Alt-HCI open reviews – please join in

Papers are online for the Alt-HCI trcak of British HCI conference in September.

These are papers that are trying in various ways to push the limits of HCI, and we would like as many people as possible to join in discussion around them … and this discussion will be part of process for deciding which papers are presented at the conference, and possibly how long we give them!

Here are the papers  — please visit the site, comment, discuss, Tweet/Facebook about them.

paper #154 — How good is this conference? Evaluating conference reviewing and selectivity
        do conference reviews get it right? is it possible to measure this?

paper #165 — Hackinars: tinkering with academic practice
        doing vs talking – would you swop seminars for hack days?

paper #170 — Deriving Global Navigation from Taxonomic Lexical Relations
        website design – can you find perfect words and structure for everyone?

paper #181 — User Experience Study of Multiple Photo Streams Visualization
        lots of photos, devices, people – how to see them all?

paper #186 — You Only Live Twice or The Years We Wasted Caring about Shoulder-Surfing
        are people peeking at your passwords? what’s the real security problem?

paper #191 — Constructing the Cool Wall: A Tool to Explore Teen Meanings of Cool
        do you want to make thing teens think cool?  find out how!

paper #201 — A computer for the mature: what might it look like, and can we get there from here?
        over 50s have 80% of wealth, do you design well for them?

paper #222 — Remediation of the wearable space at the intersection of wearable technologies and interactive architecture
        wearable technology meets interactive architecture

paper #223 — Designing Blended Spaces
        where real and digital worlds collide

I want to pay more tax too

Some of the ‘super rich’ in the US are beginning to ask publicly why it is they pay so little tax.  For those of us less rich, but still with above average salaries, perhaps we should be asking the same.  In the UK the effective rate of tax is 32% for those on average pay and 40% for those on high pay, hardly a progressive system.  Yes government, please tax the super rich more, but tax me properly too.

I have just have read Stephen King fantastic article “Tax Me, for F@%&’s Sake!1 where he joins Warren Buffett in questioning why he, as part of the super rich, does not pay more tax.  He does give to charity, but argues that that this is not the same as paying tax, which is crucially abut citizenary.  This all falls out from statistics that show the richest in the US end up paying a far smaller percentage of their income than the average citizen.  Effectively King argues that the issue here is not about entitlement or rights, but responsibility.

King is talking about the super rich in the US and similar statistics in the UK show the richest 10% paying only marginally more taxes than the poorest 10%, and certainly less than the average tax payer.

However, the same arguments also apply to those who are not super rich, but on the better end of the income scale —  including me.

In recent years I have cut my income substantially by choosing to work part-time in order to (try to!) do more personal research, still some of my income falls into ‘higher rate’ tax — so by that measure I am well off2.

You might think that being in the higher tax threshold means you pay a lot more tax; after all the basic rate tax in the UK is 20% and the higher rate is 40%.  You might think that, but think again!  Even without tax avoidance measures used by the very rich or the fact that the poor tend to end up paying more indirect taxes such as VAT (purchase tax) and duty (on alcohol and fuel), still my marginal rate is only slightly higher than that of basic income.  I pay an effective marginal rate of 40%, but those on lower income in reality pay 32%, not the 20% that it says ‘on the tin’.

The reason for this is National Insurance.  For those not on the UK, this is an additional tax, started in 1911 and expanded in the 1940s to pay for health, pension and other welfare provision — just as you might take out a private health insurance, or pension, national insurance was intended to be a sort of pooled insurance arranged by government.  However unlike private insurance, it has always been redistributive — the rich pay more, but do not get proportionally higher benefits.

In the UK since the Thatcher years, but continued by subsequent Labour governments, there has been a gradual shift from ‘in your face’ income tax, to less visible taxes, notably National Insurance and VAT.  In 1978 National Insurance was at 6.75% (on income over a lower threshold) and the standard rate of VAT, paid on most basic goods and services you bought in shops, was 8%3.  Currently the equivalent figures are 12% for National Insurance and 20% for VAT.  That is the combined effect of these less visible taxes has more than doubled from 14.75% in 1978 to 32% today4.  Because these are flat rate taxes, they hit the poor as much as the rich.

However, it is worse than this first appears.  National Insurance has a maximum cut off point.  Above a certain point, you pay no more National Insurance … and crucially this point cuts in just before higher rate tax starts.  This means that in one’s pay cheque if you are earning an average wage you pay 32% of every additional pound in tax, whereas if your income is higher, over £40,000 or so, you pay 40%.

I’ll say this again, as it always seems unbelievable — in the UK, without any additional measures to reduce tax liability, the real difference between basic rate and higher tax is just 8%.

If then the person earning £15,000 buys a basketful of ordinary VAT goods, out of the 68p they have left they pay over 13p VAT, whereas the person with £50,000 income out the 60p in the pound they have left pay an additional 12p.  Adding the effect of VAT that makes the effective total rates of tax on an ordinary shopping basket at 45.6% for basic rate tax payers vs 52% for those on higher income.  In fact, even this is a little of a simplification, as some goods are zero rated (principally food) and some have additional duties (principally alcohol and fuel), but in fact this tends to make things worse as typically richer households have spending patterns that have a lower proportion of VAT and duty.

Like the US, the UK system is not progressive; so with Stephen King I say, “I want to pay more tax5.

