Councils encouraged to respond to cybersecurity stocktake

imgo

Former Socitm president and Norfolk head of IT Geoff Connell has encouraged councils in England to respond to ‘stocktake’ research on their cybersecurity this summer.

Speaking at Socitm’s President’s Conference in Glasgow on 9 May 2018, he encouraged councils to respond fully. “This isn’t about trying to say you’re brilliant,” Connell said. “It’s about being honest so we understand what we need to do, where the challenges are and where the priorities are.”

The work is funded by the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government, which is providing £1.5 million this year to support English councils in cybersecurity work, administered by the Local Government Association. The ministry hopes to allocate further funding in both of the following two financial years.

As well as the stocktaking exercise, local authorities will be able to apply for funding for ‘quick win’ projects, such as to improve technical skills.

The money has partly been organised through the Local Public Services CIO Council, which confirmed a set of changes when it met at the President’s Conference.

The renamed Socitm Local CIO Council will concentrate on digital services, redesign and leadership; health and social care integration; workforce diversity and skills; and cybersecurity, where Connell will act as core spokesperson.

The council, which will become an integral part of Socitm, plans to have two face-to-face meetings a year, supplemented by teleconferences which may focus on the four newly-adopted themes.

Council chair and Leeds chief digital and information officer Dylan Roberts said the council will retain its focus on integrated, place-based delivery of services, under the slogan ‘simplify, standardise, share’.

 

Councils encouraged to respond to cybersecurity stocktake

Friday roundup: A week in tech

Switzerlan

Poor old Kaspersky has announced plans to shift some of its operations abroad (if it has any left) in an attempt to fix its tattered image.

Accused of being a spying lapdog of the Russian state, the firm has decided to up sticks to…Switzerland – on account of its ‘policy of neutrality’ and no doubt ‘stunning mountains, verdant meadows, dubious financial accountability structures’.

The antivirus outfit has been in the digital dustbin since the US’s Homeland Security people demanded that government departments stopped using its software, fearing that precious information was being fed back to Moscow.

Naturally, Kaspersky has always proclaimed its innocence but now even the chilled-out Dutch have had enough, with the government there announcing that it is beginning to dump the company’s software.

According to Holland’s justice and security ministry, ‘Russia has an active offensive cyber programme focusing on the Netherlands and vital Dutch interests’.

So, how will a move to the land of cheese and Roger Federer help repair Kaspersky’s standing? Apparently, moving its servers to Zurich will assuage fears that Mr Putin is watching the flow of data coming in from around the world.

In a statement, the firm said: ‘Our new centre in Switzerland will strengthen the proven integrity of Kaspersky Lab’s products.’

Very reassuring, and how fortunate that here in the West there aren’t any gargantuan software firms that have suspicious and deeply worrying relationships with our data.

***

Those whose only outlet for discourse, interaction with others or any kind of catharsis is impishly tapping out messages of no more than 280 characters to bewildered strangers could be in trouble – Twitter has announced plans to deflate the remonstrations of ‘trolls’.

In the 12 millionth attempt to control hateful, mad abuse on the platform, the social media network hopes to make the drivel of idiots ‘less visible’.

According to the firm, signallers of ‘trolling’ include a user registering multiple accounts simultaneously; somebody repeatedly messaging someone who doesn’t follow them; and those who fail to confirm their email address.

Henceforth, suspected ‘trolling’ tweets will be ‘less visible’ – unless you click ‘Show more replies’, and why on Earth would you want to do that?

According to Twitter, ‘These [troll] accounts have a disproportionately large – and negative – impact on people’s experience…The challenge for us has been: how can we proactively address these disruptive behaviours that do not violate our policies but negatively impact the health of the conversation.’

And things are going well, apparently, as tests of the anti-trolling system have led to a decrease in reports of abuse.

So, well done there, then.

