Data, democracy, and…dairy?

How a modern-day dairy farm can be used to understand data and access to justice for all South Africans

On a recent vacation with my girlfriend and her family, I had the pleasure of being taken on a tour of a dairy farm by the farm manager. I haven’t been on too many working farms in my life, and can’t remember the last time I had. I’m one of those people that if you ask me where food comes from I’ll say “the supermarket.” When they said “dairy farm” my mind produced images of milkmaids, on milking stools, tugging away into a pale, like they do in children’s’ books. My reverie could not have been further from reality.

You may find my astonishment at modern farming sweetly naive or maybe bordering on downright ignorant. Nonetheless, dairy farming is a 10 000-year-old industry that has leapt headfirst into the modern age. Just like everyone else. Or so you would think.

What I found on the farm was not just mechanisation — I expected the machines — it was the use of data, and automated data collection and execution to run the most important parts of the process, that opened my eyes. My own work involves facilitating access to the legal system, one of the pillars of our democracy, and in less than an hour, I realised how far behind the times our legal system really is.

We cannot equate humans to cows, in fact, people are far more important, complex, and numerous in our legal system than cows on any single farm. Their journey through the system is also far more complicated than a cow’s. This means that to act in the public’s best interest it is even more important that we are able to collect better evidence for effective decision-making and advocacy.

SOME THINGS ARE NOT ALLOWED TO DIE

Industries that are not constantly evolving are doomed to extinction. Obsolescence is fine for commercial industries (we already have too much choice) but when it comes to branches of governance such as the Law, extinction is just not an option. And so the people are left to suffer at the hands of a system that won’t change because it doesn’t have to.

All the cows I saw had ear tags (which could be the equivalent of a case number) so that each individual could be tracked. At each stage in the feeding system, the tag triggers machines to produce a feed quantity and nutrient ratio customised to the animal currently at the trough. Some machines produced something (like food or medicine) and others collected information that feeds back into the system and automatically changes the output of the machines that produce food and medicine.

The farmer now only needs to watch the metrics instead of the cows. Which is easier? Physically watching almost 1000 (nearly identical looking) cows that move in all directions over a vast tract of land or staring at a few numbers and flashing light on a computer screen — which incidentally he said he could do while sitting in any coffee shop with wifi. The labour saved allows the farm manager to spend more of his resources on things machines can’t currently do.

The objective is no different from the last 10 000 years of farming. His is trying to get the most and best milk possible. For that, you still need happy, healthy cows that eat happy, healthy grass. Everything is the same, except that everything is now done differently. Technology, automation, and data are the foundation of what is done. The why doesn’t change.

To apply this analogy to the legal space, why do we continue to try to watch every cow, which we know is impossible? Why not turn each case into numbers on a screen, so that everybody can be counted and nobody’s matter falls through the cracks? The sheer scale of the law and the number of people involved in its processes can only be managed with the help of computers. For this to happen the law needs to digitise.

DIGITISATION ALLOWS FOR CITIZEN (PROPER) OVERSIGHT

My second point relies on the digitisation of legal records and court administration. Once we have the data, we can make it open, because making it open means greater control and oversight of a system by the true beneficiaries of that system.

In government and the law (unlike business), the problem is that those who control the system are not its beneficiaries. Why are we expecting people to continually work to improve a system they do not directly benefit from? A judge, barring any major malfeasance, is a judge for life. A lawyer who loses a case still gets paid. Court managers are employed to maintain the status quo and make sure nothing disrupts the flow applicants and respondent through the system. Justice is hardly ever a metric that’s measured in our courts. And unlike politicians, bureaucrats, administrators, and members of the judiciary cannot be voted out of their job.

Detailed data on the process is vital to transparency and accountability for one main reason: Who has a vested interested in good governance? Not politicians nor bureaucrats. This is not to be cynical, just realistic. The beneficiaries of good governance and service delivery are the people. So it stands to reason that they must have access to the information that allows for proper citizen oversight.

On the farm, if the computer says cow #17021 is getting sick (yes, the data can show when a cow is about to get sick!) and the farm manager does nothing, the cow gets sick and dies. The system relays this information to the farm owner who can go back in the data and see that the sick cow was flagged and the manager did nothing and then the manager gets disciplined.

If we could track thousands of families going through a court eviction, civil society could intervene at the level of the individual and look at the larger patterns and push for changes to the system. If data can allow us to tell us that a cow’s protein intake needs to be increased by 20%, then surely we can use it to flag cases where the Municipality must be joined to a matter where a tenant would be made homeless by their eviction — which is what the law states must happen. Collecting this data will, in fact, make applying the law correctly easier than it is now.

The tracking of data allows for a system that can ultimately help align all actions toward the desired goal, whether its quality milk or justice for all.

The legal system does not want to change. We see this every time activists from Reclaim the City go to the Wynberg Magistrates’ Court to monitor eviction cases, and confused low-income tenants are summarily evicted without knowing they had a right to free legal representation. We see this when the court manager stubbornly refuses to engage with those trying to help, saying that “this is her court” and she can apparently do as she pleases. We see this when the Magistrate willfully misuses the law to exclude the public from “open court” so they can’t perform an oversight function.

But civil society and the people (who the courts actually belong to) must drag them, kicking and screaming into the new age. The age of data and the age of open information and public oversight. We are at a stage where technology can tangibly facilitate greater democracy, but we need to fight for it politically. Paradoxically, if we care about the people in our justice system being able to fully realise their rights, then we must turn them into ones and zeros and allow modern computing to provide a level of administrative efficiency that humans alone just aren’t capable of. The tech is the tool, and we must be the artisans of our own future.

Related links