Working theory regarding bureaucracy

German form terror

I’m revising my working theory for Germany based on experiences from last week and other things that have happened. My old one on Germany’s attitude towards modernity still holds, but talking with open government activists and my experiences with government here, have prompted the following.

One of the biggest mysteries for me is why Germany is so far behind when it comes to open government compared to the Netherlands. With Hack de Overheid we have been on a roll last year with nearly every institution coming forward and pushing towards more openness. We even got Minister Verhagen on television to pledge to our goal. All of this does not mean we have won yet, but it does show a momentum into the right direction.

The German situation in comparison beggars belief. The very fact that it is a good thing for government to open up their data in a machine-readable fashion, still seems to be up for debate in many circles. The open government movement itself is denied outright and not heard in official proceedings even when it would be total common sense to take their input.

I have no clue how in this day and age such an opinion is tenable, but I will wager two possible explanations:

  1. German goverment is hideously complex. There are tons of layers of government because of the federal system and the scale of the country. There are also parallel governments and institutions that are similarly layered, so for each and every query you have, you may be pointed any way up, down or sideways into the hierarchy. This is a very easy way to get sent in endless loops and for the entire system to hold itself in gridlock.
  2. This one is more subtle: German government is very bureaucratical. The promise of open data and open government is ultimately to replace well defined bureaucratic systems with automation. At a point it no longer matters whether you send a physical form into government for human processing or whether you fill something in online and a computer performs the same operation.
    Whether they realize it or not, by filibustering openness in government, the civil servants are ensuring that they will still have a job in twenty years’ time.

And before you say the above is an unfair characterization of the ruling elites in Germany, you only have to read this recent missive by CDU Bundestag member Heveling (outtakes by Peter Bihr here) to confirm the ruling class’s difficult relation with the internet. Heveling has caused quite the uproar here. Though I wonder if the German twittersphere may let themselves be baited too easily. If we in the Netherlands went batshit crazy every time somebody from the CDA said something stupid about the internet, we would get nary a thing done.

Week 253

Last week we got the DSL at home to work (in two tries). It feels good to have that after something of a month of bureaucracy and false starts to deal with.

Then I went to PROGRAM’s last event on German/Turkish Material Exchange. An inspiring and eclectic evening and a shame to see the venue being wrapped up.
200+ years of German/Turkish material exchange

I met Peter Wollring, a videographer who has made the crossing to Berlin a long time ago, Peter Tegelaar, a startup veteran from Amsterdam and with Third Wave.

Finally I got the correct form te become self-employed today from the Finanzamt:
German form terror

The studio is still elusive, so the kitchen table is where it is at.
I really need a studio.

Starting up self-employed in Germany

I’m reading up on German tax and trade rules because I’m going to incorporate here this month and most of the things I read do not make me very happy. They look like they are more suited to a 19th century gentry than to creative workers in the multipolar 21st.

One such thing is being a Freiberufler. The Freiberuflich status, which means you work in a free profession, strikes me as an archaic oddity.

In the Netherlands we had the same for doctors, engineers and other learned individuals which meant you did not need to register at the Dutch Chamber of Commerce. You could just apply for a VAT number at the tax service and be in business. In the Netherlands this status got abolished and everybody was forced to register at that terrible excuse for an institution: the KvK.

In Germany being Freiberuflich rests on the same foundations but it also means you get a special tax cut (you don’t pay Gewerbesteuer) that other self-employed don’t get. This would seem to be along the division between people who create stuff from their knowledge and people who work in manufacture/trade.

That tax cut means that the Finanzamt examines your status a bit more stringently, because more people try to apply for the Freiberuflich status. There are a bunch of bizarrely outdated catalogue professions for which the decision has already been made. These number: blood type tester, ship compass rejiggerer and various other untranslatable things. In the digital professions the divisions are not very clear. A designer (in most cases) seems to be free, but a programmer (called by the humorous EDV —Elektronische Datenverarbeitung— term) usually not.

There are mainly two things wrong here.

The tax cut and the mostly arbitrary divisions that it entails seem unnecessary to me. For any enterprise, the difference between the cost you incur and the amount of money you can turn your time into, is your value add for which you already pay a VAT. Why then complicate matters with another tax designed especially to hurt the lower educated?

