“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.

“The Wizard of the Wash”, an open data parable

The fourth open data parable.

In a time long past, in a land far away, there was once a great fen. A vast, sprawling wetland filled with a richness of plants and criss-crossed with many tiny streams and rivers.

This fertile land was part of a great kingdom ruled by a wise and recently crowned king. The fen was home to a hardy and industrious people who made a living from fishing, cutting peat and gathering the rare herbs that sprouted amongst the verdant grasses.

At the time of this tale the new king was travelling across his lands to learn more about his people. In a certain area of the fen he expected to find a thriving town that had become widely renowned for the skills of its herbalists and fishermen.

Instead he came upon a ramshackle collection of makeshift huts and tents clinging to patches of dry ground. The dejected people living in these shelters had clearly fallen on hard times and were eking out a living on the verges of the fen. Nearby was what was clearly the ruins of their settlement. Houses had tumbled haphazardly into the waters. The broken remains were being picked over for materials to build shelters and provide wood for fires.

Speaking to a fisherman, the king asked “What terrible disaster has befallen your village? How have you good people been brought so low?”

While continuing his task of mending a fishing net, the fisherman proceeded to tell the following tale:

“Our town has grown slowly over the years, sire. We live a hard life in the fens, and building on this treacherous land takes great care. For years our people were limited to building on isolated patches of stable ground. Our original village clung tightly to the patches of rock hidden just beneath the surface of these waters.

Until we made our pact with the Wizard of the Wash.

One day the Wizard came to us and demonstrated his great magicks. Showing how his powers could be used to drive great wooden piles deep into the peat. Deep enough to reach the bedrock and let us build wherever we wished. We would need only ask the Wizard to create a stable footing and we could build wherever we chose. In return, and to complete our pact, we need only to collect for him the rarest herbs and plants for his research. An easy task for us as we have long known the secrets of the fen.

And so for many years we have prospered. Each year we have planned out where we would build our new houses and workshops. And pointed to where we needed new roads, inns and store houses. And each year the Wizard would oblige us with his magicks. The town has spread across the fen and we great started to grow rich from trade.

But then things began to change.

In the beginning the Wizard refused to drive new piles in a few places. He explained that he was concerned that the buildings may hinder certain herbs which grew in that area. And we followed his wishes for there were other places to build.

And so this continued. Each year the Wizard would reject some of our plans or convince us to change them for his own ends. For example where we once had planned a school he instead convinced us to build a new dock for his supply boats. Disappointed, we again submitted to his wishes, for we still needed to build and there was still space aplenty elsewhere. As traders we had grown accustomed to compromise.

But then the Wizard began to visit us more frequently, demanding to review in more detail our plans. He objected to certain buildings being extended as they blocked views that he enjoyed. He began to refuse to build in ever more locations and expressed opinions about how the town should grow.

Once he even required us to dismantle several houses so that we might build a better inn for him to stay in during his visits. He threatened to simply remove the foundations if we didn’t comply. In return he choose to drive in only a few new piles. As a result some families were forced to live in cramped and poorer lodgings. And what choice did we have but to comply?

In these last few years the Wizard has became ever more demanding. He has argued that these piles were his, had always been his, and that we have only been using them with his permission. If we were unhappy, he argued, we could simply return to building as we had before.

Sire, while these lands are ours and have been for many generations, we had gladly given ourselves over to a petty tyrant. Once the pact had been made it was easier to comply than to resist.

The final disaster happened a few months ago. The Wizard had long been growing old and unwell. One night he passed away whilst staying in our finest inn. And on that night all of his magicks were undone. And so our fine town suddenly fell back into the swamp.

And so, as you see, we were ruined.”

Sadden by the tale, the king realised that here was a people whose needs had long been overlooked, leaving them at the mercy of fickle powers. He resolved to help them rebuild.

On the spot he issued a decree for the Royal Engineers to provide assistance to any town, village or people that required help. His kingdom would be built on firm foundations.

On accessibility of data

My third open data “parable”. You can read the first and second ones here. With apologies to Borges.