***

Papal news now: none less than the person heading-up God’s office on Earth, the Pope, has published ecclesiastical guidance on the way nuns should conduct themselves on social media.

His holiness has prepared a manuscript that calls for ‘sobriety and discretion’ when using digital platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.

So, why’s this happened?

Last month, some nuns in Spain posted messages on Facebook about a group of men in Pamplona who were recently cleared of rape, instead being found guilty of the lesser charge of sexual abuse.

The Carmelite Nuns of Hondarribia defended the 18-year-old victim in the case, writing that all women had the right to do the opposite of living in a convent ‘without being judged, raped, intimidated or humiliated’.

The Pope first laid down some digital doctrine in 2016 when he cautioned about the internet’s ‘decisive influence’ on Christendom, and pressed nuns not to let Twitter et al ‘become occasions for wasting time’ – advice that could be applied to everyone everywhere.

Not that the Vatican itself seems to have paid any attention: the hallowed institution has found the time to pump out over 15,000 tweets, while also operating YouTube, Instagram and Facebook and Google+ accounts. Good to hear they’re keeping themselves busy.

Friday roundup: A week in tech

Why AI should mean augmented intelligence

Pepper the Robot

By Maryvonne Hassall, digital strategy manager, Aylesbury Vale District Council

There’s a lot of scaremongering about the idea of artificial intelligence (AI) taking our jobs – but I think we need to consider where it fits well and that there are some things it’s not so good at.

We need to understand the nuances. AI, for some, is being seen as the latest digital solution that will transform everything. The idea that you can just implement AI and the world will be a much better place is not the full picture. Like all things, if your data is poor, your results will be poor; rubbish in, rubbish out.

AI is really good at some things, but less good at others and it absolutely needs to be managed by a person to get the most out of it. We need to understand how it’s working and then tweak and refine it. We need to have transparency, so we understand the decisions it is making and can challenge them. Another consideration is the need to look out for biased data sets, because whatever AI uses as its source data will shape the results on that bias.

AI is everywhere! For example, it is really expensive to launch a new drug into the health market: AI adoption can shorten the time this takes and play a factor in deciding which drugs might be more successful before undertaking expensive trials.

Banks are using it for fraud protection; energy companies use it to monitor customers’ behaviour; Network Rail and others use it for the diagnosis of where faults may occur to enable preventative maintenance, saving staff time.

Olay are using it to help ladies pick the best facial products for them. So, if you take a photo and answer a few questions it will recommend the best product for you. There’s an interesting discussion on how much the marketing team should get involved to shape the results. At present there is no input from marketing. The deciding factors are primarily driven by what you say rather than how you look! AI is also being used by sports teams to monitor how players are moving in training, which can predict injuries and assist talent-spotting.

The key approach used by Aylesbury Vale is more about automation than just AI; I mention this because it is a matter of scale and timing. We’ve been automating and promoting self-service to our customers for a long time, and AI is just the next iteration of that. We are also using AI through Amazon’s Alexa to answer customer queries in their home.

In addition, we use AI software in our call centre: it takes the text of incoming webchat messages, or emails, and helps the agent by suggesting possible responses. It’s not ‘instead of people’ – it’s AI software assisting the agent working alongside them. The benefit is that agents then have more time to manage the more complex enquiries.

AI is great at dealing with lots of data, and much quicker than we are at crunching through that data to find patterns. It does this in a standard way and learns by working alongside our staff.

For me, AI is about augmented intelligence: augmenting humans to make decision-making quicker.

This is based on Maryvonne Hassall’s talk at Socitm’s President’s Conference in Glasgow on 8 May 2018

Why AI should mean augmented intelligence

£1m for digital solutions to social care problems

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Those keen on developing digital services for adult social care have received a nice boost – a big pot of money has been pledged for that very purpose.

NHS Digital has earmarked £1 million as part of an intriguing competition: grants of £20,000 will be dished out to 12 winning councils that propose excellent digital solutions to adult social care problems. After the design phase is over, six of the 12 will be awarded a further £80,000 to put towards the delivery of their scheme.

