Posts Tagged ‘Digital State’

Accounting for a "Freemium" world

Friday, September 13th, 2013

So, we reached a key milestone in the Coplin household over the summer, my son has taken his first steps down his own path towards financial independence. Yes, much to the pain of my reluctant wallet, it is finally pocket money time.

I’ll spare you all the details of the endless wrangling around how much (£2) and what we felt he needs to do in order to earn it (make his own “contribution” to the family). The point is, we decided it was time he started to learn the consequences of being responsible for his own spending.

The thing is though, teaching financial independence in a freemium, digital world is an incredibly different proposition to anything we have previously experienced (either as kids or even as parents even just a few years ago). In a world of tangible physical products which have a price point as a point of entry, it’s easy to teach the lessons of “save for what you want and you’ll enjoy it all the more” but in the friction free freemium world, this lesson is presented with a few problems.

kidsshutterstock_115520779Like any other 8 year old, my son loves apps, and there are a few really good freemium games that he really enjoys. You know the sort, these are often brilliant and compelling games that are free to download and let you acquire points within the game to buy attributes, power ups or just plain old items to bestow on your avatars or whatever. Typically a good freemium game will let you earn these points whilst also providing you with a short cut that means you can just buy the points and it’s the proximity of this choice combined with the threshold of how much effort you need to put in to earning in order get the additional content you need that seems to be causing some cracks to start to appear in the whole freemium approach. Some freemium games providers seem to push it a bit too far, bringing the in-game upgrades consistently (and increasingly intrusively) closer while pushing the “free” part further and further out of reach.

Of course the key lesson I’m trying to impart to my son is that you have finite resources in your piggy bank and you want to buy a bunch of different items, and it’s up to you to prioritise finite resources accordingly. This is tough for any kid (bloody hell it’s still tough for me) but the freemium model lowers the friction of any purchase – in that it’s really easy to buy what I want, I don’t have to go anywhere, I don’t have to exert any effort, I just click on a button and hey presto! Instant gratification. It’s like locking the kid in a sweet shop, taking the lids of all the jars and just saying “Help yourself! Go nuts!, just remember you’ve only got a finite amount of money” I don’t know many kids that would come out of that situation with any cash left (or even without over spending), regardless of how much they wanted anything else outside the sweetshop.

It’s the combination of the proximity of the purchase and the lack of friction of the purchase that causes the problem. Kids are pretty instantaneous, occasionally impetuous and have yet to learn the long, hard boring lessons about patience and value. (And I admit that as an adult there are times when I am really jealous of that).

There’s another related issue here about the value of “effort” – I had this conversation with my son which was basically, “look Dad, why would I spend all my free time earning 1,000 points when I can just buy them for 70p? After all, I’m getting pocket money now”. 70p? I can’t even buy a bag of crisps for that, it’s a trivial amount of money but it’s the principle that is infinitely more important. Ultimately it’s an argument that I have a tough time responding to without resorting to that worst excuse of parenting “just because”.

Ultimately I can cope with the latter argument, as a parent I’m used to the fact that I have to work hard to get my messages across, and that all I’m doing is to try not recreate the same “mistakes” my parents my made, (while acknowledging in the process that I’ll be making plenty of new ones that my son will rail against with his kids) but it’s the (lack of) transparency of the freemium model that worries me most and it is something that app providers (and platform providers) really need to give some thought to.

Of course, this year, there’s been plenty of news coverage of kids racking up thousands of pounds of bills on their parent’s credit card without anyone really being aware it was happening. Our own research showed that on average kids spend around £31m a month on apps or in app purchases without asking for permission! Thankfully people and organisations are evolving in how they both deal with that situation (give you the money back) and building systems and education that help parents manage and control spending, but I think there’s another level of detail that we’ve not yet reached and it’s one of individual app accountability and transparency of reporting that will help address the issues I’ve outlined here.

Don’t mistake any of this for either a rant against the freemium model or worse, some miserable old git hankering after simpler times. I actually love the freemium model, I think it’s a really important development in the software industry, but I just think we need to help our society evolve to understand how to make best use of it.

