The Most Skipped Step When Opening a Relationship

You’ve had hundreds of hours of discussions on what your open relationship will look like? Check!

You’ve written down a list of limits, boundaries, rules, and expectations? Check!

You’ve created dating profiles that honestly detail what you are looking for and the honesty with your existing relationship? Check!

You’ve read at least 3 books together on the topic of nonmonogamy? Check?

You and your partner subscribe and listen to at least 3 nonmonogamous friendly podcasts? Check!

You’re all set! You open up the relationship and go off on your first dates… WHAM, arguing, suspicion, jealousy, withholding information, yelling, crying, breaking down… and a month later, you believe you don’t know each other anymore and you’re ready to call a marriage counsellor, divorce, forget you ever opened up your relationship, or all of the above.

What the hell happened?…

Means-Assessed Household Finances (Socialism Begins At Home!)

For the last four years or so, Ruth, JTA and I (and during their times living with us, Paul and Matt) have organised our finances according to a system of means-assessment. I’ve mentioned it to people on a number of ocassions, and every time it seems to attract interest, so I thought I’d explain how we got to it and how it works, so that others might benefit from it. We think it’s particularly good for families consisting of multiple adults sharing a single household (for example, polyamorous networks like ours, or families with grown children) but there are probably others who’d benefit from it, too – it’s perfectly reasonable for just two adults with different salaries to use it, for example. And I’ve made a sample spreadsheet that you’re welcome to copy and adapt, if you’d like to.

How we got here

JTA and Ruth at the supermarket after shoping before Murder... At The Magic College
That’s a long receipt!

After I left Aberystwyth and Ruth, JTA, Paul and I started living at “Earth”, our house in Headington, we realised that for the first time, the four of us were financially-connected to one another. We started by dividing the rent and council tax four ways (with an exemption for Paul while he was still looking for work), splitting the major annual expenses (insurance, TV license) between the largest earners, and taking turns to pay smaller, more-regular expenses (shopping, bills, etc.). This didn’t work out very well, because it only takes two cycles of you being the “unlucky” one who gets lumbered with the more-expensive-than-usual shopping trip – right before a party, for example – before it starts to feel like a bit of a lottery.

Our solution, then, was to replace the system with a fairer one. We started adding up our total expenditures over the course of each month and settling the difference between one another at the end of each month. Because we’re clearly raging socialists, we decided that the fairest (and most “family-like”) way to distribute responsibility was by a system of partial means-assessment: de chacun selon ses facultés.

JTA and Paul pack bags at the checkout, before Christmas 2010.
Another enormous shopping trip.

We started out with what we called “75% means-assessment”: in other words, a quarter of our shared expenditures were split evenly, four ways, and three-quarters were split proportionally in accordance with our gross income. We arrived at that figure after a little dissussion (and a computerised model that we could all play with on a big screen). Working from gross income invariably introduces inequalities into the system (some of which are mirrored in our income tax system) but a bigger unfairness came – as it does in wider society – from the fact that the difference between a very-low income and a low income is significantly more (from a disposable money perspective) than the difference between a low and a high income. This was relevant, because ‘personal’ expenses, such as mobile phone bills, were not included in the scheme and so we may have penalised lower-earners more than we had intended. On the other hand, 75% means-assessment was still significantly more-“communist” than 0%!

When I mentioned this system to people, sometimes they’d express surprise that I (as one of the higher earners) would agree to such an arrangement: the question was usually asked with a tone that implied that they expected the lower earners to mooch off of the higher earners, which (coupled with the clearly false idea that there’s a linear relationship between the amount of work involved in a job and the amount that it pays) would result in a “race to the bottom”, with each participant trying to do the smallest amount of work possible in order to maximise the degree to which they were subsidised by the others. From a game theory perspective, the argument makes sense, I would concede. But on the other hand – what the hell would I be doing agreeing to live with and share finances with (and then continuing to live with and share finances with) people whose ideology was so opposed to my own in the first place? Naturally, I trusted my fellow Earthlings in this arrangement: I already trusted them – that’s why I was living with them!

Louis Blanc
Louis Blanc had the right idea, but his idealism was hampered by the selfishness inherent in any sufficiently-large group. Had he brought socialism to his house, rather than his country, he might have felt more successful.

