“The Rock Thane”, an open data parable

In a time long past, in a land far away, there was a once a troubled kingdom. Despite the efforts of the King to offer justice freely to all, many of his subjects were troubled by unscrupulous merchants and greedy landowners. Time and again, the King heard claims of goods not being delivered, or disputes over land.

While the merchants and landowners were able to produce documents and affidavits to their defence, the King grew increasingly troubled. He felt that his subjects were being wronged, and he grew distrustful of the scribes that thronged the hallways of his courts and marketplaces.

One day, three wizards visited the kingdom. The wizards had travelled from the Far East, where as Masters of the Satoshi School, they had developed many curious spells. The three wizards were brothers. Na was the youngest, and was made to work hardest by his elder brothers, Ka and Mo. Mo, the eldest, was versed in many arts still unknown to his brothers.

Their offer to the King was simple: through the use of their magic they would remove all corruption from his lands. In return they would expect to be well paid for their efforts. Keen to be a just and respected ruler, the King agreed to the wizards’ plan. But while their offer was simple, the plan itself was complex.

The wizards explained that, through an obscure art, they could cause words and images to appear within a certain type of rock, or crystal which could be found commonly throughout the land. Once imbued with words, a crystal could no longer be changed even by a powerful wizard. In a masterful show of power, Ka and Mo embedded the King’s favourite poem and then a painting of his mother in a pair of crystals of the highest quality.

The wizards explained that rather than relying on parchment which could be faked or changed through the cunning application of pumice stones, they could use inscribed crystals to create indelible records of trading bills, property sales and other important documents.

The wizards also demonstrated to the King how, by channelling the power of their masters, groups of their acolytes could simultaneously record the same words in crystals all across the land. This meant that not only would there be an indisputable record of a given trade, but that there would immediately be dozens of copies available across the land, for anyone to check. Readily available and verifiable copies of any bill of trade would mean that no merchant could ever falsify a transaction.

In payment, the wizards would receive a gold piece for every crystal inscribed by their acolytes. Each crystal providing a clear proof of their works.

Impressed, the King decreed that henceforth, all across his lands, trading would now be carried out in trading posts staffed by teams of the wizards’ acolytes.

And, for a time, everything was fine.

But the King began to again receive troubling reports about trading disputes. Trust was failing once again. Speaking to his advisers and visiting some of the new trading posts, the King learned the source of the concerns.

When trading bills had been written on parchment, they could be read by anyone. This made them accessible to all. But only the wizards and their acolytes could read the words inscribed in the crystals. And the King’s subjects didn’t trust them.

Demanding an explanation, the King learnt that Na, the youngest wizard, had been tasked with providing the power necessary to inscribe the crystals. Not as versed in the art as his elder brothers, he was only able to inscribe the crystals with a limited number of words and only the haziest of images. Rather than inscribing easily readable bills of trade, Na and the acolytes were making inscriptions in a cryptic language known only to wizards.

Anyone wanting to read a bill had to request an acolyte to interpret it for them. Rumours had been spreading that the acolytes could be paid to interpret the runes in ways that were advantageous to those with sufficient coin.

The middle brother, Ka, attempted to placate the enraged King, proposing an alternative arrangement. He would oversee the inscribing of the crystals in the place of his brother. Skilled in additional spells, Ka’s proposal was that the crystals would no longer be inscribed with runes describing the bills of sale. Instead each crystal would simply hold the number of a page in a magical book. Each Book of Bills, would hold an infinite number of pages. And, when a sale was made one acolyte would write the bill into a fresh page of a Book, whilst another would inscribe the page number into a crystal. As before, across the land, other acolytes would simultaneously inscribe copies of the bills into other crystals and other copies of the Book.

In this way, anyone wanting to read a bill of sale could simply ask a Book of Bills to turn to the page they needed. Anyone could then read from the book. But the crystals themselves would remain the ultimate proof of the trade. While someone might have been able to fake a copy of a Book, no-one could fake one of the crystals.

Grudgingly accepting this even more complex arrangement, the King was briefly satisfied. Until the accident.

One day, the wizard Ka visited the Craggy Valley, to forage for the rare Ipoh herb, which was known to grow in that part of the Kingdom. However, in a sudden fog, the wizard slipped and fell to his doom. And at the moment of his death, all of the wizard’s spells were undone. In a blink of an eye, all of the magical Books of Bills disappeared. Along with every proof of trade.

Enraged once more, the King gave the eldest wizard one more opportunity to deliver. Mo reassured the King that his power was far greater and that he was uniquely able to deliver on his late brother’s promise. Mo explained that through various dark arts he was able to resist death. He demonstrated his skill to the King, recklessly drinking terrible poisons, and throwing himself from a high tower only to land unharmed. Stunned at this show of power, the King agreed that Mo could take up his brother’s task.

For a few months, the turmoil was resolved, until fresh reports of corruption begin to spread.

A dismayed King granted an audience to a retinue of merchants who had travelled from all across his kingdom. The merchants claimed to have evidence that discrepancies had begun to appear in the Books of Bills. In different towns and cities the Books showed slightly different numbers. There was also talk of a strange, shadowy figure who had been present at many of the trading posts in which discrepancies had been found.

Troubled, the King sent out soldiers to set watch on the trading posts, giving orders that they should attempt to capture and bring this stranger to the court.

Many weeks of waiting and watching passed. More evidence of corrupted Books of Bills continued to appear. Challenged to explain the allegations, Mo scoffed at the evidence. The wizard suggested that the problem was illiterate merchants, asserting that his acolytes were above suspicion.

But finally the king’s soldiers captured the shadowy stranger, and his identity was revealed.

While Mo was the oldest of the three wizards, he was not the eldest. There was a fourth brother, named To. Much older than his brothers, To had been stripped of his riches and banished for studying certain forbidden arts. It was from their brother that Na, Ka and Mo had learned many of their spells, including the arts of inscribing crystals and books, and the means of channelling their powers through acolytes.

Except To had not taught them everything. He had kept many secrets for himself and was able to corrupt the spells used to inscribe the crystals and Books. He was able to change page numbers to refer to other pages which he had inscribed with different words. He had been selling his skills to unscrupulous merchants in an attempt to grow rich once again.

Sickened of wizards and their complicated schemes, the King banished them from his kingdom, never to return.

The King then turned to the task of once more building trust in commerce across his land. He did this not by trusting in magics and complex schemes, but by addressing the problems with which he was originally faced. He decreed the founding of a guild, to create a cadre of trusted, reliable scribes. He appointed new ombudsman and magistrates across the land, to help oversee and administer all forms of trade. He founded libraries and reading rooms to increase literacy amongst his subjects, so that more of them could read and write their own bills of trade. And he offered free use of the courts to all, so that none were denied an opportunity to seek justice.

Many years passed before the King and his kingdom worked through their troubles. But in the history books, the King was forever known as “The Rock Thane”.

Read the previous open data parables: The scribe and the djinn’s agreement, and The woodcutter.