In particular, take the lid of National Insurance, make me pay full National insurance on all my income.  At a conservative estimate this would be equivalent to the revenue of 5% VAT6 — if we all paid full NI, then either spending cuts could be less draconian, or the VAT rate could be cut by 5%, either of which would have a dramatic effect on those at the bottom of society for whom the pressing problem is not getting the best offshore tax break, but finding the next meal.

  1. Which he wrote in April, so I am a bit behind![back]
  2. Although you do have to be careful in using higher rate threshold as meaning ‘well off’, as the UK system is incredibly family-unfriendly.  Because tax is on an individual not household basis, if a couple earn £20,000 each they pay very little tax, but if one is not working — in particular if engaged in full-time child care — and one is earning £40,000, then that is heavily taxed.  This anomaly became apparent recently when the government proposed removing child-benefit, one of the few universal benefits, from those where one of the parents is paying higher rate tax. Strangely, when it comes to welfare benefits households become the unit! [back]
  3. See UK Tax History for historical rates of National Insurance and VAT.[back]
  4. See HM Revenue & Customs site for current NI and VAT rates.[back]
  5. And yes, I know that I can give to charity and indeed do tithe through Charities Aid Foundation and make other payments, but, as King argues, that is NOT the same as paying taxes.[back]
  6. I recall doing the calculations for this when the new government put up VAT some years ago, it was hard to get detailed figures for higher rate tax earnings, but made this estimate based on lower bounds of various brackets.[back]

open data: for all or the few?

On Twitter Jeni Tennison asked:

Question: aside from personally identifiable data, is there any data that *should not* be open?  @JenT 11:19 AM – 14 Jul 12

This sparked a Twitter discussion about limits to openness: exposure of undercover agents, information about critical services that could be exploited by terrorists, etc.   My own answer was:

maybe all data should be open when all have equal ability to use it & those who can (e.g. Google) make *all* processed data open too   @alanjohndix 11:34 AM – 14 Jul 12

That is, it is not clear that just because data is open to all, it can be used equally by everyone.  In particular it will tend to be the powerful (governments and global companies) who have the computational facilities and expertise to exploit openly available data.

In India statistics about the use of their own open government data1 showed that the majority of access to the data was by well-off males over the age of 50 (oops that may include me!) – hardly a cross section of society.  At  a global scale Google makes extensive use of open data (and in some cases such as orphaned works or screen-scraped sites seeks to make non-open works open), but, quite understandably for a profit-making company, Google regards the amalgamated resources as commercially sensitive, definitely not open.

Open data has great potential to empower communities and individuals and serve to strengthen democracy2.  However, we need to ensure that this potential is realised, to develop the tools and education that truly make this resource available to all3.  If not then open data, like unregulated open markets, will simply serve to strengthen the powerful and dis-empower the weak.

  1. I had a reference to this at one point, but can’t locate it, does anyone else have the source for this.[back]
  2. For example, see my post last year “Private schools and open data” about the way Rob Cowen @bobbiecowman used UK government data to refute the government’s own education claims.[back]
  3. In fact there are a variety of projects and activities that work in this area: hackathons, data analysis and visualisation websites such as IBM Many Eyes, data journalism such as Guardian Datablog and some government and international agencies go beyond simply publishing data and offer tools to help users interpret it (I recall Enrico Bertini, worked on this with one of the UN bodies some years go). Indeed there will be some interesting data for mashing at the next Tiree Tech Wave in the autumn.[back]

Status Code 451- and the burning of books

I was really pleased to see that Alessio Malizia has just started to blog.  An early entry is a link to a Guardian article about Tim Bray‘s suggestion for a new status code of 451 when a site is blocked for legal reasons.

Bray’s tongue-in-cheek suggestion is both honouring Ray Bradbury, the author of Faranheit 451, and also satirising the censorship implicit in IP blocking such as the UK High Court decision in April to force ISPs to block Pirate Bay.

However, I have a feeling that perhaps the satire could be seen, so to speak, as on the other foot.

Faranheit 451 is about a future where books are burnt because they have increasingly been regarded as meaningless by a public focused on quick fix entertainment and mindless media: censorship more the result than the cause of societal malaise.

Just as Huxley’s Brave New World seemed to sneak up upon us until science fiction was everyday life, maybe Bradbury’s world is here with the web itself not the least force in the dissolution of intellectual life.

Bradbury foresaw ‘firemen’ who burnt the forbidden books, following in a long history of biblioclasts from the destruction of the Royal Library of Ashurbanipal at Ninevah to Nazi book burnings in the 1930s.  However, today it is the availability of information on the internet which is often used as an excuse for the closure of libraries, and publishers foresee the end of paper publication in the next five years.

Paradoxically it is the rearguard actions of publishers (albeit largely to protect profit not principle) that is one of the drivers behind IP blocking and ‘censorship’ of copyright piracy sites.  If I were to assign roles from Faranheit 451 to the current day protagonists it would be hard to decide which is more like the book-burning firemen.

Maybe Faranheit 451 has happened and we never noticed.

Open HCI course website live

The website,, went live last week for the (free!) open online HCI course I posted about a few weeks ago (“mooHCIc – a massive open online HCI course“).  Over the summer we will be adding more detailed content and taster material, however, crucially, it already has a form to register interest.  Full registration for the course will open in September ready for tyhe course start in October, but if you register at the site now we will be able to let you know when this is available, and any other major developments (like when taster videos go online :-))  Even if you have already emailed, Twitter messaged or Facebook-ed me to say you are interested, do add yourself online in case the combination of my memory and organisation fails :-/