How it works

We’ve had a few iterations, but we eventually settled on a system at a higher rate of means-assessment: 100%! It’s not perfect, but it’s the fairest way I’ve ever been involved with of sharing the costs of running a house. I’ve put together a spreadsheet based on the one that we use that you can adapt to your own household, if you’d like to try a fairer way of splitting your bills – whether there are just two of you or lots of you in your home, this provides a genuinely equitable way to share your costs.

Means-assessed household finances sample sheet. Click to see the actual sheet.
Click on the sheet to see a Google Drive document that you can save a copy of and adapt to your own household.

The sheet I’ve provided – linked above – is not quite like ours: ours has extra features to handle Ruth and I’s fluctuating income (mine because of freelance work, Ruth’s because she’s gradually returning to work following a period of maternity leave), an archive of each month’s finances, tools to help handle repayments to one another of money borrowed, and convenience macros to highlight who owes what to whom. This is, then, a simplified version from which you can build a model for your own household, or that you can use as a starting point for discussions with your own tribe.

Start on the “People” sheet and tell it how many participants your household has, their names, and their relative incomes. Also add your proposed level of means-assessment: anything from 0% to 100%… or beyond, but that does have some interesting philosophical consequences.

Then, on the “Expenses” sheet, record each thing that your household pays for over the course of each month. At the bottom, it’ll total up how much each person has paid, and how much they would have been expected to pay, based on the level of your means-assessment: at 0%, for example, each person would be expected to pay 1/N of the total; at the other extreme (100%), a person with no income would be expected to make no contribution, and a person with twice the income of another would be expected to pay twice as much as them. It’ll also show the difference between the two values: so those who’ve paid less than their ‘share’ will have negative numbers and will owe money to those who’ve paid more than their share, indicated by positive numbers. Settle the difference… and you’re ready to roll on to the next month.

Now you’re equipped to employ a (wholly or partially) means-assessed model to your household finances. If you adapt this model or have ideas for its future development, I’d love to hear them.

How does a polyamorous relationship between four people work? | BBC News

Imagine one house, with four people, but five couples. How does it work, asks Jo Fidgen.

Charlie is talking excitedly about a first date she went on the night before.

Next to her on the sofa is her husband of six years, Tom. And on the other side of him is Sarah, who’s been in a relationship with Tom for the last five years. Sarah’s fiance, Chris, is in the kitchen making a cup of tea.

BBC News Magazine

Just One Q

When Claire and I changed our surnames to the letter Q, six and a quarter years ago, I was pretty sure that we were the only “Q”s in the world. Ah Q‘s name is a transliteration into the Latin alphabet; Stacey Q is a stage name that she doesn’t use outside of her work (she uses Swain in general); Suzi Q‘s “Q” is short for Quatro (perhaps popularised because of the similarly-named song, which came out when she was aged 7; Maggie Q‘s “Q” is short for Quigley (she finds that her full name is almost impossible for her fans in East Asia to pronounce); and both Q and Q are fictional. We were reasonably sure that we were the only two people in the world with our surname, and that was fine by us.

Q from James Bond.
Fictional, as much as we love them.

After Claire and I split up, in 2009, we both kept our new names. In my case, the name felt like it was “mine”, and represented me better than my birth name anyway. Plus, I’d really gotten to enjoy having a full name that’s only four letters long: when my poly-tribe-mates Ruth and JTA (each of whom have almost 30 letters in their full names!) were filling out mortgage application forms recently, I was able to get through the pages I had to fill significantly faster than either of them. There are perks to a short name.

Q from Star Trek.
Also fictional. But we’re less-upset about that.

I can’t say why Claire kept her new name, but I’m guessing that some of our reasons overlap. I’m also guessing that laziness played a part in her decision: it took her many months to finally get around to telling everybody she’d changed her name the first time around! And while I’ve tried to make it possible to change your name easily when I launched freedeedpoll.org.uk, there’s still at least a little letter-writing involved.

