Our work is highly influenced by well worked out concepts that gradually loose their meaning. We sit at a meeting and when somebody says ‘placed based system reform’ we all nod our heads as if we have a shared understanding of what that means. We don’t.

There is often, also, an assumption that the idea in question is new or of recent provenance. But most new ideas have long histories.

One part of the machine learning work that we will discuss in March involves what is called ‘topic analysis’. The machine sifts through boring reports, such as the field notes of a social worker, and finds pattern, and meaning.

Ngram is an analogous idea. The machine looks through text or speech and centres on words, syllables or letters, and for the way they associate in different contexts.

The publicly available google ngram https://books.google.com/ngrams sifts through more or less everything written that has been recorded electronically and counts the incidence of the word searched. Here are some examples.

1. Placed based/System reform

Note that the scales on these graphs differ, indicating the frequency with which the words are used. The words ‘place based’ and ‘system reform’ have been in use for longer than we imagine, in common use for about a quarter of a century. I remember saying system reform in the early 90s, and placed based in the mid to late 90s, on both occasions parroting things I had heard while spending time with U.S foundations.

2. Era 2 terms

The terms in the next graph have become ubiquitous in the last 30 years. They remain, however, quite specialised. If we plotted them against words like ‘welfare state’ the lines would be bunched at the bottom, and ‘evidence based’ wouldn’t register at all.

3. Embedded language

Now we come to a series of words that have gone beyond being fashionable, but are not by any means passé. They continue to be regularly heavily referenced in public documents.

4. Settlements and Garden Cities

The last two terms are shown in homage to the venue for our February meeting, the Pembroke House Settlement, and for Henrietta Barnett’s interest in creating new contexts for people to live a good life. (She was heavily invested in the creation of Letchworth Garden City).

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