Archive for October, 2009

Cloud Computing – What’s the Point?

Tuesday, October 27th, 2009

Back in the Summer, Matt Deacon asked if I’d like to give a presentation on the subject of Cloud Computing to an Architect forum he was planning in the UK for September. I said “yes” immediately because I was getting increasingly frustrated with all the hyperbole about Cloud Computing being “the Future of IT” when all that was really being said was about cost containment and greater agility and frankly I wanted to prove that there really was more to it than that.

So, several weeks passed, the deadline loomed, and I set out to prove my theory that Cloud Computing would enable some significant outcomes that would transform society’s use of technology. Take a look to see how I got on…

You can download the webcast here (right click and “save as”) or click here to subscribe to the Envisioners podcasts on iTunes.

This presentation uses the superb Productivity Future Vision video generated by Microsoft’s Office Labs team. You can find this video (and get the background and more detail) here…

Finally, you can also download the slides I used here – like everything on this site, they’re available for use under Creative Commons license, so feel free use them if they’re helpful to you, but please respect the copyright of the image authors (see last slide in the deck) and ensure you are licensed properly for their use.

Open Government = Hacking?

Tuesday, October 13th, 2009

Another day, another great news article on the growing rise of the “Democratisation of Data”.  One theme that seems to be emerging however, is that the opening up of this data is more about snooping and prying and highlighting problems/discrepancies rather than improving citizen engagement and services.

goodbadAlthough the overall sentiment in this article is positive, I am bemused by the use of the term “hacker”.  It’s perhaps just too broad a term – one one hand it means simply “an enthusiastic computer hobbyist“, on the other, “a person who breaks into computers“.  I actually have a problem with both of these definitions in this context.

The opening up of government data should be about empowering normal citizens to make informed choices about the services they need, use and more importantly about the role they can play in their local/national community.  Why then, do we feel the need to paint this excercise as something only the cyber elite can particpate in ?

It worries me deeply as I think it scares people off from engaging, preventing them from thinking about what could be achieved and simply re-inforces the “technology is bad/complicated” message we see all too often in the media.

We need to turn this around, just for a change, why don’t we lead with the quote Chris Taggart from Openly Local ends the article with – “It’s about engaging the community“.

Differential Privacy

Friday, October 9th, 2009

PrivacyEarlier this week I blogged about the growing evidence of governments opening up their public data at both a national and local level. While this in itself represents a great leap forward it brings with it a new set of challenges the we will need to address. One in particular stands out and it is around the evolution of some of the very real challenges we’re going to face around Privacy in a Web/Gov 2.0 world.

Earlier this month I was chatting to Stuart Aston (one of our security advisors – you know the type, smarter than your average bear and very switched on to the evolution of the security principles we will face in an increasingly connected world) and he introduced me to the concept of “Differential Privacy“. He left me with a few white papers and a smile and a few hours later, with my head pounding and eyes bleeding (trust me you want to try and read this stuff) I finally got my head around the concept and what it’s going to mean to us as citizens.

Differential privacy is essentially, the ability to make very specific conclusions (with incredible accuracy) about the identity of an individual when provided with two disparate sets of anonymised data on a similar topic.

The example given uses NetFlix’s recent competition to improve their recommendation system as the backdrop…


NetFlix published an anonymised data set of around 500,000 records in order to help developers come up with a solution to improve their recommendation system. Some bright sparks took this data and a similar export from the IMDB and by applying some fairly hairy maths, they were able to identify specific individuals with a shocking 96% accuracy rate.

This is mind blowing, not just because of the maths involved, but because of what it means in a world of growing public data, the old bastions of Privacy that we have relied upon thus far may no longer be enough.

Governments and organisations are going to need to take this seriously as it will present some difficult challenges about liability and the duty of care to keep their citizens/customers identity and data private.

In particular, think about the duty of care element. As an organisation, you have a legal requirement to look after the privacy of the data you hold on an individual or organisation – with differential privacy, how far does this duty of care extend? If you keep your data anonymised but others can compromise that privacy (albeit with hairy maths and more public data) who is actually liable or legally responsible for the breach?

