Reclaiming personal data for the common good

Theo Bass – DECODE

The internet runs on personal data. It is the price we pay for apparently free services and for seamless integration. That’s a bargain most have been willing to make – or at least one which we feel we have no choice but to consent to. But the consequences of personal data powering the internet reverberate ever more widely, and much of the value has been captured by a small number of large companies.

That doesn’t just have the effect of making Google and Facebook very rich, it means that other potential approaches to managing – and getting value from – personal data are made harder, or even impossible. This post explores some of the challenges and opportunities that creates – and perhaps more importantly serves as an introduction to a much longer document – Me, my data and I:The future of the personal data economy –  which does an excellent job both of surveying the current landscape and of telling a story about how the world might be in 2035 if ideas about decentralisation and personal control were to take hold – and what it might take to get there.

 

Will Democracy Survive Big Data and Artificial Intelligence?

Dirk Helbing, Bruno S. Frey, Gerd Gigerenzer, Ernst Hafen, Michael Hagner, Yvonne Hofstetter, Jeroen van den Hoven, Roberto V. Zicari, Andrej Zwitter – Scientific American

There is plenty of evidence that data-driven political manipulation is on the increase, with issues getting recent coverage ranging from secretively targeted Facebook ads, bulk twitterbots and wholesale data manipulation. As with so much else, what is now possible online is an amplification of political chicanery which long pre-dates the internet – but as with so much else, the extreme difference of degree becomes a difference of kind. This portmanteau article comes at the question of whether that itself puts democracy itself under threat from a number of directions, giving it a pretty thorough examination. But there is a slight sense of technological determinism, which leads both to some sensible suggestions about how to ensure continuing personal, social and democratic control – but also to some slightly hyperbolic ideas about the threat to jobs and the imminence of super-intelligent machines,

Artificial Intelligence for Citizen Services and Government

Hila Mehr – Harvard: ASH Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation [pdf]

The first half of this paper is a slightly breathless and primarily US-focused survey of the application of AI to government – concentrating more on the present and near future, than on more distant and more speculative developments.

The second half sets out six “strategies” for making it happen, starting with the admirably dry observation that, “For many systemic reasons, government has much room for improvement when it comes to technological advancement, and AI will not solve those problems.” It’s not a bad checklist of things to keep in mind and the paper as a whole is a good straightforward introduction to the subject, but is very much an overview, not a detailed exploration.

The Anti-Problem: Digital Transformation

Neil Tamplin – Technology Meets Culture

How would you organise to impede transformational modernisation? You might set your face against all things digital, you might add as much stultifying process as you could find, you might just do things the way they have always been done.

This post explores how best not to do digital transformation, which turns out to be rather an interesting way of thinking about what it takes to do it successfully. There is a risk though of its becoming a form of confirmation bias: of course all those old ways were bad; of course the new ways are good. The risk is not that that is untrue, it is that it is not the whole truth. So perhaps there is another, harder, exercise to do after this one: assuming that the people who came before were neither malign nor idiots, why are things the way they are? What about the current way things were done has genuinely outlived its usefulness, and what was there for a reason? That’s not an argument for just keeping things as they were, but it may be an argument for making sure that we don’t throw away solutions without being clear what problem they belong to.

The generation game

It’s tempting to try to understand social change in terms of generations – and it is a temptation widely succumbed to. Millennials are pitted against baby boomers, generation X is succeeded by generation Y, lost generations are found again, and stereotypes abound. This article and an earlier more detailed one are an attempt to challenge that framing. A part of that is recognising that people criticise younger generations for the same faults which their elders once ascribed to them; the more interesting part is challenging the idea that there are shared experiences which are best understood in terms of generations. That’s not to say of course that there are no social and economic changes to which governments and others need to respond. But it is a useful reminder that focusing on differences  between generations tends to obscure differences within them (and differences which aren’t generational at all).

John Quiggin – Inside Story

Hackers Are the Real Obstacle for Self-Driving Vehicles

It’s a surprisingly common mistake to design things on the assumption that they will always operate in a benign environment. But the real world is messier and more hostile than that. This is an article about why self-driving vehicles will be slower to arrive and more vulnerable once they are here than it might seem from focusing just on the enabling technology.

But it’s also an example of a much more general point. ‘What might an ill-intentioned person do to break this?’ is a question which needs to be asked early enough in designing a product or service that the answers can be addressed in the design itself, rather than, for example, ending up with medical devices which lack any kind of authentication at all. Getting the balance right between making things easy for the right people and as close to impossible as can be managed for the wrong people is never straightforward. But there is no chance of getting it right if the problem isn’t acknowledged in the first place.