Frankly, I really don’t care if my son wants to blow his “lavish” allowance on virtual cabbages that he can feed to his virtual pets, or on that gold laser powered jump suit that will look “A-W-E-some!” but I do want him to be able to make decisions easily. He should be able to look at his individual apps and see how much he has spent on each of them, not for me to have to trawl through credit card statements and app store emails to piece together the picture. It’s the same kind of transparency and “business intelligence” we try to create for our enterprise customers to help them make “informed, business decisions” so why the hell wouldn’t we want to do this for our consumers as well?

I get that app developers don’t make much on a free or even a 69p game, but the freemium model will break if it forces the developers to drive monetisation harder by pushing the consumer further and further towards having to spend money in order to enjoy the game and then doesn’t give them the capability to account for their spending. Ultimately, if that plays out, consumers (or their parents) will vote with their feet and just walk away and at that point, just what is the point of the freemium approach other than to obscure and, to an extent, trick the consumer around their spending?

Preparing Our Future – The Need for Critical Thinking

Thursday, May 31st, 2012

thinkThere has been much discussion in the UK recently about the importance of getting the right approach to the role of technology in schools.  Many have used this as the opportunity to reinforce the need for greater emphasis on the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) with further focus being given to the need to create a new generation of “kids who code”.  Whilst this on its own is an incredibly important initiative, it is vitally important to continue to remind ourselves that it is still just a subset of the overall duty of care we have as technologists to ensure that every single aspect of society is empowered by technology.  Yes that means having great software, and as such brilliant computer scientists, but more importantly it means ensuring that every single member of society knows how to make the best use of technology whatever their societal role – this is our modern equivalent of a “PC on every desk”.

In order to achieve this it means that we need to get beyond teaching the “tools” and start teaching the “skills” that will make all the difference for the workforce of the future. In particular it requires that our children and every other member of our society are equipped with the cognitive capability and skills that enable them to harness the incredible potential that technology brings to us. It is no longer  just a case of “feeding” them with the basic tools that will become obsolete tomorrow, but instead teaching them to “fish” in a growing digital pool.

Within our brave new digital world, one of the most important skills we must learn is “critical thinking” a concept that rather incredibly, dates back to Socrates over 2000 years ago, but after being “recently” updated in the 20th century for a modern society by many great scholars it provides an powerful framework for our internet age.

findEvery single day, we are bombarded by millions of signals of data, information and content, and every single day the quantity of information we are exposed to grows exponentially.  These days we are still looking for the needle, it’s just that now it’s in a billion haystacks.

Critical thinking is about “reflective” rather than “routine” thought, it’s the process of “active, persistent and careful consideration” of the credibility and conclusions of supposed knowledge or information.

Most of us use critical thinking every day and for most of the time, we are barely aware of it.  Every time we read a newspaper article, watch a documentary or look something up on Wikipedia we are aware of a whole range of biases, influences and emotions that may interfere with the validity, accuracy and overall conclusion of the content and, if we’re doing our job properly, we take all of that into account as we parse the information, reflect on it drawing in a range of other context and ultimately use it to draw conclusions and make decisions.

Fortunately for us, we’ve had years of practice and experimentation to get this right but in this new digital age, where children and young people have so much access to an incredible world of information but have yet to develop the skills to know how to deal with it.

From an early age, we need to ensure that children using the internet are able draw upon critical thinking skills to:

Search efficiently and effectively – depending not solely on the search engine’s view of relevancy but able to navigate and adjust the query to ensure the most appropriate results.

Distinguish kinds of sources and analyse a source’s validity and reliability – from basic differentiation of primary vs secondary sources through to deconstructing domain names and URL’s to learn more context about the source.

Make a habit of cross checking facts, even from reliable sources – we know from experience that even “authorities” can mislead and experts make mistakes so wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the facts.

Conscientiously and properly attribute the words and ideas of others – the internet has made plagiarism a lot easier, but thankfully, easier to spot. Students need to know the basic rules about when and how to quote others’ words and how to properly attribute the ideas that are not their own.

Stay safe on the internet – these are some of the most important skills of all, from not giving out personal information through to taking care about the kind of conversations they enter into on-line, staying safe is absolutely paramount. 