More principally, the division between being a free profession and not, at its core rests on whether somebody has undertaken higher education. Something you do for which you have been educated may be a free profession, while if you don’t have the education for it, this may become an issue. While in most cases, upon examination it won’t be an issue at all, the fact that this division exists and could have repercussions for your tax status, potentially has a chilling effect. It implies that your tax system and in effect most of your society is not based on merit, but on if you managed to pass this or that (university) gate. That strikes me as a very unhealthy signal.

Week 252

Last week was a week in Amsterdam (and what a week it was!).

Monday I was in the train, which seems to take shorter and shorter because of the worklfow achieved there. I dropped in straight to the Open Coop to push the stuff I had created online (among which a professional summary of 2011) and then went off to the Mediamatic Schommelclub where I saw most of the regulars and a great performance:
Natalia Dominguez Rangel sings and swings with a bear playing contrabass.

Tuesday I hung out with my friends from the Village before heading to Hubbub central for a bit of metagaming (arguing pro) and the kickoff for project saba. I also blogged about our Berlin plans on Hubbub and installed Unity on my laptop for some heavy duty game development.

Back where the thing is good

The project is going to be great if only judging from the concept art that was produced during that afternoon.

Wednesday was filled wit back to back meetings with Justus Bruns, hanging out at the awesome Brainsley offices, having lunch with lovely Tim de Gier, talking game design shop with Christine Fountain and then having dinner and going to a play with Oliver Verver.

Finding myself up on the wall

Thursday I spent cooped up at the Open Coop all day working on various Open State stuff and then it was off to the annual ISOC Chairperson’s Dinner and New Year’s Drinks. I discussed the option to change your date of birth with some of the more privacy minded attendees and that sparked this post.

Dinner with the bosses

And Friday it was a brief bit at the Coop to pack up my office and then jump on the train back to Berlin. I am now also a part of the Iron Blogger Berlin network to insure blog frequency.

Goodbye office

Whither the theater?

Talking to two young theater makers yesterday, I remarked that the majority of the Dutch plays I see don’t deliver the relevant and socially engaged experiences I would want them to. To which they asked why I still bothered going to the theater, a question I hear regularly from those in the more modern performing arts. They themselves hardly ever go and they make participatory theater, not the stage dramas that first come to mind. That is a response I get more often: that theater is boring, irrelevant and really ‘Why would anybody want to go?’

I often think the same on my obligatory trips to the Stadsschouwburg Amsterdam and other venues. What I need in theater is a visceral quality, acute social relevance and deep street savvy. One of those is hard enough to find most of the time, let alone all three. I went to 33 plays last year and only a handful of them delivered. The few that did, redeemed the boring, too long, too simple plays I’ve been to, but I think that there are irresolvable obstacles preventing the quality of theater from increasing.

On most of my visits I’m struck by how narrow a demographic (by age and social-economic status) frequents most theaters. This cannot but influence the performances to cater to the audience. The audience’s wishes notwithstanding, artistic autonomy would require boundaries to be pushed, but that too doesn’t happen all too often (see also ‘De studio uit, de wereld in’).

Having said that, the theater makers I would go to blindly in the Netherlands are:

  • Theu Boermans
  • Thibaud Delpeut
  • Eric de Vroedt
  • Ivo van Hove

Now having just moved to Berlin, I’ve seen a bunch of plays at die Schaubühne but nothing very titillating yet. That may be in part because I am yet to see something by Thomas Ostermeier, but it does beg the question why a theater would stage such wildly varying material and why the room still is full most of the nights. Answers to those questions are forthcoming after a more thorough sampling.

Week 251

Dropped in for a bit at the Wostel

Last week was my first week in Berlin in earnest and I was more than a bit eager to get back on the horse. On Monday I visited four coworking spaces, on Tuesday I met Marguerite Joly from the Hybrid Plattform and on Wednesday I visited a bunch more. Like I write over at Hubbub, I am looking for a studio space and much much more here in Berlin.

What is the collective noun for laptops? A tappering?

On Thursday I booked a spot at the beta breakfast at Betahaus through Gidsy where I met old friends and some interesting new people.

A somewhat more successful version of the modern concert hall

On Friday I had lunch with Rainer Kohlberger and then worked at betahaus for the rest of the day. I ended the week with drinks with the Gidsy and Third Wave crews.

This AAA washing machine is lit up like a Christmas tree.

