icm2re logo. icm2:re (I Changed My Mind Reviewing Everything) is an  ongoing web column  by Brunella Longo

This column deals with some aspects of change management processes experienced almost in any industry impacted by the digital revolution: how to select, create, gather, manage, interpret, share data and information either because of internal and usually incremental scope - such learning, educational and re-engineering processes - or because of external forces, like mergers and acquisitions, restructuring goals, new regulations or disruptive technologies.

The title - I Changed My Mind Reviewing Everything - is a tribute to authors and scientists from different disciplinary fields that have illuminated my understanding of intentional change and decision making processes during the last thirty years, explaining how we think - or how we think about the way we think. The logo is a bit of a divertissement, from the latin divertere that means turn in separate ways.

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Standards for life

A guess on the legacy of the Covid-19 pandemic

How to cite this article?
Longo, Brunella (2020). Standards for life. A guess on the legacy of the Covid-19 pandemic. icm2re [I Changed my Mind Reviewing Everything ISSN 2059-688X (Print)], 9.12 (December). http://www.icm2re.com/2020-12.html

How to cite this article?
Longo, Brunella (2020). Standards for life. A guess on the legacy of the Covid-19 pandemic. icm2re [I Changed my Mind Reviewing Everything ISSN 2059-688X (Online)], 9.12 (December). http://www.icm2re.com/2020-12.html

London, 23 November - Let's look forward: 2020 has been horrible for so many families and individuals, countries and organisations.

Even if we have managed to cope, the pandemic has brought everybody to their knees on a global scale and with unprecedented worldwide awareness and media coverage. To deal with the toughness of routines and family lives turned upside down, social relationship and career or care patterns diverted, not to mention the financial and health issues, and all happening at the same time, is something that not surprisingly makes many crying for mental health support.

Let’s look forward then. What is likely to be the legacy of the Covid 19 pandemic? My guess is that there will be an acceleration in understanding principles, rules and processes for data management and data engineering, with new international standards advocated, endorsed and developed in several fields. I may be slightly optimistically biased, but it really seems there is a confluence of consensus coming up from industry players, consumers associations and professional bodies. Perhaps there are too many initiatives put forward in a fragmentation of efforts and scope but the direction is clear.

I hear somebody arguing that there are already many standards out there, so why do we need more for artificial intelligence when not even a proper definition of intelligence has been agreed among experts? Of course this argument is utterly flawed. The meaning of every word can be philosophically debated at libitum, but that does not mean we cannot make up specific synthesis for the dictionary, according to some consensus reached in the literature.

In 2010 I was within the 10% of the UK population on the Cattell B scale and within the 35% of the UK population on the cultural fair scale according to the Mensa IQ test. I took the test again in 2018 and my score on the Cattell B scale was 136 and on the Culture Fair Scale was 121. These results put me respectively within the 6% and within the 10% the of the UK population the second time around - and yet I am being refused almost any work, contract, job in my field of expertise and I have to take housekeeping jobs to top up my welfare benefits and my very low income from writings and copyright royalties. It looks like my IQ improved in 2018 compared to the results I scored in 2010, possibly because I was able to control my performance much better the second time, in spite of being slightly slower. In sum, there is hope that for my 60th Birthday I may be eventually offered Mensa membership (reserved to those with IQs within the 2% of the population) and, who knows, I may also have more fortune in finding appropriate jobs in the meantime: the Cattell B scale is there for me to measure how my almost exceptional IQ can change over time.

Since long we have accepted at international level standard measurements of human intelligence applied to million of people for all sorts of education, employment or just for fun and self-assessment purposes.

If there is a will, there is a way to make also artificial intelligence out of the wild so that one day software systems and apps can have their own Cattell B scale.

The call for standards

It is indeed impressive the quantity and variety of stakeholders involved in projects that aim at infusing ethics and governance, social responsibility and sustainability into artificial intelligence, but an overall standard to measure the intelligence of AI is still further down the line. Earlier this year I was surprised to learn about the number of ongoing initiatives (1).

The ISO has published this year three new standards in the field of artificial intelligence and other nineteen are under development. Debates around these standards keep experts very busy but do not usually break the walls of the public opinion.

What I think is missing, even among experts, is a sense of enduring optimism that all the tension towards what the ancient greeks called “the good and the beauty” of standards of practice is going to work for the world of big data, and to produce workable goods and services widely accepted within the existing digital economy ecosystem.

Data quality and accuracy matter. I have considered the vicious circles created by blasé stances in policy making and in the public opinion in various articles of this magazine - particularly in icm2re 6.1, Save the Safest and in icm2re 7.4, Flaws and flops in deregulation and self assurance.

There is, generally speaking, an assumption of distrust both in top-bottom and in bottom-up approaches to data governance that cannot be fought and won without considering the “how” things are designed, procured, regulated, managed etc etc.

But the pandemic has put the entire world of science, research and education and their institutions in front of the issue few years ago I called data fixity (see icm2re 5.8, Is this your moment?).

This idea of fallible data at the root of public discourse and representations has been recently widely debated putting in the spotlight its consequences, variously addressed with notions of bias or truth decay.

Data that spread in the open web from a multiplicity of unregulated and freely accessible sources are often left behind. The torrent of false, wrong, incorrect and abandoned data create a paradise for pseudo-truths carvers and cybercriminals. Also honest storytellers from all walks of life and science can stumble in it.

We need standards for human life as well as for artificial intelligence, making simple and straightforward the prevention of data misuse. Full stop.

In conclusion

You might have lost one or two years of formal education, or lost your job or your savings or, even worse, lost friends and relatives and feared to loose your mind due to the pandemic.

If you are looking forward to the future of whatever interests you, there is no better starting point than asking what are the standards in a specific field of human expertise or endeavour? Are such standards covering every crucial aspect of how things are done or run? Who is in charge of the process and what stage has been reached? Is there any need for those who hold proprietary knowledge and exclusive know-how to provide guarantees of compliance with already existing basic standards (for instance in information, data and records management innumerable standards already exist that could also improve machine learning projects)? What else can be done to speed up standardisation of procedures and practices in a certain area?

You see enthusiasts ICT and project or change management professionals dealing with the many facets of the data science and data engineering prism proudly sharing links to speeches and presentations at any occasion (I have done this myself many times).

But it is rare that people focus on standards, on how we should do things. Standards are a still fundamentally boring subject, cultivated by bureaucrats, by political and economic organisations with their own culture and politics, sometimes taught in training courses for governance and compliance purposes, inflated with academic or vested interests, subject to powerful influences from the dominants players, and sadly at times dismissed by board of directors and shareholders just because they are endorsed and sponsored by competitors.

Standardisation is not an easy subject for social media conversations neither: it is unlikely that it fits with the overarching cultural trends that dominate the public discourse on science and technology - I refer here to themes like diversity in the workplace, sustainability, lifelong learning and employability and so on.

If you take a look at the section of International Standards pertinent to the pandemic the ISO has made available for free at http://www.iso.org/covid19, you see what difference a standard can make when we talk the “know-how” talk in respect of protective equipment and other health and safety requirements.

In a nutshell, think with me: time for Christmas is coming. Take a breath. Restart. Do not stop thinking about tomorrow. That is what standards are all about.


(1) Issue 2 of the "Journal of ICT Standardization" published this year contains interesting articles that trace a comprehensive overview of what has been done and what is ongoing in the field of Big Data/AI Standardization. In particular, see Ziegler, W. (2020) A Landscape Analysis of Standardisation in the Field of Artificial Intelligence, JICTS, Vol. 8_2, 123–150, doi: 10.13052/jicts2245-800X.823