Now, though, it looks like I may soon become the only Q in the world:

@Poobar: She said yes! We are going to be the Drs Carter :-) @Eskoala: @poobar proposed (and I said yes!) so we are engaged! :D

Personally, I thought that after she passed her PhD she’d have even more reason to be called “Q”. I mean: “Dr. Q”: how cool is that? It sounds like a Bond villain or something. But on the other hand: if she wants to downgrade to an everyday name like “Carter” then, well, I guess that’s up to her. I shan’t blame them for not opting to hyphenate, though: “Carter-Q” sounds like a brand of ear bud.

U.S. President Jimmy Carter
It’s not like there was ever anybody famous called “Carter”. Except for this guy, I suppose. But he was more of a “brave politician in the face of international crises” character than a “Bond villain” character. Not fictional.

Seriously, though: good for them. If those crazy kids feel that marriage is for them, then I wish them the best of luck. And let’s face it, we’re approaching a bit of a lull in this run of all-of-our-friends-getting-married, so it’ll be nice to have an excuse for yet another wedding and a fabulous party (I’m jumping to conclusions and assuming that they’re going to invite me, especially after this blog post!).

Jimmy and Claire.
Aww. It’s a sweet photo, but somebody should probably buy them a tripod as a wedding present: it’s hard to keep the horizon level in an arms-length selfie.

In other name-related news, look out for me in the Money section of tomorrow’s Guardian, where I’ll be talking about deeds poll, as part of their series of articles on scammy websites. I always knew that it was only a matter of time before my photo appeared in a national newspaper: I guess I should just be thankful that it’s for something I’ve done right, rather than for something I’ve done wrong!

Update: Here’s the online version of the Guardian Money article.

Five

Earlier this month, Ruth and I spent a long weekend in the North to celebrate five years together as a couple. Technically, I suppose that we should have celebrated it the previous month, but we were up in Edinburgh at the time: we had, after all, first gotten together during our 2007 trip to Edinburgh, in lieu of actually watching any comedy.

Because of our change of date, we ended up celebrating the fifth anniversary of our relationship… on the same weekend as the fifth anniversary of QParty, the celebration of Claire and I’s relationship. QParty in turn took place five months after Claire and I changed our names, which itself happened on approximately the fifth anniversary of Claire and I meeting for the first time.

In Ruth and I’s case, this five year mark isn’t just a excuse to celebrate our success as a couple, but also to celebrate the success of she, JTA and I as a “vee“. Our unusual arrangement hasn’t been without its share of challenges: many of them challenges that more-conventional couples don’t face. But here we are, looking back on a busy five years and… well… still kicking ass.

She and I have been talking, on and off, about the idea of a party that the pair of us would like to throw, a little way down the line: something to celebrate us as a couple. Nothing quite so grand and enormous as Ruth & JTA’s wedding (what could top that!), but some variety of event. Needless to say, you’ll hear about it when it’s time to!

Edinburgh 2012 – Day Six

[spb_message color=”alert-info” width=”1/1″ el_position=”first last”]This post turned out longer than I expected. The first part is about comedy, whisky tasting, and a museum full of money. The second part is about how we were “outed” as being in a nonmonogamous relationship, and how it went really well. Click either link to jump to that section, or just start reading to get the whole thing.[/spb_message]

Another Day Of Edinburgh

Our sixth day at Edinburgh was perhaps the booziest. Realising that we still had a significant amount of wine that we bought earlier in the week that we hadn’t yet consumed, we started early: Ruth and I poured our first glasses at a hair before 11am, to go with our breakfast.

The set of Eight Worldly Winds.
The set of Eight Worldly Winds.

Our first show of the day was Sam Brady and the Eight Worldly Winds, a beautiful and subtle piece of observational comedy based on the life of the comedian, a “failed Buddhist monk”, thrice married, interspersed with “mildly adapted” readings of 11th century Chinese poetry. It was sedate and relaxing, as comedy shows go, but still funny and enjoyable, and I could have happily have listened to him for longer.

JTA and Ruth head along the path to the Mus£um On The Mound.
JTA and Ruth head along the path to the Mus£um On The Mound. Don’t be fooled by the glorious sunshine: it was drizzling again only a few hours later.

We had a little while before the next item on our schedule, and we opted to divert from our original plan to waste half an hour in a bar to instead explore the Mus£um On The Mound. This museum chronicles the history of money and banking, with a special focus on Scotland, and it’s remarkably interesting. We learned about early banking computers, quality assurance processes in banknote printing, and the evolution of the Building Society. If you think that all sounds terribly dull, then screw you.

