Friday roundup: A week in tech

microphone

Have you heard the one about HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) and the millions of recorded voices? No? Well, it’s not a joke and here’s the story…

HMRC, the UK’s most taxing public body, has stored the happy tones of 5.1 million cheerful ‘customers’ as part of its Voice ID scheme – a password system that allows callers to identify themselves with their voice (obviously).

However, the mouthy scheme has spooked freedom-loving types, with Big Brother Watch claiming that the government department is instigating ‘biometric ID cards by the back door,’ which sounds like the title of a Brian Eno album.

Big Brother Watch’s director, and current leader of the best name of the year competition, Silkie Carlo, reckons that HMRC’s voice IDs ‘could allow ordinary citizens to be identified by government agencies across other areas of their private lives’.

She has implored the department to destroy the five million voices it’s already harvested ‘in this shady scheme’.

Responding, a HMRC spokesman mumbled that the system is ‘very popular with customers’.

Hmm, a function of HMRC that is ‘very popular with customers’ eh? Right.

***

Everybody’s favourite ‘fit and proper’ taxi-hailing firm has been granted a short-term licence to ply its trade in London. Well done, Uber.

Back in September last year, Transport for London (TfL) rejected the company’s application for a new licence to carry on operating in the capital, citing concerns around, among other things, background checks on drivers and the reporting of criminal acts.

Anyway, now things are looking better for the firm as Westminster Magistrates’ Court has awarded it a 15-month probationary licence, which is surely ample time to iron out any concerns the authorities may have?

But it wasn’t all good news in court: not only must Uber pay TfL’s £425,000 legal costs, Helen Chapman, TfL’s licensing, regulation and charging director told everybody that the firm’s behaviour around the reporting of crimes was ‘very disturbing’.

Responding to the ruling, and not really sure if it was a victory or not, London mayor Sadiq Khan, said: ‘After years of operating poorly in London, Uber has now accepted that TfL’s action in refusing to renew their licence was totally justified. Today our stance has been vindicated by the court.’

In case you’ve forgotten, Uber once took a year to report a hack that compromised the details of 57 million customers, choosing instead to pay the hackers’ ransom in secret. Thought I’d add that for a bit of fun. Happy Ubering!

***

A new digital squabble has opened up in the people vs machines arena, this time between doctors and chatbots.

According to software outfit Babylon, its NHS GP at Hand app is as good at identifying medical issues as real human GPs, which real human GPs have found a bitter pill to swallow.

In fact, the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) has gone as far to say that ‘no app or algorithm will be able to do what a GP does’. What, never?

Appearing to break ranks in the human world, NHS England’s chairman, Sir Malcolm Grant, seems to think Babylon’s virtual doctor system has legs. He said: ‘It is difficult to imagine the historical model of a general practitioner, which is after all the foundation stone of the NHS and medicine, not evolving. We are at a tipping point of how we provide care.’

Babylon says its software scored 81% in a RCGP medical-ailment-diagnosis exam that humans score an average of 72% in.

However, the RCGP has said that it didn’t provide the questions, so Babylon’s claims can’t be verified.

Interesting stuff, and along with self-driving vehicles, robots and all the other burgeoning AI the big question has become a little more pressing: What are humans for?

Have a lovely weekend!

Friday roundup: A week in tech

Smart cities roundtable, report

Digital City

Socitm was delighted to host an exciting roundtable on smart urban planning earlier this month, in partnership with The Bartlett Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis(CASA) at University College London (UCL).

Chaired by Socitm associate Jos Creese on a sultry London afternoon, the event brought together a terrific blend of digital thinkers. Their purpose was twofold. To discuss:

  1. why solving urban problems and addressing the challenges and opportunities presented by smart city concepts and practices requires a broader definition of place beyond just cities; and
  2. how services and civic responsibilities need to be joined and integrated differently if citizens are truly to feel the benefits.

Aligning closely with Socitm’s work on smart places, the roundtable was designed to contribute to CASA’s research programme on Applicable Urban Informaticsfunded by the MacArthur Foundation.  The programme is exploring ‘new ways of understanding the complex and interconnected challenges faced by cities around the world, from violence to climate change, and new ways to plan, manage, and govern to address them’.

Introducing the workshop, UCL professor Mike Batty, chairman of the CASA programme, described a range of innovative work being undertaken globally on the ‘science of cities’ and the acknowledgement of a need for a broader planning horizon to tackle many emerging and existing challenges of urban areas.