Interact with others online honestly, respectfully, fairly and clearly – the anonymity, immediacy and lack of proximity presented by the internet can lead to anti-social behaviour, sometimes with devastating consequences. Learning how to speak honestly, fairly, and with respect, clarity and brevity along with understanding why this is important in a society, especially a democracy, is crucial.

(Note: More detail on each of these areas, as well as lesson ideas for different ages of students can be found in the “Critical Thinking” white paper we published in 2010)

So, as we prepare to wind down this educational year and pause over the summer to think about the role of ICT in the new school year in September, please, let’s make sure we keep a firm focus on ensuring that as well as being brilliant at coding, our future citizens (and workforce) are equipped with all the necessary skills to make the very best of all that technology will have to offer them.

The Future Workforce – Curious, Confident and Tooled up with Tech

Wednesday, January 25th, 2012

I recently presented at an event at the RSA around the role of technology in jobs, the economy and the future workforce in the UK, and although this may initially feel a little counterintuitive (and for me, potentially career limiting) I’d like to bring some of the discussion to you, highlighting in particular the general irrelevance of technology in our deliberations as to what we need to do to ensure our future workforce is equipped to help maintain and extend our position (and economy) across a broad range of industries.

Over the past few weeks, there has been much in the press about the relationship between skills, technology and job prospects, especially recently with all the discussion around the role of ICT in the tool curriculum.  In all of this, overall, I grow increasingly worried that we have confused the word “skills” with the word “tools”.

Most people’s experience of technology is now more defined by their personal experience than it is by their experience at work. We no longer live in a world where people only ever see computers at a place of work or place of study and broadly speaking, technology has become a natural ingrained part of our everyday lives, just like the television, just like the 240v, 50Hz AC that comes out of the sockets in your wall.  However, even despite all this, we seem predominantly transfixed on the specifics of training people to use specific tools and technologies rather than on the broader principles that make their use important and valuable.  ICT continues to be a separate bolt on to both education and in how organisations use it rather than something that is naturally embedded into every aspect of our lives. 

(Please understand, I get that we do not live in an society where everyone has equal opportunities and access to digital resources, but we do live in a world where increasingly, like the recent government mandate, everything is becoming “digital by default”.)

scienceBy now, we are familiar with the cliché around how we are “currently training people for jobs that don’t exist yet”, but I would argue that, although the pace of change may be slightly faster these days, that particular problem has always pretty much always been true.

My own family offers me some evidence – I am but the latest in a long line of engineers bearing the Coplin surname, my grandfather grew up in the industrial heartland of this country, working for one of the many engineering firms in the midlands as a pattern maker.  My father grew up in that same environment and became an aeronautical engineer, I grew up surrounded by aeronautical and mechanical engineering insight and artefacts and became a software engineer, my son, is growing up similarly “blessed” (or cursed as his Mum may occasionally have it) and will no doubt, find his own way to re-engineer the world (although like any other six year old, his current ambition sees him working with the Police, not on the motorbikes or in the squad cars but specifically “with computers”, his own important addition to the job stereotype that makes me infinitely proud).

My grandfather went to a school without electricity, my father went to a school without calculators and I grew up in a world without personal computers and went to college in a world without the internet or the web.  My son will be similarly afflicted in relation to his children (“Tell me again Dad? You didn’t even have hoverboards?”) and so it goes on.

Although the generations of Coplin engineers grew up with incredibly different tools and concepts of education, we are united by a common set of skills; almost insatiable curiosity and a desire to re-engineer and improve the world around us.

What this says to me is that the tools are broadly irrelevant.  Don’t get pedantic on me, I’m not saying totally irrelevant, just that it’s more important to understand the principles that make them work and where to apply them, than it is to understand the specific workings of a given software package (or lathe for that matter).

This is really where our challenge lies – how to ensure our children and workforce are equipped with the broad principles and the aptitude and attitude to know when and where to apply them along with that sense of curiosity and wonder about the world about them.

Perhaps it was because I had just spent the best part of the past weekend with them, but my baseline for success is broadly defined by the incredible “Gov Camp” community we have here in the UK.  Some 250 or so individuals from all over the country, from all parts of public sector, united by a love of technology and a desire to improve public service (or as Chris Taggart so pragmatically puts it, to “make the world a little less shit”).

