GDS & The Internet of Things

Thanks to Marketoonist for the image

What does the Internet of Things (IoT) have to do with public service delivery? If, like me, you’re curious about the potential, here’s another good reason for wanting the election to be over…

In January, Mike Bracken, head of the Government Digital Service (GDS) blogged about a GDS / BIS (Department of Business, Innovation & Skills) IoT project, which aimed:

“… to find out how we can use our role in government to help in the [IoT] field; what are the most effective things we can do to help the sector grow and make sure these platforms are valuable for end users and businesses alike.”

Mike hired Matt Webb to work on the project. Matt was co-founder of the sadly-defunct Berg, the agency who put people at the centre of the IoT with some lovely inventions. Matt recently tweeted:

From Mike’s blog post, it sounds as if the four month project was expected to explore how the government could catalyse, support and guide the nascent IoT sector, partly through the role of standards:

“The same values [openness, interoperability and flexibility] have a place in the technologies around us too. Would an open, interoperable Internet of Things help the sector grow? How can we encourage that growth, and where might we lead the way?”

Since it was established, GDS has been focused first on building GOV.UK, a single domain for the UK government, then on developing tools that allow ‘transactional’ public services to be delivered online.

But this project doesn’t sound like public service delivery. It wasn’t, for example, exploring how the IoT might in future mediate the relationship between people and their government.

It sounds more like strategy development and industrial policy for the IoT: investigating how the sector’s foundations could best be laid.

So does this initiative suggest a shift in the role of GDS? Having built up its undoubtedly talented team, does its remit now include technology policy advice as well as building tools for delivery?

And would it be speculating too far to think that projects like this (combined with rumours of the abolition of BIS under the Tories) indicate that GDS might evolve  into a new Ministry of Technology?

We’ll have to wait until after purdah to find out.

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#GE2015 & Technology

The Guardian recently published a short piece by Dr Sue Black, known for her championing of the campaign to restore Bletchley Park. Dr Black takes issue with the seven leaders of the UK political parties who appeared in ITV’s debate last Thursday:

Last night’s election leaders’ debate was notable for the almost complete absence of technology, bar a hesitant reference to “IT” from Ed Miliband. Not one of the seven candidates spoke about technology as an enabler, as a tool that offers us the capability to completely revitalise our economy.

There’s no doubt that technology has been missing from election messaging — but that’s understandable as it’s hardly a vote-winning issue in the same way that the NHS, the economy (as a whole), employment and zero-hour contracts are.

Dr Black’s piece continues:

Now is the time for a new inspiring vision of the future, from a leader who can not only lead but who is not afraid to connect and collaborate. A leader who understands and can leverage the massive opportunities available, someone that our innovative, inventive and creative population can believe in. We need a leader who understands the capabilities inherent in modern technology and has the ability to use them to solve our problems. We need that leader now.

Absolutely. Though I would also add that we need leaders who understand the risks of quickly-developing technology (e.g. to jobs, health, social mobility etc.) as well as the rosy promises that some technologists and businesses make.

Apologies for quoting a Labour politician on their own (rather than finding good examples from both sides of the Commons), but one candidate that sprung to mind on reading Dr Black’s piece was Liam Byrne, who fairly recently wrote (in the context of jobs):

… here’s the really bad news.

Technology and trade may be about to make the problem even tougher.

Technology may prove the more important short term force because of the way it is simply transforming the future of work. Technology has now automated huge numbers of what were once reasonably skilled, reasonably paid jobs. It’s a long trend, treated extensively in Labour and the Scientific Revolution back in 1963, but the pace feels like it’s getting faster.

Our ability to combine technology – processing power, cheap sensors, robotics, networks, social media, big data – means we’re now at an inflection point in our ability to combine and recombine technologies to do new things, revolutionising technology from Google’s driverless cars to better diagnosis of diseases.

First technology took the blue collar jobs. Now it’s the white collar jobs as well. …

The above is a paraphrased from Chapter Two of Byrne’s Robbins Rebooted: How we earn our way in the second machine age, which outlines some of Labour’s thinking on the future of higher education.

It’s good to see some traction for the risks that fast-developing autonomous systems might have for jobs and social mobility. It would be better to see a whole lot more.