day. People are getting angrier. There is only black and white, us and them in the story. No neutrality.

Is the government missing a great opportunity to introduce changes to its tax system?

In my opinion, this is a great opportunity for the government to do small step changes in its tax system. That is, IF they can outline the costs involved for the financial help to the farmers, so that the people can understand the consequences. Since there is strong popular support for the farmers, and assuming the government runs the country with money from taxation of the people it serves, the government should be asking the Colombian people to fund the farmer's agricultural activities through taxation.

The country's economy is growing a lot, despite a biased international image of a dangerous drug land. Its city people have a relatively high standard of living compared to its neighbours in South America. As tourists, we feel its prices and infrastructure is comparable to countries like Chile and Argentina. As the country grows more, its tax system is going to need reforms to fund all the nation's spendings, as it is relatively low right now compared to western standards. I cannot think of a better opportunity to introduce such changes. That said, there is a lot I don't know about the country!

Finally, where are the road blocks? Can I get around?

Read this list, updated daily.

Nope, there is no map.

I'm thankful for the information provided by the helpful service #767. At a glance though, without knowing the country's cities and towns super well, I struggle to know whether there are any open roads towards my destination.

Neither do I have a visual context of the scale of the road blocks.

As we sit here in Bogota, Colombia, totally stuck and unable to leave the capital due to rubber-tire-burning and rocky-fallen-tree-stumps road blocks setup by protesting farmers, we are selfishly annoyed by the disturbance to our year-long South American trip in a mini, self-made casa rodante (house on wheels). We don't want to risk driving through these road blocks, as our friends on the road had firsthand experience going through them. Although they pleaded their way through the blocks ultimately safely, they did also report incidents of rock throwing, tire puncturing, window breaking, etc., done to other cars. Some Colombians say the farmers won't do anything to us and our car, since we are foreigners, but tense conflicts do not always afford reasons. Therefore, we're waiting it out on our friend's couch.

Photo source:, screen captures from here

Special thanks to Angela, William, Julian and Sergio for generously accommodating us in and around Bogota. Colombians are such kind and generous people, helping us completely out of the blue, and in this case, accommodating us simply having met us in hotels or on the roads. Thank you. I wish for peace in your country.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

The Slightly Rosier Side of Gambling Analytics

Having posted about the ugly side of analytics - casino loyalty programmes, the Guardian's DataBlog caught my eye with their article on a rosier side of gambling analytics, where UK technology firm uses machine learning to combat gambling addiction.

Of course, a business is still a business. It needs to be profitable, so there are reasons more than just "let's be good". I list out below my take on the reasons for "them" the gamblers clients, and the reasons for "us" the casinos. Note, I simply assumed the machine learning study is sponsored by the casinos.

Just for "them":

Casinos too have a corporate social responsibility (CSP). Helping pathological gamblers, or identifying them before they become one is a nice thing to do.

For "them" and for "us":

More for everyone! They get to play more, and we get to profit more. The more people play a bit for longer is better than playing a lot for a short amount of time due to self exclusion lists. (I'm not sure which is the better evil of the two though...)
That's the business case. It's not all soft and cuddly like the CSP. Well, ok, business cases almost never are.
"If you can help that player have long term sustainable activity, then over the long term that customer will be of more value to you than if they make a short term loss, decide they are out of control and withdraw completely"

Just for "us":

Minimising gambling problems helps keep the country's regulators off the companies' backs, so they don't have to relocate when the country's regulations tighten. Relocation = cost. A lot of it.
"And there's also brand reputation for the operator. No company wants to be named in a case study of extreme gambling addiction, to be named in relation to a problem gambler losing their house"

A side note: This reaffirmed why I don't's a lose-win situation.

"A lot of casino games operate around a return-to-player rate (RTP) whereby if the customer pays, say £100, the game would be set up to pay back an average of £90. Different games will have different RTPs, and there are a few schools of thought on whether certain rates have different impacts on somebody's likelihood of becoming addicted.Some believe that if you lose really quickly, you'll be out of funds very quickly and will leave, and that a higher RTP will keep people on site, but others disagree"

I highly recommend reading the full article on the DataBlog.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Ugly Side of Analytics - Casino Customer Loyalty

While listening to This American Life's episode "Blackjack", its Act 2 had me in the car saying, "oh no, they did not!"  The "they" is the Caesars Entertainment Corporations (the casino), and yes, they have a customer loyalty programme that they use to "attract more customers", and claim it's no different than other such programmes in industries like supermarkets, hotels, airlines or dry cleaners.

Well...there is a wee bit of difference.

No one is addicted to dry cleaning.

I am saddened that analytics is used to help the casino loyalty programme and hurt the pathological gamblers. The show indicates that the programme identifies "high value customers" using loyalty cards, tracking all spend and results, and then offer them the "right" rewards to keep them coming back. Most addicted gamblers are "high value customers". The bigger the looser, the more the reward. Rewards include drinks and meals, hotel suites, trips to casinos (if you don't live there), to gifts like handbags and diamonds.

Analytics and Operational Research is supposed to be the Science of Better.

I'd like to call on all professionals in the analytics field to reflect on the moral goodness, or lack of, in your work.

There is still hope though. If casinos can use analytics to identify problem gamblers, then others can too. Given pathological gambling is a mental health issue, is it time for NGOs or governments to catch up with technology and get their hands on those loyalty card data?