GovCamp 2012What makes this community special (and for my money, an early indicator of what we can look forward to across all industries and companies in the future) is that from all of these people, only a handful (certainly less than 10) would class themselves as being from “IT”.  These are individuals from the business end of government who use technology as a part of their everyday lives, and want to use it to the same extent in their professional roles.  They think of technology as an enabler not an outcome.  They are curious, they are confident, they overcome organisational boundaries and are guided by a civil purpose – they want to take the world apart and put it back together again in a way that it makes things better for those involved.  These are the hallmarks of a creative, capable and competent workforce and the principles that are behind this curious mind-set are exactly those I think we need to infuse in our children and future workforce (of all ages).  (If you want a more detailed look at what makes UK Gov Camp and the people behind it so special, you can find out what it feels like to “walk a mile in their sandals” from Steph Gray, one of the community’s incredible architects.)

For too long we have drawn a distinction between science and art, when in reality they can both be the same thing. We need to show kids (and adults alike) that, as Niko Macdonald, one of the audience members eloquently put it, “there is beauty in code” and “majesty in mathematics”. It is as much about inspiration as it is about perspiration.  Unfortunately, from the discussion it becomes clear that there is a significant gap between schools and industry in helping each other understand which skills are important and what sort of careers they could lead to. 

I think we can do more here, especially those of us who have children within the education system – we need to find a way of spending more time with schools to help demonstrate what careers and vocations the basic skills like maths, english and science can lead to (and that these subjects can be as creative as any art-related subject).  I think a re-birth of the school computer club is one key way that we can do this without getting caught up in (or in the way of) the curriculum discussion. (HT to @MadProf and the “Monmouth Manifesto” on that one).

There is no doubt that technology will play a crucial part in our future economy, and that technology skills will be fundamentally essential for individuals to have a challenging, rewarding career but I think it’s important to highlight those careers will increasingly not be in “IT” itself. I believe it far more likely that they will be spread across the existing (in some cases eternal) and the incredible new industries that our future will offer.  More importantly, the specifics of the technologies being used will vary even more significantly than over the preceding 100 years and so now, more than ever, it becomes crucial to infuse those essential principles into the mind-set of all those who are venturing into this new world of work.

Helping them understand that, as Matthew Taylor from the RSA puts it, “you don’t ‘get’ a job, you ‘create’ one” could be all it takes to get us started.

(GovCamp photo credit: David Pearson)

Parliament and Internet – Visions for the Internet and Social

Thursday, October 13th, 2011

This morning, I had the enviable honour of joining Facebook, Google, and RIM on a panel discussion in front of the 6th annual Parliament and Internet conference (I had my poshest frock on and everything).

Although the guys on security stopped me from bringing my soapbox into Portcullis House with me, I did get an opportunity to talk about rural broadband, the humanisation of the web, and the arrogance of the present, I also managed to squeeze a tenuous Spiderman joke in and overall I had a lot of fun. Here’s my speech in full:

“I’d like to start by trying to confuse you with a contradiction – the technology revolution is both over and just beginning. It’s over because we’ve spent a long time getting used to technology being around and becoming part of our everyday lives and it’s just beginning because, only now that technology is so engrained in how we live, are the real opportunities being presented.

Slide25We know from our own studies and anecdotal research that in general, most people go home to better technology (faster, more recent) than they are provided with at work. People generally enjoy a rich technological experience in their personal lives, shopping on-line, enjoying entertainment, playing games and communicating with friends, but unfortunately this experience is not always mirrored in the workplace with the constraints imposed by corporate budgets, security concerns and in some cases, over-zealous IT management. To call this a missed opportunity is like saying Facebook is marginally successful.

Please understand that all of this does not discount the challenge we continue to face in this country around closing the digital divide, but it is an acknowledgement that the gap is closing thanks in no small part to the continued efforts of champions like Martha Lane Fox and her team with Race Online 2012.

