When Prime Minister Bill English put geeks in the driver's seat for social change, it seemed only fitting that the icing on the cake would literally be icing with computer code on a cake.

So there it was, a chocolate cake with elaborate computer code icing at the centre of the launch of the Government's Social Investment Agency in early July.

Only, it turned out the code-on-the-cake made no sense and an internet-of-nerds let them know.

The agency's corporate general manager Kirsten Stephenson confirmed the carefully-iced $360 cake from the Royal Icing Academy made no sense.


"As an agency that uses a data-driven approach, the SIA utilised coding language to highlight the new name, remit and workstreams of the SIA," she wrote, in response to an Official Information Act request for details.

Stephenson acknowledged there had been comments that the "coding iced on to the cake was not usable code".

She said this was an exception.

"While the SIA has a robust review and analysis process to ensure the integrity and accuracy of our data and coding, the same stringent review is not applied to cakes."

The open-source coding language is known as "R" and was initially developed at the University of Auckland.

Details released through the OIA revealed the cake "was delicious", although the agency - which is all about data-driven proof - was only able to provide anecdotal reports on this.

The SIA released further details of its launch function, which also saw Social Investment Minister Amy Adams in attendance, along with press gallery journalists and a host of bureaucrats.

The $360 cake cost was about a third of the $1108 spent on the morning tea, which also included $64 worth of sausage rolls, fruit ($110), baguettes ($220) and some of those funny little quiches which always turn up at these things ($64).


Not all cake was eaten with "some leftover slices" sent to other tenants in the agency's building.

It is understood this included sending some to the secretly-funded NZ Taxpayers' Union, which campaigns against government handouts.

In this case, director Jordan William's enthusiastic online acceptance showed he could have his cake and eat it too, although if he had returned calls he might argue the NZTU also campaigns against government waste and eating the cake reduced it.

Leftover cake was passed to the NZ Taxpayers' Union which campaigns against government handouts - but also against waste.
Leftover cake was passed to the NZ Taxpayers' Union which campaigns against government handouts - but also against waste.

The Social Investment Agency was born out of the Social Investment Unit and crunches data to provide seer-like guidance for other government departments with the aim of improving life for all New Zealanders.

University of Auckland statistics professor Thomas Lumley said the coding language "R" was one of the two leading data-science programming languages in the world.

"In particular, it's in a recent data-flow style of code that has been popularised by another Kiwi, Hadley Wickham, who works for the US company RStudio."

Lumley was able to interpret the message in the code on the cake.

"The code wouldn't run as-is; it's a kind of literary pastiche for statisticians.

"The most politically-interesting content in the cake's code is the chunk defining the Social Investment Agency as a modified version of the existing Social Investment Unit, but with the addition of data-driven policy."

NZ Herald data editor Harkanwal Singh says:

The SIA code cake is meant to be bit nerdy because being a nerd is cool nowadays.

However, it is not as easy even when you are just writing pseudo-code.

It wasn't long before Twitter started reviewing the code and discussing the demerits of the code.

The pseudo-code written in traces of R, the statistical programming language created at University of Auckland in early 90s, is meant to convey the purpose of Social Investment Agency and it's transformation from Social Investment Unit.

It is meant to be a press release in the guise of pseudo-code.

Of course, like all press releases it hides the important bits. The function (packaged code) 'dataDriven' is meant to translate policy into policy_decisions.

It remains to be seen how much weightage ethics get in that execution and how the Social Investment Agency approaches transparency - that'll tell us how healthy the social investment cake turns out to be for democracy.