Driven Back To The Edge

I have given up writing to my blog more than once. Sometimes for a few weeks and sometimes for a year but somehow I always end up doing another one. I get frustrated; not that I’m ever going to change world, but sometimes you wish that something would just happen. Trolls  will stop trolling (and stop calling it free speech), government will stop saying it’s transforming itself and listen for once, social media will be just that, a conversation mediated through technology and not a global force for good. I could go on but I won’t you will be pleased to hear.

Like the proverbial bus (if you have them – out here in rural Shropshire we don’t) not one for ages then two turn up at once. I came across two pieces in that last week or so that have revived my faith in the digital world and reminded my why I get so worked up about things.

The first piece is by Paul Waller and Vishanth Weerakkody:

Digital Government: overcoming the systemic failure of transformation
 Digital Transformation Through Policy Design With ICT-Enhanced Instruments

Declaration of interest here: I have worked with Paul Waller and I have a lot of time for the way he thinks about things. This paper is a refreshingly different approach. It covers a number of issues but one in particular caught my attention:
“The extensive constitutional, political and practical problems caused by this repositioning of citizens as consumers experiencing “customer services” are explored in depth by Fountain (2001) and Bekkers and Homburg (2007). More recent research shows that there can be serious consequences. First, for civic participation and democracy, as and when it leads to the creation of a mind-set in individuals (Galen et al, 2012) of being a consumer rather than a citizen: “we are seeing … an increasing body of evidence that the dominance of the Consumer identity is directly undermining the cause of encouraging political participation” (Alexander, 2014). Second, for public bodies, if a focus on the “customer” overwhelms their broader purpose in relation to public policy goals (Alexander, 2014).”

I have argued in earlier blog posts that the movement within the UK digital inclusion community towards seeing inclusion as a value added proposition, save money by being online, simply turned us into a nation of online shoppers. It didn’t make us any more inclusive in the wider sense. Casting public services in the same light simply increased the divide between those who understood the wider implications of digital and those who shopped and then told their friends what they bought. There is no guarantee that acquiring the skills to use a keyboard and order your groceries will translate into a deeper engagement with the digital world. By placing public services on a par with the Tesco delivery does not translate into civic engagement.

The Brexit debate (I use the term loosely) highlighted this being characterised by unchecked, hysterical claims and counter claims to which the most popular online response (apart from trolling) was to ask Google “What is the EU?” And “How can I get an Irish passport?” As a visiting alien observer might say: “I weep for the species”.

The second piece which caught my eye was from a Scandinavian blogger Christoffer O’ Hernaes: “You Can’t Have Financial Inclusion Without Digital Inclusion” in which he raised the issues of the 2.5 billion people worldwide who do not have access to banking, the “unbanked”. There are solutions but without digital inclusion both in a physical and practical way people are unable to access them. The piece can be found on TechCrunch and it highlights not only the issues but also the opportunities afforded by decentralisation of services and mobile identities.

So what am I saying here? Why bother to write this blog and take up your time (always assuming you have stayed with me this far). Firstly I urge you to read the two pieces I’ve talked about. Secondly, particularly if you’re engaged in delivering digital inclusion, consider how much of what you do is fit for the future in the wider scheme of things. Officially we still have 17% of people who are digitally excluded either by lack of access, lack of skills or both.  I’m not anti skills; I believe you can never underestimate the importance of skills, but skills are not the answer. I wonder what the % of digital exclusion would look like if we took into account wider engagement in the digital realm?

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The Contemplative Edge

Or the mental ramble that followed the Gigaom shutdown.

Try as I might I can’t remember when I first heard of Om Malik. In my mind he’s associated with names like Zack Exley, Micah L Sifry, Danah Boyd and Esther Dyson but that can’t be because they are in the realm of digital inclusion and empowerment and Om Malik is about cutting edge innovation and commercial reality. So when was it?

My first strong memory of GigaOm was ‘back in the day’, as everybody on the podcast keeps saying, when Chris Albrecht and Tom Krazit did the Gigaom Show. From there I began to listen to Kevin C. Tofel and Janko Roettgers on cord cutting and Chrome; then there was Derek Harris and Barb Darrow whose insanely bad podcast intros prefaced great in depth interviews on cloud and big data and finally my favourite, everybody’s favourite tech Mom, in reality the very clever Stacy Higginbotham (not forgetting her dog, her eight year old – who must be nine now – and her bemused husband). These people have accompanied me in the car, to the gym and around the house then all of a sudden there they were: gone!