Slide28That being said, we know people use technology effectively for many aspects of their lives and those of you with children will see just how pervasive technology has become. From my own experience, I watch my son with great interest as he just adapts and integrates technology and the internet into his world. For him, technology (the web, the Xbox, the mobile phone) are no different to him than the TV, books or traditional toys and he integrates all of them into his everyday life with equal enthusiasm and interest. But I want to stop short with that example, because I fear it runs the risk of reinforcing one of the great myths that actually I would rather dispel than support and that is that these technologies are perceived to only be accessible or useful to younger generations and those of us who find ourselves, well, let’s just say, on the wrong side of youth are left behind or left out. But, time and time again our research shows this to be a stupid assumption to make. Stupid because the statistics show the biggest growth of the use of new tools like social networking are actually in older generations and stupid again because we know in our own anecdotal experiences these technologies have made a big difference on how we live our lives every day. My favourite example can actually be found once a week on a Thursday evening during Question Time. If you were to open up Twitter and follow the Question Time hashtag you will witness a quiet revolution of normal everyday people getting engaged in democratic discussion about how our country is run and the current affairs that affect us all. Thanks to the wonders of the internet and social networks, that experience has been transformed from a one-way “transmission” (or as it was in my house, just me shouting at the telly) to a totally collaborative experience that engages the audience and the panel in a way only dreamed of previously.

The rise of social networking and it’s fundamental importance to the future of how a modern society can benefit from technology is a topic that is not yet well understood. We probably have ourselves to blame, but let me tell you now that social networking is not about providing an endless commentary of trivial anecdotes about my life as an individual, you know the ones I mean “just had the world’s best latte! LOL” or “overslept again, don’t tell the boss” but in many ways actually represents as big a revolution to our use of the internet as the web did when it first became mainstream. This may be a revelation to many of you, but the real value of social networking lies not just in the communications themselves, but also in the connections that are made in order for the communications to flow. With social networking, we are finally able to move from a network of machines, a cold, logical place governed by the ones and zeros of binary code to a network of people, where human intent and instinct combines with the power that the digital world has to offer.

Slide-32Social networking offers us the potential to “humanise the web”, augmenting the power that the internet’s connection and collaboration provides with a human signal that provides citizens, organisations and governments with the ability to connect and effect change on a scale never before imaginable. This year the world has witnessed incredible scenes, some good, some bad of how citizens have grabbed the power that social networks have to offer in order to effect massive change in the way in which they are governed. This year we have seen how citizens can use Facebook to organise a revolution, Twitter to orchestrate it on the day and YouTube to tell the world. Detractors may point to the ugly scenes in London and across the UK from back in the summer but the truth is that social media played as big a part in the clean up as it did on the temporary disruption in our nation’s morality.

It is said, that “on the internet, no-one knows you’re a dog” – well the truth is, today on the internet, no-one knows you’re in Dolgellau – the internet is a geographic leveller, it offers incredible opportunities that transcend geographical location, enabling global companies to be borne out of local, rural locations, where the only real constraints are those of the entrepreneurs imagination and, oh yes, available bandwidth. This is both our opportunity and our curse, we have in our midst incredible rural communities rich in talent, expertise and experience, who throughout the UK, have long been the industrial heartbeat of our nation but increasingly are struggling to remain competitive or even operative in the midst of a global marketplace in recession. If we are able to correctly crack the problem of providing sufficient connectivity to these locations, there is almost nothing to stop the next global success stories coming from places like North Wales, Cumbria or deepest, darkest Dorset.

In the future I am convinced our descendants will look at our work practices with pity, failing to comprehend why we all felt compelled to travel long distances just so we could be in the same place, at the same time as our colleagues. In these days of predominantly service and knowledge industries this feels somewhat out of sync with the capabilities of technology. What if we used these technologies more and changed our work practices creating local hubs across communities throughout the country? Not only would this have a massive economic impact in terms of reclaiming lost time, it also would have significant positive upside on both the environment and more importantly the local economies of these areas enabling small and medium businesses to flourish in support of the local workforce.

Throughout the history of our civilisation it is has often been remarked that we have sufficient technology to achieve our goals and this is actually one of the most dangerous views we face. If we had heeded that advice would we have harnessed fire, the industrial revolution, electricity, the car? Possibly not. History provides us with great examples of where this “arrogance of the present” clouds our judgement “the world will only ever need 3 or 4 computers” or even our own Bill Gates claiming “no-one will need more than 640Kb of RAM” but the truth is, it is incredibly difficult to judge the future value of any given innovation when it can only be judged by a current mindset, the current norm so to speak.