There was general agreement amongst the participants that the success of communities will depend on data and technology and how they are used. And it will be data and technology that could provide the solutions to many of the challenges faced today in areas such as environmental protection, waste management and pollution, equality of opportunity, democracy, privacy, congestion, health and social care integration, crime and its causes, troubled families and the opportunity to create jobs and build economic prosperity.

However, if was noted that, if used badly, data and technology can exacerbate problems and create new challenges, such as cyber vulnerabilities of regions, communities and individuals.

Governance and the government’s role

Local governance closer to the challenges and opportunities faced by places would be a key success factor. National governments should be using data to scale down, empowering communities and councils, rather than scaling up service provision and design, as is often the case, so the roundtable reckoned.

It was felt that lighter governance was needed as well, with more automation and management intervention only when necessary. Regulation was important, but should be kept simple and transparent, especially in smart places where over-complex systems and standards could become irrelevant, expensive or stifle innovation.

Concerns were raised that gaining public trust is essential, and there was a general feeling that strategic planning for smart cities is sometimes frustrated by a lack of high-quality data, an inability to analyse and use it, and low levels of trust in the organisations that hold it.

The role of managers 

As the afternoon unfolded, the discussion led to role of managers and management in local government and their role in reshaping public service organisations for a digital future that puts citizens at the heart of design and thinking for future public services.

One attendee noted that the structure in councils tended to still be ‘vertical’, and that what was needed was a broader matrix management of functions and responsibilities, even across public service boundaries. That would help to ensure an effective digital infrastructure was in place – including mobile, wireless and broadband connectivity – still far from universally available today.

Whilst there was some concern about managing the development of IoT monitoring in cities, it was also observed by one attendee that artificial intelligence and machine learning is still just ‘IT’ – it is up to us to keep pace and to manage the risks, as with any new technology.

The role of planning 

The sandwiches had been devoured and some milk had even arrived for the tea, such was the level of opulence, when the roundtable moved to planning.

The participants agreed that planning functions are critical to smart city design, but that things are currently somewhat fragmented and often ‘non-digital’, leading to under-performance of planning in both rural and urban areas.

It was noted that the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) will require local collaboration not typically found across councils at present; for example, data collection, sharing and analysis, as well as its use for local planning.

A vision of local government as a ‘broker’ for local and regional planning was posited as a strong model for the future, but is held back by a lack of tools, data sharing and a political will to restructure.

So, what was concluded? Here’s a handy summary of the day’s highlights for those that adore bullet points:

  • The is a need for strategic deployment of data and technology in a sustainable city region
  • Community interests need to be put first, balancing the risks and benefits of new technologies and their providers
  • Smart city problems need solving from outside the city area, not just from within
  • There is a need for greater digital maturity of citizens and the institutions that support them
  • Local and central government needs to bring technology, people, policy and ambition together in a coherent plan and vision for social and economic benefit
  • Sharing data is essential and this requires skills as well as political will to share sovereignty at times across organisations
  • Planning, as a function, needs to be broader, shared, integrated and modernised for smart places to thrive.

Plenty here to think about, we think you’ll agree. And, it ain’t over yet! Socitm and CASA plan to hold another roundtable later this year, during which time we hope the above ideas will develop further.

Would you like to get involved? We’d love it if you did.

Please email max.salsbury@socitm.net to register your interest now.

Smart cities roundtable, report

Friday roundup: A week in tech

Hack

Hello, digital fans. Expecting World Cup-related tech news? I was, too – but I can’t find any, so you’ll have to settle for the below. Maybe next week.

A man has been fired by a machine!

The unfortunate Ibrahim Diallo tumbled into a digital Kafkaesque nightmare when the computer system that is apparently in charge of the Los Angeles skyscraper he works at decided to terminate him.

Mr Diallo has documented his unpleasant experience in this long and interesting blog, which is well worth a read.

It’s particularly concerning how the real humans who worked with the luckless employee seemed powerless to moderate the whims of the machine.

Daft glitch, or chilling forecast of the diabolical world awaiting us? Keep tuning into the Friday roundup to find out!

***

The reasonably affable and harmless Matt Hancock MP reckons schoolchildren should be prohibited from using mobile phones during school time, which sounds pretty level-headed to me.

Writing in The Telegraph, naturally, the digital minister praised headmasters that ‘take a firm approach, and do not allow mobiles to be used during the school day’.

Remembering that he stands for all things digital, minister Hancock astutely added that he ‘enthusiastically supports using technology for teaching,’ but that children can be harmed by the abundant tech we have crammed our lives with.

He wrote: ‘If a child is being bullied during the day and they have access to social media, the bullying doesn’t necessarily stop when they walk out of the school gate. I want bullying to be as unacceptable on online platforms as it is in the playground.’