I have chased around in search of information: I have checked Twitter feeds, I have read Howdy y’all Stacey Higginbotham’s blog on http://staceyhigginbotham.com , I have caught up on Mathew Ingram’s Flipboard pages Media Past and Future but right now these are like echoes; Gigaom has gone and I’m going to miss it.

Which makes me think: why did I like it so much? Entertainment apart it was a source of information, good, detailed tech stories. These I could reference in my own personal blog which was where I organised my thoughts. Take for example “Never Say Never” which I posted in February; it was Derek Harris who mentioned the NVIDIA Tesla K-series GPU Accelerators and it was one of Stacey Higginbotham’s guests, Hiliary Mason, of Fast Forward Labs who talked about algorithms which can sort millions of data items in just a few processor cycles. All of which made me think about our dependence on current cloud technology to make our smart things smart and yet technology moves inexorably to the edge. Isn’t there a future conflict of interest there? When technology allows Google Translate to sit on my smart phone without a data link or central processing where is Google’s business model?

My personal ramblings are not cutting edge, they are what I call contemplative edge. Now I’m no longer involved in digital anything as a way of making a living I don’t have to scan the tech blogs and news feeds for the latest thoughts and ideas but I still do because I have the space to think about these things.

Despite what you may have read or heard England is not a cutting edge economy. We survive on a service based economy with some manufacturing (we do very good very expensive cars) and we have a lot of people in minimum wage zero hours employment. There are a few, small innovative companies but on the global scale of things they are very small. We are digital consumers; our measure of digital inclusion is based on how much we consume and how many services we access. Right now the Internet of Things is only just emerging in popularist news stories. The Insurance industry has been complaining that smart vehicles will reduce accidents and also insurance premiums; how will they make money? The white goods retail industry has been sounding warnings that smart appliances will lengthen the replacement cycle and that will hit profits. I spotted a set top box only this week which advertised itself as being able to make your TV a Smart TV – nonsense but you can get away with that sort of thing in the UK because the vast majority of people are not digital savvy, they are just consumers which is all they need to be.

What has this to do with Gigaom? Like I said at the beginning these are ramblings. Gigaom brought insight into a fast moving, technically advanced, disruptive world. Without the likes of Gigaom we will understand less. While other tech blog sites will continue they will have that geeky edge that Gigaom managed to avoid which is what made its stories so accessible and because of that we are potentially less well informed. In a few months time technology products branded for the Internet of Things will find their way into UK stores and we will consume them, as we do. We will not pause to consider the infrastructure of the cloud, the implications of big data or the cul de sac of development into which we will be driven so that we can be Smart. Gigaom could never influence the actions of nations but it could, and it did, inform those people who wished to keep thinking about what all of this might mean.

Gigaom I will miss you.

Never Say Never

You don’t have to read “Free” by Chris Anderson to have a healthy scepticism about the way in which Google and Facebook make money. There again, you don’t have to stop using Google or Facebook either, face it they offer a very good service and a billion plus people can’t be wrong can they?

The business model is a simple one; you are offered services you can’t refuse: excellent web search and fully featured sharing and communicating services. These you can have for free. In return you agree that the service provider can have, for their own purposes, your data. Taken  on its own your data has very little value but when taken with the data of over a billion individuals worldwide then it becomes very valuable indeed and the success of these companies and others like them is that they have successfully monetised that data. The old adage that Facebook knows what you like, Google knows what you want and Amazon knows what everybody like you bought was never truer. These companies have grown to be mega successful and the people who created them have become mega rich; a just reward you might think.

Do we ever ask ourselves is it really worth it? Is the privacy we sacrifice, our wants and whims our location data, our quantified selves is it worth what we get in return?

We could say the same thing about The Cloud. The power that we are able to carry in our pockets because The Cloud looks after all of the computation and storage means that we can not only be constantly connected we can be truly mobile in both our working and our personal lives. Given the eye watering investment in cloud services: the hardware, the infrastructure, the energy and the software development required to make it all work it has become the icon of the information age.

Will it always be so? I have written before about the natural tendency for technology to make its way to the edge. While our smart phones are relatively simple devices now (see what use they are when they aren’t connected) I don’t see why that should be the case forever and ever. It was with this in mind I was interested by an announcement from NVIDIA for its Tesla K-series GPU Accelerators which can carry out 1.3 teraflops. One of the key markets for this technology is smart cars – because it’s inconvenient when your phone isn’t connected but it could be downright lethal if your car was dependent on the cloud for all of its functionality. More recently Hilary Mason CEO of Fast Forward Labs talked about algorithms, currently in the lab, that will compare two sets of data with a million items in each set with just a few processor cycles. Admittedly the process is probability based so there is a margin of error but the point is that this function can be carried out on a personal device without recourse to the processing capacity of the cloud.