The internet and social networks offer a modern society opportunities and advances far beyond the reach of simple social connections and communication, used properly, they truly offer the potential for the combination of man and machine to become greater than the sum of their parts.

But, this development will require some effective stewardship and will present our society with complex issues that we must all face and work our way through and with that, in closing, I am reminded of that famous quote from the cultural classic that is “Spiderman, the movie” – “with great power comes great responsibility” – the internet, social networks and other associated technologies offer our society incredible opportunity and advantages and both we as technology providers and you as policy makers and legislators have a duty of care to ensure that we can live up to the opportunity – the question really is – are we up to that challenge?

Inside Google’s Big Tent

Friday, May 20th, 2011

I spent a day this week inside Google’s “Big Tent” – essentially a high profile event on privacy, hosted by Google, Privacy International and Index on Censorship, with an audience of the very cream of the British digital elite (and me).

I learnt a lot of things of which I’ll share the detail in the moment, but first I thought you should know the headlines:

  1. Eric Schmidt likes Chrome – he says it’s safe and fast.
  2. The Right Honourable Jeremy Hunt, UK Minister for Culture, Media and Sport (and responsible for this country’s legislation around internet use) says the government’s priorities for the internet are speed and mobile.
  3. In other news, the Pope  _is_ catholic and bears _do_ defecate in the woods.

DonkeyI mean seriously, is that the best we can do when it comes to pushing the boundaries of thought leadership around privacy in the digital society?  Thankfully, the audience was mostly cynical hacks and privacy activists – you can imagine how well those points were received.  

Anyhow, with that out of the way, there was in fact an incredible discussion throughout the day on a wide range of local and global topics around privacy and free speech, what follows below are the (admittedly blinkered) takeaways from the discussion that I want to explore further.

  1. It is clear that the law cannot keep pace with changes in technology. If I had a buck for every time someone on a panel said “technology has made an ass of the law” I would have precisely $16.73c.  Although this point was universally agreed, there seemed to be no clear way forward to address this.  Simon Davies from Privacy International had a particularly pragmatic solution – do nothing – effectively let it happen and let them learn. (The context for that point was the discussion around super-injunctions and Twitter in the UK).
  2. Organisation vs the individual. The focus remains to be on what can the “organisation” do to make an individual’s privacy better. Despite pushing from the audience (advocates from Mydex et al in particular) there was little interest in a discussion around what it would mean to put the individual in full control of their information.
  3. Collation vs Publication. There was still a desire to focus on the search engine’s role in collating the content (i.e. the index) vs the actual publisher of the content. I’m wondering why this point is so hard for people outside the industry to grasp.  (see 4 below).
  4. Search is not the internet. Google’s Drummond put this well, “It’s a search engine, not the internet” but the conversation never followed suit. We should have been pushing Jeremy Hunt on the legal changes and leadership required from government i.e. you tell us which is the content we should remove and we’ll do it, the best example being religious extremist content – you want us to remove it, but you won’t tell us what is and what isn’t? Go fish. (My words).
  5. The “Right to be Forgotten” is a jingoistic phrase that not many understand.  Common (mis)perception means that this should allow me to have control about anything about me on the internet.  They forget of course that this conflicts with free speech.  Where we need to move on this discussion is an understanding that individuals should have the right to remove data _they_ have posted about themselves, but not data that _others_ have posted about them.
  6. Privacy Boundaries.  We established at least three clear boundaries around privacy that need to be explored further: Privacy vs Innovation (consensus was that privacy has _never_ impeded innovation), Privacy vs Free Speech (what’s private to you, may be free speech to me – who decides?), and Privacy vs Public Interest (are super-injunctions an expensive waste of time in a digital age).

Like Max Boyce, always said, “I know ‘cause I was there” – but what did _you_ think?