Local authorities have until 1 June at 4pm to apply for the Social Care Digital Innovation Programme, for that is the initiative’s name, and those hoping for a piece of the fiscal pie are being advised to focus on one of three themes: supernatural involvement; cubist art; and comedy value.

Only joking. The three themes actually are: managing marketing & commission; efficiency; and sustainability & integration.

NHS Digital’s James Palmer said: ‘This year, the funding will help to identify and address some key pinch points within local authority services, especially those around the integration of health and social care systems. We are looking forward to seeing the innovative solutions that councils come up with in response to our latest round of funding.’

£1m for digital solutions to social care problems

Robots invade the council

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By the Orbis Robotics Team

Timeline: January/February 2018

Ok, so this is probably a tad dramatic considering that here in Orbis, the partnership between Surrey, East Sussex and Brighton and Hove councils, we are building the robots and therefore inviting them into our offices, rather than robots invading them.

However, our story is quite shocking considering this is a massive jump forward from still having paper floating around in a few of our offices. This is why we are documenting our journey and will be sharing this in a monthly robotics series.

In a strategic bid not to get left behind in a technological world, and to power through our more repetitive and mundane work, we have decided to build a family of robots to help us. With no budget to fund the work and various restrictions in place, this is going to be a hell of a challenge – but something needs to change.

Robotic Process Automation (RPA) could potentially save Orbis thousands by reducing the time taken to process workload, considering we have 3,000 core processes to choose from. However, it does come with concerns: our employees are concerned that robots will take their jobs from them and our teams are concerned that we don’t have the skills to build the robots. So, how do we tackle these issues?

We decided our first move was to get a project manager – enter Andre – and for him to find a team who would form our RPA experts – enter Information Technology (IT) and various subject matter experts from our existing teams. After having played ‘musical rooms’ with a team that were occupying what we thought might be the perfect ‘Bot Lab’ and us learning the hard way that communicating early helps to reduce hard feeling, the Robot team were ready to start work in their new lab.

So, where do you start when you have an abundance of processes that you can work on? We implemented something called Project Pathfinder to help identify any broken processes and analyse the data collected to help find better ways of working. This enabled us to identify what the robots could potentially be introduced to help with, versus what the teams could improve and deal with themselves, and this information fed back to the lab.

All good so far but now came the real test: how to build a robot with no previous experience in doing so, no budget for training and no manual to follow?? Thank goodness for Google and YouTube because they became our best friend!

In hindsight, we may have been a tad over ambitious in what we wanted to achieve and by when (a lab, a team of ‘experts in training’ and Project Pathfinder giving us insight into our mass of processes) but one thing it did demonstrate is the talent we have and just how determined our people are in finding solutions.

Working excess hours (which we don’t recommend) and refusing to be beaten, incredibly our RPA experts pushed boundaries to attempt their first robot.

Did we succeed? Find out in our coming blogs!

Robots invade the council

Race to the top: Better data improves everything

IMG_20180429_082212 for blog

By Matthew Fraser, Socitm technical consultant

At the end of April, I completed Etape Loch Ness, my first long distance cycle event. It was 66 miles (106km) on closed roads, around one of the most beautiful parts of Scotland.

Since then I’ve had the same conversation with most of my friends. First, they ask: ‘How did it go?’

I tell them it went well; that the weather was good – albeit a little cold to start – and the whole event was organised well.

When they ask: ‘How long did it take?’ I can give a very precise answer. Thanks to a timing chip provided by the event, I know It took me 3 hours 59 minutes and 31 seconds.

For those who were only being polite, these two questions are sufficient. But others – mostly those I’m cultivating for future cycling events – follow up with: ‘Is that good?’

