Interview

Joe Brew

An active participant in the online debate concerning Catalonia’s political conflict

Joe BREW

An active participant in the online debate concerning Catalonia’s political conflict, Brew uses the skills and tools of data science to get to the objective truth of the debate

You are an American from Florida, how did you end up in Catalonia?
My story is typical: I fell in love with a Catalan girl. America is a country of 330 million people, with a high level of cultural homogeneity and I was fascinated by this little country, with its own language and its own culture.
Had you heard about Catalonia?
I knew it existed. I used to live in Granada with two Catalan roommates, and I heard them speaking this undecipherable language. They sometimes used to listen to Catalan rock music, and I was surprised that it even existed, and this didn’t fit with my idea of a country within Spain, with its own language, this very nation state conception. I was very fascinated with it, and I remain fascinated. Just human curiosity brought me into the world of this country where there are people who don’t bullfight and don’t dance flamenco, they were just breaking the stereotypes I had as a recently arrived American. Then I got married to a Catalan girl from Santa Coloma de Queralt in Conca del Barberà, I think that’s a good motivator for learning a language and we have two half Catalan children.
You have a lot of well-documented knowledge about Catalonia and lots of followers on social media.
I’m radically pro-democracy and it seems that the response of the Spanish state to what is a legitimate request is short sighted, cruel, and ineffective, which compels me to speak incessantly about this issue because it’s not a question of independence — the question of independence I think should be decided by Catalans — but a question of democracy, and we all have a duty, whether citizen of Catalonia, Europe or the world, to defend it. Just the other day, the Turkish interior minister came out to justify the removal of three Kurdish elected politicians, saying they were just doing what Spain is with Catalonia, and that’s the kind of thing that motivated me.
Tell me more about your projects and how you work with data.
Because the tools for visualising, processing and analysing data are the same, I apply the skills and tools I have from my professional life to my personal life, which is how I understand what’s happening around me. I have a Catalan family now and I look at Catalonia and depending on which newspaper you read you get one narrative or another. I don’t want to take that incorrect equidistance thing, like “the truth is probably between the two”, I want to understand for myself what’s objective and true and that’s why I like to do what scientists call ’hypothesis testing’, that is, to come up with a hypothesis and gather data to confirm or reject it. For example, that Catalans are racial or ethnic supremacists or that there was violence on October 1 directed at the police: you look into the data and see that it’s the opposite. But despite that objective reality, there are nine people in prison and half a dozen in exile, for having carried out a supposedly violent rebellion. So when your personal experience contradicts so much of what’s happening around you, you have to go to the data, because that’s the only thing to provide objectivity.
What surprised most you from your data research about the Catalan issue?
A whole bunch of things, I am constantly surprised! The high frequency of the word ’dialogue’ among socialist leaders, they repeat it incessantly despite carrying out no dialogue. How can you be the government of dialogue it you refuse to speak to your political adversary? The silence of a lot of Spanish and European democrats on the issue surprises me. Right now, the European Parliament is three seats short, so it represents some Europeans, not all of them. In my mind, any decision taken by the European Parliament, when three of the elected members are being stopped from voting, is not a legitimate decision. It creates a toxic institution and right now the European Parliament is not representative. I’m surprised that this whole Catalan supremacy narrative survives, because it just doesn’t exist anywhere in the data. Survey after survey shows that Catalans are very pro-immigration, also that pro-independence Catalans are more pro-immigration than anti-independence Catalans. And the violence issue: it is an objective reality that the people being charged never committed, nor called for, endorsed or accepted, any single act of violence. You can’t put someone in prison for violence when there is no violence. This is obvious from any basic analysis of the data. Virtually all of October 1 was about police violence against voters, that’s the reality.
September 11 and the outcome of the trial are just around the corner. How do you see upcoming events this autumn?
I am so consistently surprised at how absurd and disconnected from reality the Spanish state’s actions have been since the beginning of this political conflict. So what I want to think is that there will be a reasonable sentence that will be an amnesty or saying no crime committed. I would like to believe that Pedro Sánchez will realise that exercising true leadership means in some cases accepting the inevitable, that major Spanish political parties do not want to hold Catalonia captive and want it to be part of Spain out if it’s own volition not obligation, so I would like to believe that this fall there’s going to finally be a breaking down of these blocs. But probably not: the fact that prisoners are still in preventive prison suggests that they are going to be convicted of crimes of violence, sedition or rebellion. Despite never having committed or called for any acts of violence. How Catalans will react to that, I’m not sure. It would be a mistake to accept those sentences as legitimate, and it was a mistake to accept the preventive prison as legitimate. I think these are illegitimate actions taken by the state against people who have not committed any violent crimes. I also think that Catalans have been conditioned over the past two years to get used to repression. Now it feels normal, but this is how oppression works, this is how Franco survived as a dictator for 40 years, because Spanish people got used to it, while the rest of Europe was flourishing in democracy and free markets. I only say that because it’s a recent example of people accepting very high levels of repression and taking almost no effective action. So the pessimistic part of me says that we’ve already accepted the illegitimate actions against our elected politicians and now we just have to live with it. The more optimistic part says that any sentence that convicts them for a crime is only going to be a spark for further peaceful, non-violent political conflict. But conflict can be good in the sense that it’s productive, it brings you closer to a solution. The past two years have been unproductive, nobody’s closer to a political solution — let’s wait for the trials to happen. I think that there needs to be a bit of a tension because it’s a good thing in the sense that it forces people to act, and I want to make it clear that I am talking about a non-violent, peaceful conflict.
