“The woodcutter”, an open data parable
In a time long past, in a land far away, there was once a great forest. It was a huge sprawling forest containing every known species of tree. And perhaps a few more.
The forest was part of a kingdom that had been ruled over by an old mad king for many years. The old king had refused anyone access to the forest. Only he was allowed to hunt amongst its trees. And the wood from the trees was used only to craft things that the king desired.
But there was now a new king. Where the old king was miserly, the new king was generous. Where the old king was cruel, the new king was wise.
As his first decree, the king announced that the trails that meandered through the great forest might be used by anyone who needed passage. And that the wood from his forest could be used by anyone who needed it, provided that they first ask the king’s woodcutter.
Several months after his decree, whilst riding on the edge of the forest, the king happened upon a surprising scene.
Gone was the woodcutter’s small cottage and workshop. In its place had grown up a collection of massive workshops and storage sheds. Surrounding the buildings was a large wooden palisade in which was set some heavily barred gates. From inside the palisade came the sounds of furious activity: sawing, chopping and men shouting orders.
All around the compound, filling the nearby fields, was a bustling encampment. Looking at the array of liveries, flags and clothing on display, the king judged that there were people gathered here from all across his lands. From farms, cities, and towns. From the coast and the mountains. There were also many from neighbouring kingdoms.
It was also clear that many of these people had been living here for some time.
Perplexed, the king rode to the compound, making his way through the crowds waiting outside the gates. Once he had been granted entry, he immediately sought out the woodcutter, finding him directing activities from a high vantage point.
Climbing to stand beside the woodcutter the king asked, “Woodcutter, why are all these people waiting outside of your compound? Where is the wood that they seek?”
Flustered, the woodcutter, mopped his brow and bowed to his king. “Sire, these people shall have their wood as soon as we are ready. But first we must make preparations.”
“What preparations are needed?”, asked the king. “Your people have provided wood from this forest for many, many years. While the old king took little, is it not the same wood?”
“Ah, but sire, we must now provide the wood to so many different peoples”. Gesturing to a small group of tents close to the compound, the woodcutter continued: “Those are the ship builders. They need the longest, straightest planks to build their ships. And great trees to make their keels”.
“Over there are the house builders”, the woodcutter gestured, “they too need planks. But of a different size and from a different type of tree. This small group here represents the carpenters guild. They seek only the finest hard woods to craft clever jewellery boxes and similar fine goods.”
The king nodded. “So you have many more people to serve and many more trees to fell.”
“That is not all”, said the woodcutter pointing to another group. “Here are the river people who seek only logs to craft their dugout boats. Here are the toy makers who need fine pieces. Here are the fishermen seeking green wood for their smokers. And there the farmers and gardeners looking for bark and sawdust for bedding and mulch”.
The king nodded. “I see. But why are they still waiting for their wood? Why have you recruited men to build this compound and these workshops, instead of fetching the wood that they need?”
“How else are we to serve their needs sire? In the beginning I tried to handle each new request as it came in. But every day a new type and shape of wood. If I created planks, then the river people needed logs. If I created chippings, the house builders needed cladding.
Everyone saw only their own needs. Only I saw all of them. To fulfil your decree, I need to be ready to provide whatever the people needed.
And so unfortunately they must wait until we are better able to do so. Soon we will be, once the last dozen workshops are completed. Then we will be able to begin providing wood once more.”
The king frowned in thought. “Can the people not fetch their own wood from the forest?”
Sadly, the woodcutter said, “No sire. Outside of the known trails the woods are too dangerous. Only the woodcutters know the safe paths. And only the woodcutters know the art of finding the good wood and felling it safely. It is an art that is learnt over many years”.
“But don’t you see?” said the King, “You need only do this and then let others do the rest. Fell the trees and bring the logs here. Let others do the making of planks and cladding. Let others worry about running the workshops. There is a host of people here outside your walls who can help. Let them help serve each others needs. You need only provide the raw materials”.
And with this the king ordered the gates to the compound to be opened, sending the relieved woodcutter back to the forest.
Returning to the compound many months later, the king once again found it to be a hive of activity. Except now the house builders and ship makers were crafting many sizes and shapes of planks. The toy makers took offcuts to shape the small pieces they needed, and the gardeners swept the leavings from all into sacks to carry to their gardens.
Happy that his decree had at last been fulfilled, the king continued on his way.
Read the first open data parable, “The scribe and the djinn’s agreement“.