JTA mints coinage.
JTA mints coinage. The lady in front of him jumped when he struck the trussell (that’s the bit you hit), as if she somehow expected that when she told him to “hit it as hard as he could” that he’d perhaps be more gentle than that.

JTA tried his hand at striking faces onto metal disks to make his own coins in the way that coinsmiths used to before about the 16th century, and I used a remarkably modern-looking computer to issue myself a remarkably old-style life insurance certificate (covering me for everything except death by duelling, suicide, or execution by the state).

My new life insurance policy form.
My new life insurance policy form. I put my occupation down as “landowner”, because apparently “web application developer” wasn’t a valid choice 150 years ago, and put down that I’d lost an arm as a preexisting medical condition, because I felt like that field ought to be used (I hadn’t made much use of the name field, after all).

Next, we made our way back to the Whiski Rooms for our second whisky tasting session of the week (our first was on day two). This time around we were drinking Jura (10 year old and 16 year old, and Superstition – one of my favourites) and Dalmore (12, 15, and 18 year old). We learned a lot about the different production processes for each, caskings and recaskings and still shapes and all kinds of things. We also tried the Dalmore 15 with some orange chocolate that complemented one another very well, and tried our hand at identifying different refined flavours by smell, from a set of numbered vials.

JTA and I drinking one of the selection of whiskies we've been offered the chance to taste.
JTA and I drinking one of the selection of whiskies we’ve been offered the chance to taste. Fun fact for those of you reading all of the captions: American brewing laws disallow the reuse of wooden casks; this is part of the reason that second-hand bourbon casks are so popular in the Scotch whisky industry – the Scottish, always looking for a bargain – can get them cheaply.

Next up, we watched The German Comedian (exactly what it says on the tin!), followed by You Are Being Lied To, by David Mulholland. The former provided a hilariously funny (and somewhat racist, although only in a very tongue-in-cheek and mostly in a self-deprecating way) commentary on European relations, world travel, and cultural differences in a brilliant and compelling way. The latter – by a comic who was formerly a journalist for the Wall Street Journal – ran a show with a far more serious message, about how media like The Daily Mail, The Sun, and The Telegraph (in particular) spin stories in a way that the kernel of truth in them is just about impossible to find. It was amusing enough, especially to hear him read, in a serious voice, genuine headlines and snippets of stories from those publications, and let us spot the bullshit.

Polyamory Comes To The Fringe

Me with a chap called Daniel, who grabbed me outside the show and asked me a string of questions about my relationship structure.
Me with a chap called Daniel, who grabbed me outside the show and asked me a string of questions about my relationship structure.

The other thing that was remarkable about these two comedians is that they both  independently asked about Ruth, JTA and I’s relationship structure. And what’s most remarkable about this is that it took so long before it happened. We’ve been here six days, at dozens of different comedy shows, and virtually always sat at the front. But today was the first day that the topic came up, and it came up twice in a row. What are the odds?

Polyamory is both your girlfriends ganging up on you.
Polyamory is both your girlfriends ganging up on you. Just when you thought it was safe to look at the Internet again, LOLCats are back.

The first comedian had asked if Ruth and JTA were a couple, and, upon getting an affirmative (which would usually be as far as the conversation would go: we’re not in the business of hijacking comedy shows with our relationships, I’d hasten to add), he asked “What’s the relationship between you two?”, gesturing to Ruth and I. So we answered. He asked for clarification a number of times, looking quite stumped and lost for words the whole period, but he was fluffy about it in general, which was nice.

The second really did just walk into it when he asked Ruth “So which of these two men are you with? Or is it both?” “Yes, both,” she replied, and, in the period of silence while the comedian was still trying to comprehend what she’d said, added, “We’re polyamorous.”

I was so very proud of her in that moment.

For me, adopting the out and proud approach of the gay community is an important part of “poly activism”: it almost feels like it’s my duty to make sure that people can see that we’re just another group of people in just another relationship, completely normal except for the fact that there are three of us instead of two. Talking openly and frankly about this stuff is the only way to normalise it and break the taboo, so I feel like my mini-activism helps all people in nonmonogamous relationships, even if just a little bit.