And as an aside, there is still the question of whether vehicles are anywhere close to be becoming autonomous in the first place.

Simson Garfinkel – MIT Technology Review

How To Become A Disobedient Organisation

"You can't change the world by doing what you're told" - Joi ItoRules are made to be broken. That’s an idea with considerable support from those on the receiving end of rules, rather less so from those who set them. Rules are the very essence of the Weberian bureaucracy which infuses governments and there are good reasons – fairness, clarity, consistency – why that is so. But that also means that bureaucratic organisations are designed to frustrate evolution and thus innovation – which is perhaps one reason why bureaucracies rarely communicate a sense of being on the cutting edge of innovation.  And while bureaucracy is often used as a pejorative synonym for government, in this sense almost all organisations of any size are bureaucracies. Becoming adaptable and responsive isn’t just about breaking rules, it’s about adopting the expectation that rules are made to be broken.

Paul Taylor

Government doesn’t have needs

A short and powerful polemic on why government doesn’t have needs (and thus why governments are different from users, which do). It’s a powerful argument, but a narrower one than the author seems to recognise. To the extent that government is a provider of services, there is much to be said for a strong focus on meeting user needs, and there is certainly good reason to think that behaving as if that were true has some powerful positive benefits, not least in that using the language of needs gives the best possible chance of not getting prematurely tied up with solutions. There’s a risk, though, that the consumers of a service are seen as the only relevant people, and their needs the only relevant needs. That’s sometimes true (or as nearly true that we don’t need to worry about it), but often there are social and collective interests in how a service operates as well as the individual one – which is one reason they are government services in the first place.

The post is also dismissive of describing the users of government services as ‘customers’. That’s a view which is more rigid than sensible – but that’s a debate for another day.

Charles Reynolds-Talbot – Medium

The Seven Deadly Sins of Predicting the Future of AI

This is a long, but fast moving and very readable, essay on why AI will arrive more slowly and do less than some of its more starry-eyed proponents assert. It’s littered with thought-provoking examples and weaves together a number of themes touched on here before – the inertial power of the installed base, the risk of confusing task completion with intelligence (and still more so general intelligence), the difference between tasks and jobs, and just how long it takes to get from proof of concept to anything close to real world practicality. There are some interesting second order thoughts as well. There is a tendency, for example, to assume that technologies (particularly digital technologies) will keep improving. But though that may well be true over a period, it’s very unlikely to be true indefinitely: in the real world, S-curves are more common than exponential growth.

Rodney Brooks

Creating Policy Innovation in the context of Government Bureaucracies? Could ‘Parallel Learning Structures’ be an answer?

It’s a rare treat for a site with an audience disproportionately made up of practising bureaucrats to point to a post which begins by describing bureaucracy as one of humanity’s best inventions.  But there is, not surprisingly, a sting in the tail: the very qualities which are the strength of bureaucracy are the downfall of creativity and innovation. The answer suggested here is ‘Parallel Learning Structures’.  From the description in the post, the recent flurry of policy labs, innovation spaces and agility in governments has strong if unwitting resonance, with that approach – but the question, as ever, is how to move these approaches from the margin to the core. 

Colin Talbot – Cambridge Policy Lab

American Hot Dogs

Government is mostly about making choices, most of the time. Or more precisely, that’s what politics is. The reason politics is hard is because those choices are often hard in their own right, and harder still when put in the context of all the other choices which need to be made.

This post is a cartoon which starts with the question – apparently the final hurdle in White House job interviews – about your readiness to microwave a puppy. It ends with the assertion that the White House – and, by extension, politics generally – is a place where impossible choices are made everyday. The two are more connected than they might first appear.

Sassquach

To Understand Rising Inequality, Consider the Janitors at Two Top Companies, Then and Now

How do changing patterns of employment affect not just the nature of people’s work in the short term, but their ability to progress and to have careers? This article attempts an answer to that question by looking at two tech giants of different generations, Kodak and Apple, and their very different employment models. It is unashamedly a powerful story rather than a deep analysis – but interesting read as an illustration of Simon Caulkin’s recent article, which covers closely related ground in a very different way.

Neil Irwin – New York Times

What I Hear When You Tell Me Your Company Doesn’t Do Meetings

Governments are run by civil servants. Civil servants are bureaucrats. Bureaucrats like meetings. Meetings have very high costs but deliver very little value. So if there were fewer meetings, government would work better, and perhaps more people who are not bureaucrats would find it more congenial to work in government. And if there were no meetings at all, perhaps everything would work perfectly.