Sensible stuff. He also asked ‘Why do young children need phones in schools?’ – an excellent question for which I’m sure Apple and Samsung have excellent answers.

Now, in my day, when I was a lad at school blah blah blah…

***

A Chinese telecommunications firm has hit out at the Australian government and denied that it is under the control of the Chinese government, as you do.

The Australian government is expected to ban Huawei from bidding for 5G licenses over concerns that the firm’s true masters are the Communist party of China.

However, Huawei reckons such a move would be ‘ill-advised and not based on facts’ – but as the Chinese Communist party have a turbulent relationship with facts, perhaps it’s all starting to add up?

Anyway, in an open letter, Huawei Australia chairman John Lord insists that the firm is clean and is owned by its ‘employees, with no other shareholders’.

The Chinese government-haunted company faces similar issues in the US, where the highly trustworthy American government is also suspicious of Huawei.

So, there you go.

***

Talking of tech firms involved in espionage-esque imbroglios with western powers, the beleaguered Kaspersky has decided to take a little revenge.

The Russian antivirus outfit has stopped collaborating with European agencies on cybercrime in response to a recent EU Parliament cybersecurity defence motion that labelled its software ‘malicious’.

The firm is already deep in the mire after the US, UK and Holland banned its software from government systems, citing concerns with Kaspersky’s supposed ties to Putin & Putin Associates Ltd, or the Russian government as it is also known.

Though it has no legislative power, the European parliament’s motion is part of a plan to sniff out ‘potentially dangerous programmes and devices’ that could aid state-sponsored hacking of all things European.

Kaspersky is furious, claiming that the motion ‘welcomes cybercrime in Europe’. To prove the point, the firm has (messy and inaccurate mixed metaphor alert) packed its cybercrime-fighting toys into its little knapsack and trotted back to Moscow.

In a final desperate bleat, which almost brought a tear to my eye, the company said: ‘Kaspersky Lab has only ever tried to rid the world of cybercrime.’ Aw.

Friday roundup: A week in tech

Friday roundup: A week in tech

american Eagle.png

The US of A has unveiled the world’s most powerful computer, the big show-offs.

‘Summit’ is at the peak of current computing power, capable of knocking out 200,000 trillion calculations a second, which should be ample for running Windows 10.

The swift machine thrashes the world’s previously most powerful computer, China’s Sunway TaihuLight system – so, bully for the US and hard cheese for China, who must clearly try harder.

Summit’s tremendous electric mind will soon be set to tasks concerning astrophysics and systems biology.

Dr Thomas Zacharia, director of Tennessee’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) where the binary marvel lives, boasted that Summit was working on comparative genomics code while it was actually being constructed.

Speaking about things that I strongly suspect he has zero comprehension of, Rick Perry, the US Secretary of Energy, said: ‘We know we’re in a competition and it matters who gets there first. The ability to show the rest of the world that America is back in the game and we’re back in the game in a big way is really important.’

***

Following last week’s news that it decided not to renew an artificial intelligence (AI) contract with the Pentagon, Google has taken another step toward pacifism.

The gargantuan conglomerate has pledged not to use AI for weapons, outlining its peaceful credentials in a blog by CEO Sundar Pichai. Henceforth, the firm will not design AI for tech that is: likely to cause harm; used to gather info for surveillance violating internationally accepted norms; in contravention of widely accepted principles of international law and human rights.

Furthermore, according to Google, AI should be: socially beneficial; built and tested safely; accountable; made available for use.

Wow. Some good, nice news for once.

In another blog post, Mr Pichai wrote: ‘It is important that we support the societies in which we thrive, so with immediate effect we will be paying the full amount of tax we rightly owe in all of the territories we operate in.’ I’m only joking! There’s a limit to goodness and decency, you know.

***

Apple has decided to alter the default settings on its popular electric telephones, to the chagrin of the police.

The firm says the changes will make it harder for hackers to unlock iPhones without legal authorisation.

However, the move will affect the world’s police forces’ ability to conduct criminal investigations – or so the police say.

In a statement, Apple said: ‘We’re constantly strengthening the security protections in every Apple product to help customers defend against hackers, identity thieves and intrusions into their personal data.’

Anticipating a negative reaction from the police after kyboshing their iPhone crackery, the firm added: ‘We have the greatest respect for law enforcement, and we don’t design our security improvements to frustrate their efforts to do their jobs.’

So, who’s right: Apple or the police? Let’s get this sorted with some good old-fashioned squabbling in the comments section.

 

Picture by Andrew Morffew

Friday roundup: A week in tech

Can robots and employees work harmoniously?