Regain your privacy through bureaucracy

Going over the list of services that the municipality of Amsterdam offers this week, I couldn’t help but notice this:

the option to change your date of birth (without a foreign certificate)

Services the city of Amsterdam offers among which the option to change your date of birth

This is a very interesting option. I am not aware of the reasons one could assert to change their date of birth, but the fact that the option is listed, says something. In any case, it shouldn’t be too difficult to come up with a reason that fulfills official requirements.

Why would you want to do this?

I am reasonably sure that most statistical inference methods on databases are pinned fairly rigidly on the fact that somebody’s date of birth never changes. The various parts of your name can be mismatched, but if you do not have an id for somebody (like a social security number), the date of birth is your best bet to reduce the number of possible matches.

If you manage to change your date of birth if only by a day and re-register with that everywhere, you will have shed your privacy tail and can start anew. That by itself, struck me as a hopeful thought. Now just to have somebody try it out.

Post scriptum: I talked about this with Rejo and he suggested I FOIA the number of times this occurs and the reasons why it happens. I put that on my list, for some time in the future.

Work in 2011

In 2011:

I taught a minor in data visualization at the Willem de Kooning Academy.
I built bespoke cartography for the PvdA and for the AUB.
I presented at /dev/hague, ODEC, CHI sparks, Ignite Amsterdam.
I presented on cities and games for Virtueel Platform.
I gave several radio interviews.
I ran workshops at the ROOSdagen, the RIVM and the NOS.
I taught at the Hogeschool van Amsterdam.
I published a book review in Vrij Nederland.
I wrote a handful of game reviews in
I visited dConstruct, FOSDEM, the Infographics congress and Playful.
I got an iPhone 4.
I made journalistic visualizations for de Groene Amsterdammer and Sargasso.
I moved house twice, once across the city and the next time across Europe.
I launched a web store with the freshest graphics in the Netherlands.
I judged one app competition and chaired the proceedings of another.
I learned iOS programming.
I participated in a pilot for a interactive design television show.
I went to the Alps for the first time.
I joined the Next Speaker.
I raised funds for Bits of Freedom.
I created a glanceable display for transit in Amsterdam.
I wrote code for a theater play.
I moved studio from Volkskrantgebouw to the Open Coop and got the keys to another.
I taped a video report on the Utrecht game scene.
I was cured from my infatuation with Android.
I participated in a workshop with Manuel DeLanda.
I went to Berlin five times, the last time for good.

We launched the new Hack de Overheid site.
We created a large scale serious game for organizational change called Code 4.
We conceived and ran: Apps for Amsterdam, Apps for Noord-Holland and Apps voor Nederland
We created a bespoke platform for cartographic visualization called Statlas.
We organized five hackathons, among which Hack de Overheid, Nederland van Boven, a hackathon on a historic fortress island, an Open Data Bazaar and Code Camping Amsterdam where hundreds of people came to program dozens of civic applications.
We went to Cognitive Cities and rocked Berlin.
We merged Hack de Ovenheid and het Nieuwe Stemmen into a new entity called the Open State Foundation.

Cultural Consumption 2011

I dived into my log to make the yearly tally of what I did and saw. All in all 2011 has proven to be a good year.

It was a bit of a slow movie year though. I only saw 56, the best of which were: “Drive”, “Melancholia”, “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia”, “Blue Valentine”, “Norwegian Wood”, “True Grit”, “Almanya”, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” and “Kosmos”.

I went to 32 plays in 2011. The best ones:

I read 21 books in 2011. The most notable of those were:

I started tracking the games I played around halfway through the year, so this is not an exhaustive list, but five games I really enjoyed last year were: “Where is my Heart?”, “Nidhogg”, “Space Alert”, “The Binding of Isaac” and “The Resistance”.

Week 249

In the beginning of the week I spotted an interesting dataset on Sargasso, requested to play with it and got the following visual published the next day (our write-up).

Then it was off to Berlin to finalize things with the appartment and prepare the move.

My review of “Where is my Heart?” was also published in the that week (tweet):

Finally my proposal to present on the Apps for Amsterdam project on the Social Cities of Tomorrow conference was aspected and I will be attending and presenting at that conference in Amsterdam. Data commons are a topic that is very near to our practice and I look forward to exchanging ideas with those attending.