. . . In that Empire, the Art of Information attained such Perfection that the data of a single City occupied the entirety of a Spreadsheet, and the datasets of the Empire, the entirety of a Portal. In time, those Unconscionable Datasets no longer satisfied, and the Governance Guilds struck a Register of the Empire whose coverage was that of the Empire, and which coincided identifier for identifier with it. The following Governments, who were not so fond of the Openness of Data as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast register was Valuable, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Voraciousness of Privatisation and Monopolies. In the Repositories of the Net, still today, there are Stale Copies of that Data, crowd-sourced by Startups and Citizens; in all the Commons there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Transparency.

Sharon More, The data roads less travelled. London, 2058.

 

“The woodcutter”, an open data parable

In a time long past, in a land far away, there was once a great forest. It was a huge sprawling forest containing every known species of tree. And perhaps a few more.

The forest was part of a kingdom that had been ruled over by an old mad king for many years. The old king had refused anyone access to the forest. Only he was allowed to hunt amongst its trees. And the wood from the trees was used only to craft things that the king desired.

But there was now a new king. Where the old king was miserly, the new king was generous. Where the old king was cruel, the new king was wise.

As his first decree, the king announced that the trails that meandered through the great forest might be used by anyone who needed passage. And that the wood from his forest could be used by anyone who needed it, provided that they first ask the king’s woodcutter.

Several months after his decree, whilst riding on the edge of the forest, the king happened upon a surprising scene.

Gone was the woodcutter’s small cottage and workshop. In its place had grown up a collection of massive workshops and storage sheds. Surrounding the buildings was a large wooden palisade in which was set some heavily barred gates. From inside the palisade came the sounds of furious activity: sawing, chopping and men shouting orders.

All around the compound, filling the nearby fields, was a bustling encampment. Looking at the array of liveries, flags and clothing on display, the king judged that there were people gathered here from all across his lands. From farms, cities, and towns. From the coast and the mountains. There were also many from neighbouring kingdoms.

It was also clear that many of these people had been living here for some time.

Perplexed, the king rode to the compound, making his way through the crowds waiting outside the gates. Once he had been granted entry, he immediately sought out the woodcutter, finding him directing activities from a high vantage point.

Climbing to stand beside the woodcutter the king asked, “Woodcutter, why are all these people waiting outside of your compound? Where is the wood that they seek?”

Flustered, the woodcutter, mopped his brow and bowed to his king. “Sire, these people shall have their wood as soon as we are ready. But first we must make preparations.”

“What preparations are needed?”, asked the king. “Your people have provided wood from this forest for many, many years. While the old king took little, is it not the same wood?”

“Ah, but sire, we must now provide the wood to so many different peoples”. Gesturing to a small group of tents close to the compound, the woodcutter continued: “Those are the ship builders. They need the longest, straightest planks to build their ships. And great trees to make their keels”.

“Over there are the house builders”, the woodcutter gestured, “they too need planks. But of a different size and from a different type of tree. This small group here represents the carpenters guild. They seek only the finest hard woods to craft clever jewellery boxes and similar fine goods.”

The king nodded. “So you have many more people to serve and many more trees to fell.”

“That is not all”, said the woodcutter pointing to another group. “Here are the river people who seek only logs to craft their dugout boats. Here are the toy makers who need fine pieces. Here are the fishermen seeking green wood for their smokers. And there the farmers and gardeners looking for bark and sawdust for bedding and mulch”.

The king nodded. “I see. But why are they still waiting for their wood? Why have you recruited men to build this compound and these workshops, instead of fetching the wood that they need?”

“How else are we to serve their needs sire? In the beginning I tried to handle each new request as it came in. But every day a new type and shape of wood. If I created planks, then the river people needed logs. If I created chippings, the house builders needed cladding.

Everyone saw only their own needs. Only I saw all of them. To fulfil your decree, I need to be ready to provide whatever the people needed.

And so unfortunately they must wait until we are better able to do so. Soon we will be, once the last dozen workshops are completed. Then we will be able to begin providing wood once more.”

The king frowned in thought. “Can the people not fetch their own wood from the forest?”

Sadly, the woodcutter said, “No sire. Outside of the known trails the woods are too dangerous. Only the woodcutters know the safe paths. And only the woodcutters know the art of finding the good wood and felling it safely. It is an art that is learnt over many years”.