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

School uniforms in developing countries: An unnecessary evil? - High-level test

Earlier I wrote a post about the requirement for school uniforms in developing countries and how I saw this as a potentially offensive injustice. I completed the first step by forming my hypothesis, "The unnecessary requirement for school uniforms in developing countries puts undue financial stress on families already struggling to afford basic necessities and/or tuition, and potentially even excludes some children from attendance." Now I am looking to test that hypothesis quickly at a high level. I want to do some research to gain reasonable assurance that the hypothesis is correct before I might move on to establish the magnitude of the problem.

Schools for Africa is a UK Registered Charity mainly focused on building schools, but who also say: "£40 will buy 10 sets of primary school uniforms". To put this into perspective:
  • They also say: "£235 will buy 50 text books for the children to share". That's £4.70 per textbook vs. £4.00 per uniform.
  • £4 is about the same as an average day's wages in Ghana
  • £4 is about the same as an average week's wages in Ethiopia
  • I choose these countries as I visited them in 2011, but it is worth noting that Wikipedia reports school uniforms as required in Ghana
The folks at Project Ethiopia, an American 501(c)(3) have reportedly bought 1,695 school uniforms at $8 a piece. These uniforms are also said to last two years, so that's an annual cost of only $4. They make the relevant point that these uniforms are the only set of clothing for many, which would lower the additional burden of the uniform requirement on top of that for clothes. Note, however, that $8 is more than a week's wages as calculated above. Again for perspective:
  • They also claim to buy over library books for $3 a piece
  • They also claim to buy a years school supplies (5 exercise books, 1 pen, bar of soap) for $3
Gift Ethiopia, a UK Charity will provide an Ethiopian school uniform for £8, describing it as such:
Without a uniform, many children in Ethiopia are unable to attend school. Many families, especially larger ones, struggle to provide a uniform for all their children. These children are denied an education and the chance to socialise with children their own age. Your gift will provide a student with a brand new, full school uniform, ensuring they can take their place in the classroom with pride.
  • £8 for a school uniform is about the same as they say it will cost to provide a school dinner for over 10 weeks
The first program listed on the website for Common Threadz, a 501(c)(3) American non-profit, is "School Uniforms for Orphans & Vulnerable Children". They describe the problem:
For families facing the challenges of poverty in Africa, school clothes are not as crucial as the next meal. The direct costs of education, from a uniform and shoes to books and stationery, force millions of orphans and vulnerable children to miss out on school each year. For a child in need from a poor rural family who may only own one pair of old pants or a tattered dress, a school uniform is not just a requirement, but essential to build confidence and academic success.
World Vision UK runs MustHaveGifts, and sells a pretty smart looking Pakistani school uniform for £12.
  • The uniform is described thusly:
    • Pakistan: Children who can't afford a compulsory school uniform can be denied the right to an education, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation. With a school uniform, children can attend school for the very first time and get on the path to a brighter future.
  • At $2,500 USD per capita PPP GDP de-adjusted to remove PPP is $941 or £1.65 per day or almost £12 per week
Based on the above I think that we can conclude that there is reasonable evidence to suggest that in parts of the developing world school uniforms are comparatively expensive and a prerequisite to education.

The next step, though I may not endeavour to take it due to the scale of effort required, is to gather all of the available evidence together to establish a high-level estimate of the scale of the problem. What is the aggregate cost of school uniforms across the developing world? How many children are denied an education as a consequence of their family not being able to afford school uniforms? Ultimately building to the question, What if the requirement were abolished? Once we know the "size of the prize", and please do forgive me for that blatant consultant-ism, we can begin sizing up what can be done about it.

School uniforms in developing countries: An unnecessary evil? - Hypothesis

There are charities helping families in developing countries to buy school uniforms for their children so that they can attend school. This is a good thing, right? Which part? The part about charities helping families in developing countries or the part where this is even a problem? If what I consider to be an arbitrary policy is preventing impoverished children from getting a primary education, this is a great injustice.

Testing this with a few friends, I have concluded that this quite possibly is the case, and I also received some stark warnings about the social, cultural, and psychological dimensions to school uniforms. These warnings are certainly valid, but many great in justices in this world have been toppled that were held up by social, cultural, and psychological factors. The question is, how big is the problem, how big are the barriers, and are our efforts best placed elsewhere?

It occurred to me that this is an opportunity to try out some strategic modelling and analysis, something that I do often in my current work. I have already completed the first step of forming a hypothesis and testing with a few peers. To pursue the problem further I would take the following steps:
  1. Form a hypothesis:
      The unnecessary requirement for school uniforms in developing countries puts undue financial stress on families already struggling to afford basic necessities and/or tuition, and potentially even excludes some children from attendance.
  2. Test hypothesis at a high level
      Gather whatever evidence is at hand or easily available to sense-check and/or refine the hypothesis. Might the hypothesis be true? Is it likely enough to be true enough to warrant further investigation?
  3. Estimate the magnitude of the problem/scale of the potential benefits from taking action
      This will be much like a top-down strategic business case. The key focus will be "What if we could achieve a change?" without yet talking specifically about what actions would be required. Like the previous step, this is another gate we have to pass where we must be certain it is worthwhile proceeding. The output can also be an important number socially, as $x million lost per year or y thousand children excluded from primary education worldwide can be a useful catalyst for change as it is shared and repeated.
  4. Develop a portfolio of initiatives
      Preferably in a brainstorming/facilitated workshop environment, work with stakeholders and subject matter experts to generate potential initiatives or interventions to address the problem.
  5. Prioritize initiatives
      Estimate costs, benefits, and risks of each initiative and then build an action plan, selecting the highest benefit set of activities that fit within your budget or capacity while managing/minimizing risk. This is a classic Operations Research portfolio optimization knapsack problem, though in practice, problem sizes are small mathematics are rarely used.