Human and robot hand connecting

By the Orbis Robotics Team

This was a huge question for us here in Orbis (a partnership between Surrey, East Sussex and Brighton and Hove Councils) and one that we were hoping would have a positive answer. Did it? Well, we haven’t quite fully answered this just yet but we have moved one step closer to getting there. Here’s our story…

We spoke in our blog last month about introducing robotics to the council, mainly because we needed to save money by finding more efficient ways of working. One of the thoughts behind doing this was that we utilise our employees more by getting them to do more ‘value add’ work rather than the mundane and monotonous data entry work.

However, this wasn’t quite how it was translating to some of our employees. Although there was a positive buzz around robots for some people, others saw the robots as a threat to their career, a forced change to how they work and a way of ousting them from the workplace. So, how do you change that kind of attitude?

The robots were in early stages; in fact none of them had physically been produced yet because our robot ‘experts’ were having to self-train themselves through YouTube and Google! The lack of understanding around robots meant that communication needed to be improved, as this really is key when trying to get employees on-board with change.

So, how best can you introduce robots as friends rather than enemy when they are currently feared? We decided to turn them from robots into our latest recruits by giving them names and personalities!

Ok, so it may sound slightly crazy initially – but this is where we showed how well we know our employees. As a council, our driving force is our community and something our employees can agree on is that we care about people. So, if this is the case, why don’t we turn the robots into people (not literally, of course), so that suddenly they become relatable? This is exactly what we did.

Emily, a member of our project team, named each of the robots (10 in total at this stage) and gave them personalities. For example, we have a robot called Molly who can take data from multiple systems, and another called Jude who can automate recurring tasks.

This was reinforced with workshops by one of our project managers and our process improvement analyst. They engaged with our teams to introduce the robots/new team recruits and got them to look at how the purpose of each robot would fit into a process, encouraging them to think about how this would work for their own teams’ processes.

Eight workshops later and engagement with over 100 employees, the attitude changed and people started to see the benefits rather than the threat.

So, can employees and robots work harmoniously? There will never be 100% acceptance but strong communication, employee interaction and making the robots relatable means that we just might find a way to all get along.

Can robots and employees work harmoniously?

Friday roundup: A week in tech

Social Media

Hello, readers. What madness has occurred in the ever-baffling world of global tech this week? Read on – you will NOT be disappointed…

A man who doesn’t sound real but apparently actually is, Kim Dotcom, has announced plans to build his own social media network, an aspiration he shares with the government of Papua New Guinea.

The New Zealand-based “internet entrepreneur”, who currently spends his days fighting extradition to the US on copyright infringement and fraud charges, reckons Facebook and Twitter are ‘deep state conspirators’ – which doesn’t sound good at all.

To prove this theory, Mr Dotcom reached out to his 732,000 Twitter followers, asking them if they thought the network was in league with the scheming ‘deep state’. Nearly 90% of them said ‘yes’.

So, that’s nearly 90% of his Twitter followers using Twitter to claim they think Twitter is a ‘deep state conspirator’. Uh-huh.

Anyway, Mr Dotcom has asked, via Twitter, CIA grass Edward Snowden and the embassy-bound Julian Assange to join him in his crusade against…Twitter.

Tweeting, naturally, the would-be next Mark Zuckerberg said: ‘All it takes is a real alternative with real privacy protection and zero censorship from a trusted source and Twitter will become the next MySpace, an online ghost town.’

One way to demonstrate his opposition to Twitter might be to leave the network while encouraging his thousands of followers to do likewise – but that would be silly, wouldn’t it.

***

Do you remember Cambridge Analytica? Well, apparently, they were some kind of data collecting outfit that folded after becoming embroiled in a Facebook-user-details-elections-democracy-destroying scandal way back in 2018.

Anyway, the vanished firm’s former boss, Alexander Nix, has appeared before British MPs to answer questions – except he didn’t answer them.

Mr Nix claimed that answering the politicians’ questions would be wrong while the ICO is conducting an inquiry into all things Cambridge Analytica (CA).

The put-upon chief was at pains to tell everyone that most of this nonsense is down to the antics of one-time CA employee, Christopher Wylie, who is currently enjoying some minor celebrity as some kind of digital liberal hero of freedom and democracy – though a closer inspection of the man reveals he ain’t quite the ethical powerhouse he likes people to think he is.

Accusing Mr Wylie of being ‘bitter and jealous’, Mr Nix went on to say that he was ‘deeply embarrassed’ about Channel 4 New’s successful attempt to capture him making outrageous statements on camera, including that he could deploy sex workers to help discredit people.