“But don’t you see?” said the King, “You need only do this and then let others do the rest. Fell the trees and bring the logs here. Let others do the making of planks and cladding. Let others worry about running the workshops. There is a host of people here outside your walls who can help. Let them help serve each others needs. You need only provide the raw materials”.

And with this the king ordered the gates to the compound to be opened, sending the relieved woodcutter back to the forest.

Returning to the compound many months later, the king once again found it to be a hive of activity. Except now the house builders and ship makers were crafting many sizes and shapes of planks. The toy makers took offcuts to shape the small pieces they needed, and the gardeners swept the leavings from all into sacks to carry to their gardens.

Happy that his decree had at last been fulfilled, the king continued on his way.


Read the first open data parable, “The scribe and the djinn’s agreement“.

“The scribe and the djinn’s agreement”, an open data parable

In a time long past, in a land far away, there was once a great city. It was the greatest city in the land and the vast marketplace at its centre was the busiest, liveliest marketplace in the world. People of all nations could be found there buying and selling their wares. Indeed, the marketplace was so large that people would spend days, even weeks, exploring its length and breadth would still discover new stalls selling a myriad of items.

A frequent visitor to the marketplace was a woman known only as the Scribe. While the Scribe was often found roaming the marketplace even she did not know of all of the merchants to be found within its confines. Yet she spent many a day helping others to find their way to the stalls they were seeking, and was happy to do so.

One day, as a gift for providing useful guidance, a mysterious stranger gave the Scribe a gift: a small magical lamp. Upon rubbing the lamp a djinn appeared before the suprised Scribe and offered her a single wish.

“Oh venerable djinn” cried the Scribe, “grant me the power to help anyone that comes to this marketplace. I wish to help anyone who needs it to find their way to whatever they desire”.

With a sneer the djinn replied: “I will grant your wish. But know this: your new found power shall come with limits. For I am a capricious spirit who resents his confinement in this lamp”. And with a flash and a roll of thunder, the magic was completed. And in the hands of the Scribe appeared the Book.

The Book contained the name and location of every merchant in the marketplace. From that day forward, by reading from the Book, the Scribe was able to help anyone who needed assistance to find whatever they needed.

After several weeks of wandering the market, happily helping those in need, the Scribe was alarmed to discover that she was confronted by a long, long line of people.

“What is happening?” she asked of the person at the head of the queue.

“It is now widely known that no-one should come to the Market without consulting the Scribe” said the man, bowing. “Could you direct me to the nearest merchant selling the finest silks and tapestries?”

And from that point forward the Scribe was faced with a never-ending stream of people asking for help. Tired and worn and no longer able to enjoy wandering the marketplace as had been her whim, she was now confined to its gates. Directing all who entered, night and day.

After some time, a young man took pity on the Scribe, pushing his way to the front of the queue. “Tell me where all of the spice merchants are to be found in the market, and then I shall share this with others!”

But no sooner had he said this than the djinn appeared in a puff of smoke: “NO! I forbid it!”. With a wave of its arm the Scribe was struck dumb until the young man departed. With a smirk the djinn disappeared.

Several days passed and a group of people arrived at the head of queue of petitioners.

“We too are scribes.” they said. “We come from a neighbouring town having heard of your plight. Our plan is to copy out your Book so that we might share your burden and help these people”.

But whilst a spark of hope was still flaring in the heart of the scribe, the djinn appeared once again. “NO! I forbid this too! Begone!” And with scream and a flash of light the scribes vanished. Looking smug the djinn disappeared.

Some time passes before a troupe of performers approach the Scribe. As a chorus they cried: “Look yonder at our stage, and the many people gathered before it. By taking turns from reading from the book, in front of wide audience, we can easily share your burden”.

But shaking her head the Scribe could only turn away whilst the djinn visited ruin upon the troupe. “No more” she whispered sadly.

And so, for many years the Scribe remained as she had been, imprisoned within the subtle trap of the djinn of the lamp. Until, one day a traveller appeared in the market. Upon reaching the head of the endless line of penitents, the man asked of the Scribe:

“Where should you go to rid your self of the evil djinn?”.

Surprised, and with sudden hope, the Scribe turned the pages of her Book…