There are some tough answers to be found here and undoubtedly some more legislation will be required – in the meantime though, it’s a concept we need to understand more so we can build appropriate responses that don’t restrict the overall movement towards making public data more readily accessible . We cannot afford to let this (and other similar issues) stop the democratisation of data, but we do need to go into this with our eyes open.

IT is Dead (ish)

Thursday, October 8th, 2009

itisdeadFantastic, seems like more people are finally waking up to the fact that the IT function as we know it is slowly becomming extinct.  The evidence is pretty compelling to me, the more pervasive this stuff (IT) becomes, the less “special” it is.  It’s a pretty simple equation with some obvious consequences.  Come on, how many of you are still in a situation where the only chance you get to see/use a computer is at work or university?  (Apologies to the Digital Divide – I promise I will come back to how we fix that later).

The IT function needs to disappear in it’s current form and re-appear as something that is pervasive or embedded in every business function as a natural part of what people do.  We need to be confident enough in our own (and our organisation’s) use of IT to let go, safe in the knowledge that we have built the right foundations.

I know it’s a big step, and it’s not one you take at once, but we need to stop the illusion of “complicated” and “special” IT because our users, customers and competitors either know that it isn’t or simply don’t care. (As a test, go and ask your wife/partner/kid/dog if they care how complicated their favourite website/game/gadget is?  If they answer in the affirmative then they’re either in IT already or you’ve been “bigging” your job up too much and they’re just humouring you  :-)

The Democratisation of Data

Wednesday, October 7th, 2009

dataOK, so this isn’t exactly new news, but a couple of things happened to me this week, that put me back onto the groundswell of activity and evidence around the whole Open Government Data initiative.

In particular two things happened this week:

  1.  The UK Conservative Party, announced it was hiring Tom Steinberg (founder of mySociety) to help them make Government open and more efficient.
  2. I finally fixed my bike intercom and started to catch up on all the podcasts I’ve missed for the past 3 months, I put the thing on shuffle and what should turn up as the first track but this CBC Spark interview with Councillor Andrea Reimer from Vancouver talking about their experiences in launching their own “Open City” initiative and how they went about it.

Neither of these are significant on their own, but it’s great evidence of the importance of the role of open government data in a modern society.

It’s great to hear this stuff in the headlines, but a commitment of 20 data sets within 12 months?  Seriously?  The US have 592 posted on their Data.Gov site and it’s only been on-line since May.  I wonder if the reason behind such a low target is the nervousness of the cultural change (inside and outside of government) that this will require.

Anyhow, the trawl through all of this lead me to this great quote from David Eaves on the Three Laws of Open Government Data:

The Three Laws of Open Government Data:

  1. If it can’t be spidered or indexed, it doesn’t exist
  2. If it isn’t available in open and machine readable format, it can’t engage
  3. If a legal framework doesn’t allow it to be repurposed, it doesn’t empower

This is great advice for all of us and it’s something we should all have at the back of our minds as we wrestle with making Open Government happen.

Cloud Architect Forum – Slides Now Available

Tuesday, October 6th, 2009

Matt‘s just posted all the slides from the Cloud Architect forum on September 25th.

There’s some great content here and some good food for thought (especially from Neil Ward-Dutton – who presented the best high level summary of “just what exactly _is_ the cloud” that I’ve seen to date).

I’ll be turning my session into this month’s podcast so keep a look out for that.

UK Broadband not fit for purpose

Thursday, October 1st, 2009

Network DownA recent Cisco report shows the UK ranking 25th out of 66 countries in regards to quality of their networks

OK, so maybe not fit for purpose is a bit strong, but it does go to show that our ability to achieve some of the things we’ve talked about (especially cloud based solutions) is going to face some pretty difficult challenges.

Bandwidth is the unspoken barrier to the cloud, we assume it to be there but in reality it isn’t consistent enough (yet) for us to rely on it providing the necessary connection to all the great things we want to achieve.

Application architects and solution providers will need to think creatively about how we build applications that take this into account.