Ruth. I'm proud of her.
There’s the woman I love. And I’m ever-so proud of her.

Ruth, however, is more-reserved, and less-inclined to put herself in the public spotlight by putting the fact that she’s got a “bonus” partner “out there”. So to see her take the lead in saying, effectively, “Yes; I have two partners. Here they are. Yes, really. Is that okay?” – especially when she was sat sandwiched between a room full of strangers and a comedian (a very precarious place, as anybody who’s been picked on by a comic knows) – made my heart swell.

Later, a man called Daniel asked me some reasonably well-thought-out questions about “how it works”, and Ruth and JTA were approached by a woman who mentioned a similar arrangement in her own life. People in the same position are often delighted to “come out”, but only if somebody else does so first.

Had it been me that each comedian had spoken to first, instead of Ruth, I’d have certainly been as bold. But I might not have simultaneously been so frank and straightforward, so clearly-honest and approachable as Ruth managed in this, one of the most brave acts of poly-advocacy I’ve ever seen.

Nice work, Ruth.

Poly In The Media

As I mentioned in my reflections on this year’s Valentine’s Day, I was recently interviewed by a media student putting together a radio documentary as part of her Masters thesis. She’d chosen polyamory as the subject of her documentary, and I met her in a discussion on social news website Reddit. I’d originally expected that the only help I’d be able to provide would be some tips on handling the subject – and the community – sensitively and without excessive sensationalism, but it later turned out that I’d be able to be of more aid than I initially expected.

I rarely get the chance to talk to the media about polyamory. I’m happy to do so – I’m registered with the Polyamory Media Association and I’ll sometimes reply to the requests of the (sensible-sounding) journalists who reach out to the uk-poly mailing list. However, I’m often not a suitable candidate because my partner (Ruth) and her husband (JTA) aren’t so poly-activist-ey as me, and don’t really want to be interviewed or photographed or to generally put into the public eye.

Logo of the Polyamory Media Association.

I respect that. It’s actually pretty damn sensible to not want your private life paraded about in front of the world. I’ve known people who, despite taking part in a perfectly good documentary about their love lives, have faced discrimination from – for example – their neighbours, subsequently. I appreciate that, often, reporters are challenged by how hard it is to find people who are willing to talk about their non-monogamous relationships, but it turns out that there’s a pretty-good reason for that.

From my perspective, I feel like it’s my duty to stand up and say, “I’m in an ethical, consensual, non-monogamous relationship… and I’m just another normal guy!” Jokes aside about how I’m perhaps not the best spokesperson to represent a “normal guy”, this is important stuff: people practicing ethical non-monogamy face discrimination and misunderstanding primarily because society often doesn’t have a reference point from which to understand that these people are (otherwise) perfectly normal. And the sooner that we can fix that, the sooner that the world will shrug and get on with it. Gay people have been fighting a similar fight for far longer, and we’re only just getting to the point where we’re starting to see gay role models as film and television characters for whom their sexuality isn’t the defining or most-remarkable part of their identity. There’s a long way to go for all of us.

Emily: the media student who interviewed us.

Emily – the media student who came over to interview me – was friendly, approachable, and had clearly done her homework. Having spoken online or by telephone to journalists and authors who’ve not had a clue about what they were talking about, this was pretty refreshing. She also took care to outline the basis for her project, and the fact that it was primarily for her degree, and wouldn’t be adapted for broadcast without coming back and getting the permission of everybody involved.

I’m not sure which of these points “made the difference”, but Ruth (and later, JTA) surprised me be being keen to join in, sitting down with Emily and I over a bottle of wine and a big fluffy microphone and chatting quite frankly about what does and doesn’t work for us, what it all means, how to “make it work”, and so on. I was delighted to see how much our answers – even those to questions that we hadn’t anticipated or hadn’t really talked about between ourselves, before – aligned with one another, and how much compatibility clearly exists in our respective ideas and ideals.

I was particularly proud of Ruth. Despite having been dropped into this at virtually no notice, and having not previously read up on “how to talk to the media about polyamory” nor engaged in similar interviews before, she gave some wonderfully considered and concise soundbites that I’m sure will add a lot of weight and value to the final cut. Me? I keep an eye on things (thanks, Polyamory In The News) and go out of my way to look for opportunities to practice talking to people about my lifestyle choice. But even without that background, Ruth was a shining example of “how to do it”: the kind of poly spokesperson that I wish that we had more of.