Last year you predicted that Catalonia’s independence is inevitable.
I stand by that, it seems obvious. Using just a little bit of history, can you think of any example of countries where half of the population of a large area wanted independence and three quarters of the population wanted self-determination and did not achieve it? There’s almost no examples. And now we can go to a hundred examples of places where they did achieve it: any former British, French, Portuguese, Spanish colony, at some point, achieved it, and Eastern Europe is a good example as well. When people want independence, they generally get it. There are examples of violent or peaceful paths to independence, but there’s very few examples – maybe Tibet– of over a very long period of time people aspiring to independence and not achieving it. So either Spain is going to convince a majority of Catalans not to want independence – and I’ve seen no action in that direction – or as a majority of Catalans want independence, they will achieve it. These seem like the obvious outcomes, and the second seems far more probable. In terms of the data, there’s a very important demographic element in Catalonia, which I’m surprised people don’t discuss more: there is a higher proportion of the elderly in Catalonia, the over-60s, born in other parts of Spain compared to the young. As the elderly die off, they will be replaced by people born in Catalonia or abroad. This has an obvious effect on voting trends. Among those elderly Catalans who came originally from Andalusia or Extremadura, there’s very low support for independence. Among those young Catalans born outside of Spain, there’s slightly higher support for independence, and among Catalans born in Catalonia there’s much higher support for independence. It’s replacing a generation that is very opposed to independence with a generation very much in favour. If they don’t change their minds, the number of people opposed to independence will go down and the number of those in favour will go up. It’s just a matter of time.
How do you see the Socialist government compared to PP?
Equally incapable. If you want to solve the Catalan issue, it has to be through a referendum. That’s the only way to have recognised legitimacy from all sides, and right now, both sides claim that they are the majority. Just settle that question and based on the result, you come up with a solution. But the Socialist position on the referendum, in the words of Pedro Sanchez, is “No es no, nunca es nunca”. It is such an absurd way to solve a political issue. They have repeated the word dialogue so many times, and you can quantify it, but what does it mean when you refuse to meet with the leaders of your opposing parties? The word dialogue is meaningless.
How do you see the issue of freedom of speech in Spain?
When you think of the case of Valtonyc, who was sentenced to three years for some lyrics, again, the silence of Spanish democrats and double standards is so disappointing. When people become aware that the Spanish state is willing to take legal action over the lyrics of a song or for a peaceful protest in which zero people were harmed, against fundamental rights, that has an effect on society. It goes without saying that freedom of speech is under attack. What kind of state security is threatened by the lyrics of a song? What kind of state sees them as a violent threat to order? These are not the acts of a strong, confident state that feels good about the legitimacy of its institutions. The reason Cuixart and Sánchez are in prison after participating in a supposedly violent rebellion is because the state is so unconfident, basic democratic principles like freedom of speech and freedom of protest are in danger.
How is the Catalan issue seen in the US?
Almost every American I talk to is aware of October 1 and associates the word Catalonia with independence. In fact I’m surprised how frequently I’m asked “Are they independent yet? Are they a new country?” Even though people are not following it closely, the impression is that something happened. When they hear about the political prisoners and exiles, it’s a shock for them.
Do you plan to continue living here?
For my job, I travel a lot in the developing world, but my base is Catalonia, it is a very open society and I feel very at home here. I’ll remain very engaged in the question of Catalan self-determination because I think it’s a question of democracy. It’s very important for me that my children live in a democratic society where democratic principles like representation, free speech, and protest are respected fully.
“It’s not a question of independence — I think that should be decided by Catalans — but a question of democracy”

interview

interview

Data science, an emerging field

“I do a lot of data science, which is a combination of statistics and computer science dealing with big data, multiple data sources and combining them. I am a data scientist, which means taking data from different sources and trying to make sense of it. Professionally, I often work in the fields of public health, with data on malaria, tuberculosis, I work mostly in the developing world, Mozambique, Nepal, Asia, in these cases, trying to understand diseases, how they work on a population, how outbreaks happen, studying a lot of data sources. I have a company and we do consulting not just with public health. We do projects on economics, labour force, labour rights, data visualisation, dashboards... We focus mostly on social good projects.

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