So am I speaking up for paranoia in the smart connected world with a view that we should be looking forward to carrying super computers in our pockets? Not a bit of it but I am sounding a note of caution. Right now we cannot imagine a scenario where the computational and storage capacity of the cloud could be ceded to a personal mobile device; there again, there was a time when the industry believed that there would be no reason for people to have a personal computer.

“There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home” Ken Olsen, president, chairman and founder of DEC

One of my favourite all time movies is Dr Strangelove or: How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb. If you weren’t around in the 60’s trust me, you had to be there. Check it out it’s a tour de force from Peter Sellers who plays three roles in the movie not to mention George C Scott as Buck Turgidson and see if you can spot James Earl Jones as Lothar Zogg as well as the unlikely named Slim Pickens as Maj King Kong and the not to be missed Col Bat Guano played by Keenan Wynn. In the movie the paranoid Gen Jack D Ripper says:

“I can no longer sit back and allow Communist infiltration, Communist indoctrination, Communist subversion and the international Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.” Gen Jack D Ripper (Sterling Hayden).

It would be equally paranoid to accuse Facebook and Google of misappropriating our personal data – I’m not suggesting that we need a nuclear option. What I am suggesting is that we should never say never; we should never say that we will always need the cloud and we should never say that we can’t reclaim ownership of our personal information. The technology isn’t there yet but someday it can be. Which raises the potential for an interesting tension for while the capability may yet come to be within our reach will the industries that have grown up around free access to our data and centralised processing and storage be willing to give it up?

Six Months and What Has Changed?

Six months since I last published a post. It’s not that I haven’t been writing I’ve just been writing for other people. As times got harder and the 17% of excluded people became the preserve of JCP and Digital by Default I guess I gave up; there is a lot to be said for the mundane, it gives us time to stop being angry and to withdraw to a wider perspective.

A piece from the World Economic Forum caught my eye via Flipboard. Under the catchy title “How will the digital landscape evolve as laws, tech and people change?” You can watch it here:

http://webcasts.weforum.org/widget/1/davos2015?p=1&pi=1&th=4&hl=english&a=60354&auto=0

Chaired by Robert F Smith of Vista Equity Partners the speakers were: John T Chambers of Cisco, Piere Nanterme of Accenture, Liu Jiren of Neusoft and Max Levchin of Paypal and Yelp fame now CEO of Affirm.

The discussion was lively and interesting so I do commend it to you: it covered ideas such as 100% digital homes and businesses, think digital first, digital skills, interactive education and digital security and trust. I don’t think I particularly disagreed with anything that they said although a lot of it was said from the perspective of the business bubble. What did become apparent was the acceptance that the world will be in two halves: the hyper well educated, engaged, skilled and employed then there will be the rest and the rest will consume.

I have written before about the assumptions that are associated with consumption in the digital arena. Because we consume in a digital domain we are assumed to be included and not to need any channels for production – of content, of opinion, of voice. This was the biggest flaw with the English government’s digital inclusion strategy: if we were consuming then we must be engaged and included.

Two particular comments stand out for me; the first from Max Levchin that “the person at the centre of the cloud knows more about people in the cloud than the people at the edge know”; for him this was a networking opportunity, there was a gap there that needs to be filled. To my mind technology always moves to the edge if the power resides at the centre doesn’t this create a tension rather than an opportunity? If I have the knowledge do I want to share it and compromise my trading position? For me it also generates a technology question: the cloud exists because processing and storage demands are too great to reside at the edge: what happens when edge storage, processing capacity and network connectivity drives the capability to the edge? Will we want to reclaim our identities and what will we have to do in order to make that happen?

The second from Pierre Nanterme who said that there was a need for skills in data analysis and that there should be a public private partnership in order to create the necessary skills in the workforce. I have a saying: never underestimate the importance of skills but they are not the answer. Think back to the visit of Eric Schmidt to England in 2010/11 where he convinced the coalition government that what we needed were people who could programme (not people who could communicate). The It curriculum was torn up over night, every child in full time education was presented with a Rasberry Pi and we set ourselves to programming. Now, when those children are making the transition from primary to secondary education or from secondary to higher we hear the demand is for analytical skills, it’s data scientists we want. I have had some association with education since 1974 one way or another and the complaints of lack of skills from the commercial world have existed for all of that time. It is a view of education that needs to change; education is for the individual not industry and the pathway to work needs to be such that the formation of the individual takes priority and the skills follow – not the other way around.

My comments alone will hopefully suggest that this is a session worth watching so give it a go and let’s see what you think.