I hope that Emily manages to find more people to interview and gets everything that she needs to make her project a success: she’s got a quiet tact that’s refreshing in polyamory journalism. Plus, she’s a genuinely nice person: after she took an interest in the board games collection on New Earth, we made sure to offer an open invite for her to come back for a games night sometime. Hell: maybe there’s another documentary in there, somewhere.

Valentine’s Day

Ruth, JTA and I had a fabulous Valentine’s Day evening, last night. Over the last few years we seem to have drifted into treating Valentine’s Day as being a general celebration of love, and those we love, rather than specifically about any particular relationship, as Ruth explained quite eloquently to the student journalist that interviewed us the previous day – more on that in a future blog post.

You can tell that it's Valentine's Day, because there are even more flowers than usual on New Earth.

It’s true. Anniversaries and our “date nights” are already an opportunity to celebrate the individual relationships between Ruth and I, and between Ruth and JTA. Meanwhile, JTA and I’s “Greek nights” are our chance to reinforce our platonic bond (over copious quantities of beer and whisky, and generally, diversion into gossip, public transport, and philosophy – often in that order). Valentine’s Day is one of our slightly-rarer “vee nights”: when the three of us make a deliberate effort to do something special as a threesome.

Paul‘s away this week, so we had New Earth to ourselves, and so mushrooms were on the menu (Paul really doesn’t like mushrooms, and the rest of us do, so it’s become a special treat that we eat lots of mushrooms on nights that we’re eating without him). We set a candlelit table, and I had a go at making a mushroom wellington, which turned out remarkably well despite the fact that I’ve cooked virtually nothing involving pastry for over a decade. Keeping with our “food that’s rolled up” theme, Ruth had produced a fantastic black forest roulade.

And so the evening wore on, and we ate copious quantities of doughnuts, and drank a lot of pink fizzy stuff, and re-watched Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.

Celebrating love (for as many people as you have) without buying into Valentine’s Day consumerism. Yeah, that sounds pretty good to me.

Poly and the Census – Success! (almost)

You may remember the long-running story of my letters to the Office of National Statistics, and the more-concentrated effort by another blogger, in regard to the automatic “correction” of supposedly-“erroneous” data in the 2011 census, like somebody having multiple partners or identifying as neither gender. You don’t? Well here’s a reminder: part one, part two, part three, part four.

Well: we’ve finally had some success. A response has been received from the ONS, including – at last – segments of business logic from their “correction” code.

It’s hard to tell for certain what the result of the correction will be, but one thing’s for sure – Ruth, JTA and I’s census data won’t have passed their validation! Their relationship validations BP2, BP2a, and BP2b state that it is logically-impossible for a person to have a spouse and a partner living with them in the same household.

I should invite them around for dinner sometime, and they can see for themselves that this isn’t true.

I also note that they consider it invalid for anybody to tick both or neither of the (two) gender option boxes, although again, it’s not clear from the data they’ve provided how the automatic correction occurs. Increasingly, I’m coming to suspect that this might actually be a manual process, in which case I’m wondering what guidelines there are for their operators?

One good piece of news from this FoI request, though: the ONS has confirmed that the original census data – the filled-in paper forms, which unlike the online version doesn’t enforce its validation upon you – is not adjusted. So in a hundred years time, people will be able to look back at the actual forms filled in by poly, trans, and other non-standard households around the UK, and generate actual statistics on the frequency with which these occur. It’s not much, but it’s something.

PromisQity

Never before have I come across a wine so obviously created for me as this one.

Bottles of white and red 'pro-mis-Q-ous' wine.

I haven’t tasted it, and I’ve never seen it for sale. But just look at the label: it’s called pro-mis-Q-ous, a deliberate mis-spelling of “promiscuous” that substitutes in and emphasises the letter Q (which, of course, is my surname). The label goes on to define promiscuity, and it – and their website, makes significant mention on nonmonogamy, which few will by surprised to hear is pretty close to my heart too.

What a great name. I wish I’d come up with it.