Back to the Arrogance of the Present

Friday, March 18th, 2011

One of my favourite books is Jonathan Margolis’A Brief History of Tomorrow”, (if you’re into thinking about the future like we are here, then you should really give it a read).  One of my favourite concepts from the book is something Jonathan refers to as “the Arrogance of the Present” – essentially identifying that it is hard to measure the future potential of new technology when all you have is a mind-set from the “present” from which to make the judgement.

In many ways it’s like the situation Henry Ford found himself in way back in 1903, asking for funding for his new project only to be told by the President of the Bank of Michigan that “The horse is here to stay but the automobile is only a novelty – a fad”. Now with hindsight, it’s easy to sit here and make fun of that poor bank president and how stupid he must have been, but in reality, at the time that he made that statement, he was actually probably _right_.  His judgement on the future potential of Mr Ford’s ideas was coloured by his own understanding of the society at the time and his ability to understand how it may change.

Obviously we do not possess the ability to predict the future, but more importantly, we simply cannot comprehend the complex series of changes that society makes as it continues to evolve and therein lies our challenge.

We see examples of this kind of problem every day – many new technologies are misunderstood, dismissed and downright despised because we struggle to comprehend their role in a society that is significantly evolved from the one we experience today.

Camera phones are a great example of this – when they were introduced, I don’t know anyone that was inspired with excitement about the prospect of carrying around a poor quality, low resolution camera on their phone of all things.  Fast forward to today, when that functionality is poised to change the way society works whether it’s through citizens interacting with their local council on anti-social behaviour or augmented reality solutions that make a tangible difference to the way people are able to live their lives.

There are many more examples to illustrate the point but I’ll pick just two more – social networking and street level imagery – both of which are much maligned and misunderstood. That’s not to say they aren’t with their problems, but when we think about their potential it’s crucial that we do so not in the context of our understanding of today’s society, but instead by thinking about how they might work with the society of tomorrow. 

Of course, that’s not to say we should blindly accept any new technological principle, but instead of constraining our perception of value and relevance, we must use our experience from the past to help inform the right way of getting the most from the future potential innovation by implementing it in a way that is respectful and cognisant of all we have learned along the way.

The State of the Internet 2010

Wednesday, March 3rd, 2010

Fascinating stats on internet use from Jesse Thomas (via Steve Clayton)

JESS3 / The State of The Internet from Jesse Thomas on Vimeo.

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…

DiffPriv

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.

Towards the Digital State

Monday, April 20th, 2009

A colleague (Jerry Fishenden) has been working on one of the most complex challenges we face – ensuring a proper, balanced understanding of the potential for technology in a modern society.

Digital StateThis sounds simple, but let me tell you it isn’t.  This is about trying to get policymakers to think beyond today’s headlines but more importantly about imbuing technology in everything we do.  Jerry’s made a great start on the journey and his first draft provides some focus for the first of the key elements – Health and Education. You can join the debate and download the document here…

I’ve been talking with Jerry over the past few months about this initiative and in particular have been discussing more around some other key areas of focus around Sustainability, Transportation and the Built Environment.

As a starter for this conversation let’s jump on the Sustainability bandwagon, (why not? everyone else has…) but in all seriousness, I am getting pretty concerned that the general view of Sustainability and the Environment is so narrow (i.e. only CO2 emissions), I think we run a significant risk of getting this disastrously wrong.

It is imperative that society takes a systemic view to the overall impact of their activities (work and play) on the environment, and in order to achieve this, we need to provide a way for individuals and organisations to have a much better sense on the impact they are having.

That systemic approach however, will be difficult for many to comprehend – it needs to massively broaden our understanding of the components of the problem such that we can start to think about how elements like, clean water, electrical power, heating, cooling, compaction of waste, use of CO2 for food/fuel production not to mention the role for micro-biology and nano technology all have a part to play in both the problem and the solution. If we are able to do this, I think we may be in a much better position to spot key opportunities for example – community (or even domestic) based micro-generation such that policy makers can start to devise appropriate incentives and funding/payback models to enable their adoption.

Technology has a fundamental role to play in helping a modern society achieve it’s sustainability goals, but we”re not going to get there by talking about “virtualisation” and power saving “features” (see also IT Sustainability Impact post)

There’ll be more to follow on this and other key topics in Jerry’s Digital “Manifesto” – be sure to keep any eye on Jerry’s blog…