Shall we just change the music?

When I was about 3 years old I was taken to Rubery to see Grandpa. He had become too difficult to manage at home and so he had entered this great Victorian edifice where he now sat on a bench, in a courtyard with a fellow inmate. Beyond that I remember only that he gave me thruppence. I didn’t know it at the time but it was my first experience of somebody in residential care. Until very recently I had little to do with care homes beyond that early childhood memory.

When the market place for care was created there was an aunt who we would visit weekly in one of the Georgian houses that had been converted; it was, to all intents and purposes, like one of those bed and breakfast establishments at the sea side, except that it was on the main Worcester Road in Stourbridge, about as far from the sea as you could get. Each day the residents, who were very well looked after, were assembled in the front room. The television was on with the sound turned down and sometimes there would be a CD player playing Vera Lynn or Glen Miller. I remember a particular lady who sat by the Aunt in question and one day I attempted to strike up a conversation by asking how she was; she replied: “Yo doe cum ‘ere to get better,” and she resumed her contemplation.

More recently, like many people, I have had the experience of finding residential care for my mother. Mother, or Mum as we call her, came to a point where she required 24 hour nursing care so it was a little more extreme than just finding somewhere where she would be looked after and be happy and safe. We compiled a list and then set off on the round of telephone calls and visits by appointment. In many, not all, of the places we visited the residents sat in a large sitting room; sometimes the TV was on, sometimes it wasn’t but always there was that music from the 30’s and 40’s playing somewhere in the house.

It was my wife who posed the question: what sort of care home would we want? I was about to give some trite reply when I stopped to think. I wouldn’t want to give up technology just because I was in a care home. I would want access to the internet to be able to e-mail, skype, facetime with the grand children, use social media, post photographs, look up stuff, get my newspapers, buy books, watch films and access my bank account. I spend an awful lot of time connected to the outside world.

Then there are the other benefits, permanent access to my GP so he can monitor my medication (presumably I will be on medication by then) check my blood pressure, keep an eye on my heart. I would want to monitor the impact of my activity, keep an eye on my diet. Even if I couldn’t do all of these things, even if I no longer functioned 100% some of this would be relevant. Surely my world would still be personalised in some way even if I couldn’t look after myself, alone.

We tend to think of the digital world in terms of young and productive people with recognition that it has an important role for older people so it’s worth the effort of getting them online. There are a notional 17% of people who are classed as digitally excluded and there are efforts underway to address that final, small percentage. Should we put some thought into how we provision facilities for people’s final years? I don’t mean as a “nice to have” or an “added benefit” but as a right of access. There will be a cost: how do you provide secure access to online services for older people who live in a large establishment? What skills do you need to provide for the care staff? Will care homes require an IT specialist or a support company? Will the cost be met through the recovery of care costs? Is this to be a luxury for people who can afford it as an extra and will local authorities who meet the 12 week property disregard refuse to pay for an unnecessary option? Whichever way you look at it this is more than just providing WiFi access in the residents’ lounge.

Or do we just change the music?

“Two households, both alike in dignity,”

Romeo and Juliet Act 1 Scene 1 William Shakespeare

 

While growing older may have given me a more considered view of life there are some things that even now will drive me into a rant. One such thing is people in responsible, public facing roles who grab a headline by stating the obvious. Take, for instance, Eddie Copeland Head of Technology Policy at Policy Exchange: http://www.policyexchange.org.uk/people/research/item/eddie-copeland . I don’t know Eddie but he has a blog http://policybytes.org.uk and an impressive CV ranging from being a Parliamentary Researcher, a Congressional Intern, and Project Manager of large infrastructure projects and so on.

His offense on this occasion is his recommendation, widely publicised in the press and on the BBC last Tuesday, that the Government should offer the elderly lessons in the internet to encourage them to ‘discover life online’. I know that this is a sound bite from the Policy Exchange Manifesto which suggests that £875m is the figure required to get the final 17% online but aren’t we entering into a world of unreality here? Actually I would challenge the idea that we need £875m to tackle the problem of the final 17% (approximately 6.2 million people); that’s £141.13p per person more or less – what’s the 13p for I wonder?

It’s not that I would deny people working in the field of digital inclusion access to a slice £875m it’s an agenda that’s very close to my heart and I do not for one minute underestimate the importance of the work; it’s the approach and the short sighted attitude that makes me so cross. This is a technology manifesto intended to influence Government policy and the headline grabber is get older people online to help with problems of loneliness.