Poly and the Census – Part Four

Following up on my earlier blog posts about how data on polyamorous households is recorded in the census (see parts one, two, and three), as well as subsequent queries by Zoe O’Connell on this and related topics (how the census records data on other relationships, such as marriage between same-gender partners and civil partnerships between opposite-gender partners), there’s finally been some progress!

No; that’s a lie, I’m afraid. We’re still left wading around in the same muddy puddle. Zoe’s Freedom of Information Act request, which basically said “Okay, so you treat this kind of data as erroneous. How often does this happen?” got a response. And that response basically said, “We can’t tell you that, because we don’t have the information and it’d cost too much to work it out.” Back to square one.

Still: it looks like she’s not keen to be beaten, as she’s sent a fresh FoI request to instead ask “So what’s the algorithm you’re using to detect this erroneous data?” I was pleased to see that she went on to add, effectively, “I don’t need an explanation: send me the code if you need to,” which makes it harder for them to fall behind the “It’s too expensive!” excuse yet again.

Anyway: it’s one to watch. And needless to say, I’ll keep you all posted when anything changes…

Poly and the Census – Part Three

Unimpressed with the slow response time that I and others were getting to my query to the Office of National Statistics (to which I still never received a response) the month before last, Zoe O’Connell decided to send a Freedom of Information Act request demanding a response to a couple of similar questions. After some hassling (I suppose they’ve been busy, with the census and all), they finally responded. The original request and the full response is online now, as is Zoe’s blog post about the response. But here’s the short version of the response:

Polygamous marriages are not legally recognised in the UK and therefore any data received from a questionnaire that appeared to show polygamous relationship in the manner that you suggest would be read as an error. It is recognised that the majority of respondents recording themselves as being in a polygamous relationship in a UK census do so erroneously, for example, ticking the wrong box for one household member on the relationships question.

Therefore, the data to be used for statistical purposes would be adjusted by changing one or more of these relationships, so that each respondent is in a relationship with no more than one person. This is consistent with all previous UK censuses, and others around the world.

A copy of the original questionnaire would be retained as part of the historical record which would show such relationships as they were recorded. We do not attempt to amend the original record.

Any mismatches between the indicated sex and marital status of respondents will be resolved using a probabilistic statistical system which will not necessarily deal with each case in the same way. The system will look at other responses for each person, including those for the Household relationships, and will alter one or more variables to make the response consistent. In the example that you propose, it would either change the sex of one individual, or change the marital status to “Same-sex civil partnership”, depending on which is considered statistically more likely to be correct.

Honestly, I’m not particularly impressed. They’ve committed to maintaining a historical record of the original, “uncorrected” data, so that future statisticians can get a true picture of the answers given, but this is about the only positive point in this response. Treating unusual data as erroneous is akin to pretending that a societal change doesn’t exist, and that this approach is “consistent with previous censuses” neglects to entertain the possibility that this data has value that it might not have had previously.

Yes, there will be erroneous data: people who accidentally said that they had two husbands when they only have one, for example. And yes, this can probably (although they don’t state how they know to recognise this) be assumed to be more common that genuine cases where somebody meant to put that on their census (although there will also be an error rate amongst these people, too). But taking the broad brush approach of assuming that every case can be treated as an error reeks of the same narrow-mindedness as the (alleged; almost-certainly an urban legend) statement by Queen Victoria that lesbianism “didn’t exist.”

“Fixing” the data using probabilities just results in a regression towards the mean: “Hmm; this couple of men say they’re married: they could be civil partners, or it could be a mistake… but they’re in a county with statistically-few few gay people, so we’ll assume the latter.” Really: what?

I’m not impressed, ONS.

Update: a second FoI request now aims to determine how many “corrections” have been made on censuses, historically. One to watch.

Poly and the Census – Part Two

No reply yet from the Office of National Statistics after the letter I sent the other week, but I imagine that they’ve been busy, what with the census and everything. Needless to say, I’ll keep you posted.

However, in the meantime somebody’s one-upped me and has put in a Freedom of Information request, which – of course – the law mandates that they respond to. I should’a thought of that. Anyway, you can read the request here, and there’s options to follow it by RSS and/or email if you want updates.

Update (27th April 2011): Still no word in response to the FoI request.