But, Mr Nix insisted, we shouldn’t take these words literally – they are out of context: though the words are seen to be coming out of his mouth, what he was thinking/feeling on the inside is quite invisible, and it’s what’s inside that counts.

Read the whole long ridiculous report here.

***

In signs that it might be growing something like a moral backbone, internet-owner Google has decided not to renew an artificial intelligence (AI) contract with the USA’s centre for planetary destruction, the Pentagon.

Following resignations and a petition signed by thousands of staff, the giant firm has opted not to carry on with project Maven when the contract expires next year.

Google and its staff are concerned that any AI it comes up with for the Pentagon may be used for the purposes of killing, maiming and general mayhem. And they’ve just worked this out, apparently.

The late George Carlin used to say that ‘military intelligence’ is an oxymoron, which is quite funny. Can anything witty be said about ‘military artificial intelligence’? Hmm, I’m struggling. Please be funny in the comments section.

Friday roundup: A week in tech

Does size matter? Socitm Improve, cheap bikes…and smugness

bike.jpg

By Matthew Fraser, Socitm technical consultant

The infamous Lance Armstrong once said: ‘It’s not about the bike.’ We now know that to be true – it was really about the performance-enhancing drugs. However, I still broadly agree with Lance concerning bikes, and life: throwing money and technology at a problem doesn’t guarantee results.

Yet, as I prepared for a recent cycling event, I found myself questioning if my current bike was up to the job. When I started cycling again (around three years ago), I bought one of the cheapest bikes I could find – just in case I decided it wasn’t for me. Many cycling magazines will recommend spending double what I did, and enthusiastic riders may happily pay 10 times as much.

As the big day approached, I began to wonder if the bike would hold me back; if I’d be consigned to telling friends I finished last; that the deck was already stacked against me.

I’ve come across a similar opinion when I discuss the Socitm Improve service with people. They believe that due to the size of their organisation, a worthwhile comparison is impossible to find.

Small organisations feel that, as they do not benefit from the economies of scale that large organisations have, they are destined to appear expensive and in-efficient. While these are qualities that are often desirable in luxury items like sports cars, I can understand why no organisation would want this description.

But is this assumption correct?

Thanks to the new dashboarding options available within the Socitm Improve service, I put this theory to the test.

Here’s the science bit (he says, calling on his inner Jennifer Aniston from her shampoo-selling days): I ranked each participant by multiple aspects of size to give them a ‘size ranking’. Then I did the same with multiple cost metrics to develop a ‘cost-efficiency ranking’. Finally, I plotted the two rankings against each other.

Tell me, what do you see?

graph 1

I think if you join the dots you may get a picture of a pony – but there is no evidence that the size of an organisation affects its relative IT spend.

But perhaps size affects performance? Some large organisations worry that they will have an added level of complexity, due to their magnitude. Obviously, they don’t want to appear to perform worse than those who have a simpler service to deliver.

As before, let’s test this with data:

graph 2

You may not believe it, but I find this chart quite interesting. Notice how the bottom left of the chart is completely empty? That tells us that none of the small organisations that gave us data are performing poorly. Well done, my diminutive colleagues.

But looking at the right of the chart, we also see that top performers come in all sizes. So again, we have no trend.

(Note: The eagle-eyed will notice that a few of the data points are x rather than o. This is because those participants didn’t complete one of the measures I used, and I thought it would be cruel to exclude them.)

What can we conclude? Well, in much of life size makes a difference. Taller people can easily reach high shelves. Smaller people are more comfortable on long-hall plane journeys. But these charts show that when it comes to comparing your organisation to others, size is not as big a factor as we may imagine.

But what about the big question? I know you’re keen to know how my cheap bike performed.

Well, if a good bike ride is measured in smiles, it was a top performer. Every time I passed a bike that I knew to cost considerably more than mine, I found myself grinning from ear to ear. Perhaps not physically – as it is difficult to smile while gasping for oxygen – but certainly smugness swelled up in my heart.

Cycling might be ‘a bit about the bike’, but it was clearly only one factor among many.

Similarly, your organisation – like every other – is unique. Size is just one of your defining features. But I hope you’ll agree that you shouldn’t let your size exclude you from gaining insight through comparing yourself to others.

***

Why not challenge your assumptions about your ICT service? Are you lean and efficient? Do you provide a gold standard level of performance? Have you found the holy grail of attaining both great performance and high efficiency? We’ve found some organisations who have.

Socitm Improve helps you to analyse your ICT service in the context of your peers and facilitates group learning between participants.

Does size matter? Socitm Improve, cheap bikes…and smugness