Contrast this with the interview on Giga Om with Usman Haque on May 20th just one week earlier: https://gigaom.com/2014/05/20/thingful-wants-to-crawl-the-internet-of-things-but-is-this-the-right-model/ . Usman Haque also has an impressive CV he is a founding partner of Umberellium http://www.umberellium.co.uk , founder of the Internet of Things data infrastructure and community platform Pachube.com. He is an architect, creates responsive environments and dozens of mass-participation initiatives in cities, festivals and galleries throughout the world.

His view is that being on line empowers people and gives them the opportunity to take control of their environment. He is interested in how cities can talk to people and how people can interact with where they live. While there is a view that you have to have the skills before you can interact – a little obvious – that view misses the point. If you are setting out policy you are driving something forward not focussing on remediation of the obvious problem. If the vision for the future is realistic and enticing then the means will be found to redress the issues but if the focus sets out that we have to do A before we can progress to B then we may never realise the vision never mind succeed in including the final 17%.

Policy Exchange also falls into the skills trap: teach the skills and surely the rest will follow. It is widely recognised today that skills only approaches have pretty much failed – which is why we still have the 17%, the long tail that grows ever longer. We have to address the issues of trust, confidence, and belief and benefit which means that skill is just one piece and it doesn’t follow that it has to come first.

Policy Exchange and Eddie Copeland are seeing people as passive participants in the digital world; consumers and employees. The trick is to see people as active participants who are taking control and realising value in a digital economy. In the digital world full time mono occupations have gone forever and we need to be agile, self reliant, just in time learners. Let us look at the means to achieve that as a headline.

Where next for a digital champion.

When the RSA undertook its recent survey of digital champions in January I must confess to being somewhat down and not very positive. This may be the result of living on the periphery of a large, sparse county and being dependent on a satellite for connectivity who knows. Being in this sort of a situation does equip you for all kinds of other things because you know what the limitations are: I cannot, for example, easily join in Google Hangouts because of latency inbuilt into the satellite service. Unless something is happening in Market Drayton then everything requires a minimum thirty minute car journey and if you’re in the South of the County then it can be one and a half to two hours. Yes, I know, I chose to live here and the benefits outweigh the dis-benefits; it’s a good life Jim just not as most people know it.

Access is a big issue round here and there is a daily tussle between the incumbent supplier of broadband and local people. Years of under investment and people making do with what’s available has led to an environment of poor service delivery and angry customers. It is into that environment that the local authority sponsored Superfast Broadband scheme was launched in 2013 with much publicity and while the excitement lasted all was well and then the stark reality of what the current State Aided scheme really offered came home and battle resumed. Here in the far north of the county we appear to be in line for an up to 27Mb download service by 2016 but that is far from guaranteed. Information is vague, the maps released are worse than useless and should it be that parts of the Parish are not included then implementing a scheme based on acquiring additional funding (not yet identified) could take another two years meaning that some or all of the parish might not get a Superfast service until 2018 at the earliest. Those people who know about such things also complain that the fibre service is really a copper service from the cabinet and that it’s contended and the speed downgrades with distance.

It’s interesting to see the impact of this on the psyche of people in the village: they lose interest in the digital world, they perceive the village as being undervalued, you hear the phrase them and us and a sense of growing apartheid. This is not just about technology it’s about the role of digital in sustaining communities. Which brings me back to the role of a digital champion: at first sight a digital champion might be seen as offering those skills that facilitate participation; a digital surgeon offering social media surgeries for instance. I can subscribe to that model for a lot of good comes out of such activity, but might not a digital champion stand up for the community cause as well? I have been approached to participate in a consultation exercise with the local authority to try and better inform the remainder of the current roll out programme. The invitation is as a result of both my engagement with a disability network in Shropshire and my title of digital champion within the RSA. In putting my name forward my unsolicited sponsor has used by RSA profile. Why? Because it says that I have experience and that I am passionate about the potential of digital to empower people.

Initially seen as a conduit to enable Fellows to communicate and share, surely this raises questions about the role of digital champions as perceived by the RSA. Digital technology has already impacted on Arts; not just how the arts are created but how they are distributed and how they are consumed; digital is the medium of promotion, information and education as well as distribution. Digital technology continues to impact on Manufacturing from concept through design to implementation and beyond and with the steady growth of technologies like additive manufacture the impact will continue to influence the peripheral manufacturing environment in areas such as storage and logistics. We are starting to see changes in ideas about value in the digital economy and the role of data in personalising experiences and goods.

Learning communities build social capital and social capital leads to innovation; innovative communities are sustainable communities. The role of the digital champion within the RSA is capable of evolving and it should be allowed so to do because that wider role contributes to the aims and objectives of the RSA itself.