Or perhaps meetings survive because they have purpose and value. Perhaps we should focus on having better meetings, perhaps even fewer meetings. But to miss the value of meetings is to miss something really quite important.

Johnathan Nightingale – the co-pour

How can service design help us make better policy?

Developing policy in government is hard; applying the perspectives and skills of service design can help. That’s the disarmingly simple premise of this post (and the new blog it comes from). If we understand where there are risks in developing policy, and understand the ways in which service design approaches can help mitigate those risks, then we should be able to get first to better policy and then, as a result, to more effective delivery. The aspiration is a good one and the potential benefit is large – but as Paul Maltby has described, there are some real obstacles to effective dialogue between the two perspectives which need to be overcome.

James Johnson – Design and Policy

The grammar of good government – or why prepositions matter

Not everything governments do is for and to people. Governments also do things with and by people. Sorting the roles of government by preposition is arrestingly simple and unexpectedly powerful. Government involves for, with, to and by; good government uses them appropriately and gets the balance right between them.

This elegant short post is also a powerful – if indirect and possibly unintended – challenge to the naive view that government is reducible to service design.

Geoff Mulgan – NESTA

Technology doesn’t kill jobs: executives and companies do

The fact that new technologies can destroy jobs (even if they can enable the creation of others) is almost universally discussed as a problem for the workers concerned. That doesn’t always mean that those affected are abandoned – there is recognition that governments have a role in retraining or providing other forms of support, up to and perhaps including a universal basic income – but it does mean that the component of the wider system which is expected to deal with the negative consequences is the affected worker. In the modern corporate era focused above all on shareholder value, companies necessarily do everything they can to minimise employment costs. But that is a political choice, not a force of nature (as a report from the White House recognised last year).

That framing of the issue is so deep rooted as to be almost invisible – this post brings it to light in order to challenge its assumptions: what can be done and should be done to sustain the demand for labour, and what implications does that have for the role and purpose of employing organisations?

Simon Caulkin

What We Get Wrong About Technology

What we get wrong about technology boils down to two things. The first is that simple, cheap and pervasive – and often near-invisible – technologies have more transformational power than things which are more obviously new and shiny; affordability beats complexity. The second mistake is to think that the impact of a new technology is driven by its technical availability, when the key date is its transition to economic and social availability, with lags which are sometimes very short but which can be very long indeed. This essay draws on examples from the invention of printing onwards to make the point that we might need to look in less obvious places for the technologies which will drive the next round of change.

All of that’s another way of putting the thought pithily expressed by Roy Amara:

We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.

Tim Harford – The Undercover Economist

Technology and people: The great job-creating machine

The impact of technology on employment often focuses on the jobs at risk of being automated out of existence, not at the ones which might be created, either because of new technical possibilities, or as a consequence of increasing wealth and disposable income. This research looks at how patterns of employment have changed by tracking census data on occupations from 1871 to 2011 and concludes, not altogether surprisingly that their distribution has steadily changed, with patterns ranging from a steady decline in agricultural labourers and launderers, to telephonists rising to a peak in 1971 before declining by 2011 to the level of 1911 – and accountants, hairdressers and bar staff showing relentless growth, which is either the triumph of the service economy or an alarming step towards the reality of the B Ark.

Critically though, the conclusions are that although technological unemployment is very real, the stock of employment is not fixed or limited by technology, and that there is every reason to expect that new – and often unforeseen – jobs will continue to be created, as they always have been.

Link to the full report below – there was also a good summary of it published in the Guardian.

Ian Stewart, Debapratim De and Alex Cole – Deloitte

Why a Toaster Is a Design Triumph

The user interface of a toaster is an unlikely starting place for an essay about the nature of design, but it turns out to be a way into a discussion of some challenging questions, including whether design is an exercise in democracy, an act of genius, or something else altogether. The conclusion is that the purpose of design is to make things more the essence of themselves, and that in this example, at least, it is to identify an ‘obvious but still unseen problem’ and to solve that problem in ‘in an elegant way that is also delightful to use’.

That risks collapsing into triteness, but the underlying question is a good one. Toasters have been around – fundamentally unchanged – for a century. So radically changing how they work (while at the same time barely changing how they work at all) is not a trivial achievement. It’s worth reflecting both on what lessons that might have for the application of design to public services – and on what obvious but unseen problems are waiting to be found.

Ian Bogost – The Atlantic