I occasionally walk around, wave my arms and proclaim:

data is infrastructure, just like roads

I alternately blame and praise the brilliant Jeni Tennison for this strange affliction. I praise Jeni for coming up with the wonderful analogy of roads for data, I blame her for infecting me with the bug of excitedly talking about it to anybody and everybody so that I can learn from what they think.

A clip from one of Jeni’s talk on data infrastructure.

I recently proclaimed that data was like roads to a friend who has a degree in classics and spent a career teaching in primary schools. She is very well-read.

My friend asked me if I thought that as a society we were well advanced in building our data infrastructure.

No, I said, it’s only been a few decades since the invention of the internet / web which led to the current massive growth in data, I suspect it will take a decade or two before we learn how to do data things well.

I think you’re right, she replied, after all the data infrastructure that you describe sounds a lot like the Roman roads and it took us a couple of millennia to start getting roads right.

Really? I said. Roman roads? That sounds interesting….

Roman roads were for the economy as well as the military

A Roman army in an Asterix comic. They will have tried, and failed, to conquer. Copyright René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo

Our usual vision of a Roman road is either a muddy field being dug up by a team of archaeologists or an army of Roman soldiers marching to try and conquer a new land. But Roman roads were used by other people too. They were an important component of the Roman economy.

People transported goods along them for trade and materials for building new houses. Books have been written about the impact of roads on Roman Egypt and Italy — they had sophisticated pricing models, integrated their road with other modes of transport and they evolved governance arrangements to manage the development of their roads.

But Roman roads were not only for armies and traders. They were also used to transport messages, taxes and people. Along the cursus publicus, or public way, there were mansios, or waystations.

Data is not really roads

Before I go further into this tale I should be clear that I don’t really think data is exactly like roads. It’s an analogy. All analogies are imperfect. But I do think data is becoming a new, strange and vital form of infrastructure for a 21st century society. It’s very important that we debate and learn how to get the best out of it.

A first edition of the first UK Highway Code by Mikey Ashworth, CC-BY-2.0

The analogy of roads helps break people out of the usual mindset when thinking about data. The frequent comparison with oil is particularly misplaced.

The analogy of roads is much more relevant. The importance of maintenance; the need for big, open roads between large towns and the value of smaller roads for villages; the dangers of toll roads and expensive or complicated licensing; and rulebooks for how to use the roads.

It’s a pretty decent analogy, as analogies go, but my friend had started talking about Roman roads.

Roman roads helped co-opt other economies

Mansio were set up along the roads. They were maintained by the Roman government and used by officials and armies. Officials from the government and their animals could sleep, get washed and get fed. Many other people could use the mansios too but they would have to pay for the privilege.

The money people paid would go to the upkeep of the mansios and to the running of the cursus publicus. The cursus publicus was a transportation system, both for people and for messages. Officials and their information would travel for free. Everyone else would have to pay. It was a massive toll road network set up across a range of nations with preferential access for one group of people.

Other people would pay because the Roman roads were so much better than the roads they could build themselves. There was no real competition: if you wanted to go from A to B you had to go Roman. As a result many of the mansio gradually grew into towns.

A Roman coin showing Marcus Aurelius. Copyright: CC-BY-SA 3.0 by Rasiel at English Wikipedia

The impact wasn’t just to preferentially improve the economy of one group of people, the Romans, and their towns but also to help impose Roman culture and standards by making people use their language and their currency. It is a myth that the width of our railways comes from Roman roads — that was due to a different bit of infrastructure, the railways that were invented in the North of England — but many European town names and locations still reflect their Roman origins.

After telling me the tale of Roman roads my friend turned to me and said: isn’t that what you just described? Aren’t Google, Microsoft, Amazon and those big government agencies a modern cursus publicus?

Oh, I said, yes they are.

What have the Romans ever done for us

As I noted earlier “data is roads” is just an analogy and IANARH (I am not a Roman historian) but the similarity of the Roman system to our current data infrastructure was both striking and reassuring.

The Roman road system was striking in its similarities, even down to people bemoaning what the road builders have done while using their roads, recognising that what they’ve done is actually very good and realising that in many cases it couldn’t have happened without them.

It was also reassuring. History is full of repeated patterns and perhaps the current stage of evolution of our data infrastructure is a necessary stage in a pattern that repeats when new infrastructure emerges.

We learnt that roads needed to be run as a system

Roman roads might have started off as a form of military and economic conquest but we gradually learnt more about the need for roads to be run as a system for the good of everyone in society. This took a while, as did our understanding of government’s role in making that happen. The case for this involvement evolved as we understood the decisions that needed to be made.

A thousand years after the fall of the Roman empire the UK decided that governments should take a stronger role in roads with the first Highways Act in the UK. 300 years later the Rebecca Riots against toll roads contributed to the gradual removal of charges and the transfer of responsibility to central and local government for maintaining most roads. Private roads, for example the path to your house or the bit of road to a local factory, were not transferred but governments make sure that we have a duty of care to visitors and workers.

The Rebecca Riots, courtesy Wikipedia and the Illustrated London News

The UK still builds some toll roads but, generally, they are on a lease. For example the M6 toll road near Birmingham will be a toll road for 53 years until the initial investment is paid back. Meanwhile in 1978 countries worked together to develop the Vienna Convention on road signs and signals to standardise rules of the road. Common standards that help with safety and make it easier for people in one country to drive to a location in another whether it’s for pleasure or business. And at this point we come full circle back to my road and data analogies which tells me that it’s time to stop…

But one final thought. Many of the major roads in European countries are still based on the old Roman ones. I wonder if in 2000 years our data infrastructure will still show signs of its 21st century origins and the decisions of the people who are building it now?

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