Now, that is a really tricky question to answer. After all, what constitutes a ‘good’ time? I know that the event organisers weren’t packing up when I crossed the finish line, so that is a helpful indicator – although perhaps that only means that they expected some to be hopeless.

However, I do have some experience objectively determining what ‘good’ should be. In my work with the Socitm Improve service, I’ve spent the last year developing online dashboards that allow organisations to easily compare how ‘good’ they are. So, it made sense to apply similar methods to my finish time.

(I should disclose that, due to my exertions, I lacked the physical capability to get off the couch at this point, so doing anything more productive was impossible.)

Fortunately, I have two friends (we’ll call them Dave and Dan – because those are their names) who also completed the event. If I knew their times, it would tell me if I was ‘good’.

Dave finished in 4 hours 12 minutes. I tell him that is a good time, while inwardly congratulating myself that I’ve beaten him by a massive 13 minutes. Dan’s response provides another emotion, he completed the course in 2 hours 56 minutes!

I was instantly deflated, perhaps Dave and I were amongst the slowest on the day. But then I remembered my work with Improve: we regularly stress that you can’t base your assumptions on just asking a few neighbouring organisations.

Despite being friends living in the same town, Dave, Dan and I are quite different. Dave is now over 50 and did little training; but he’s a former Royal Marine with an active job. Dan has a desk job but is in his early 30s and took his training very seriously. I’m somewhere in the middle.

Whether you are comparing ICT services or athletic prowess, more data provides a better conclusion. Turning to the Etape website, I found I could view all the final times. Here was the data I needed.

The website also had results for the last four years. However, unlike Improve – where you can now compare over a decade of data –  it wasn’t possible to combine the different years together to build a massive dataset.

This year’s results revealed that out of a field of 4,341, I finished in 1401stplace. After my earlier despair, this was pleasing news. I’d just squeezed into the top third.

Of course, my overall position only tells part of the story. I don’t know how many of my fellow cyclists were slowed by punctures, or the desire to take lots of the pictures (I only took the one above).

We overcome this difficulty in Improve by having regular workshops where participants can openly discuss the reasons behind their relative successes and failures. But I think organising something similar for 4,000 cyclists might seem a little excessive (and involve getting off the couch).

Another comparison that we encourage and facilitate with Improve is to compare against yourself. If you’ve taken part in Socitm’s previous benchmarking services, you can quickly see where you are enhancing your service.

Applying a similar approach, I looked over my past data (fortunately, I record all my cycling data using an app on my phone). It reveals that the Etape was my longest ride in both distance and duration. It was also one of my fastest.

After considering all the above, I now have an answer to: ‘Is that good?’

My time was ‘reasonably good’. It’s possible to go faster but I didn’t embarrass myself. I shouldn’t rest on my laurels, but neither should I throw out the bike. Thanks to all this research, if friends question me further I now have the figures to justify my answer.

***

If you were asked if your ICT service was ‘good’, what would you say?  Do you have evidence to back up any feelings that you are already excelling, or could do with better funding?

Socitm’s Improve service can help you compare the size, performance and cost-efficiency of your ICT – helping you to concentrate your efforts for improvement or make a case for improved funding.

 

 

Race to the top: Better data improves everything

Friday roundup: A week in tech

CPUs

CPU-problem-searchers have been busily searching for problems with CPUs – evidently very busily, as they’re found eight brand new security flaws.

Following the Spectre and Meltdown bugs discovered in Intel chips back in January, eager error buffs have been on the hunt for similar gaping issues – and they’ve been duly rewarded in their errand.

According to interestingly-named German tech mag c’t, the fresh flaws are collectively known as the ‘Spectre Next Generation’, and new patches are currently being developed to shore them up.

Though it has all the juicy details, the mag is, admirably, keeping them secret until chip manufacturers have had a chance to sort the security issues out.

And this is no small gesture, for c’t reckons that one of the ‘SPECTRE NG’ flaws eases attacks across system boundaries to such a degree that ‘we estimate the threat potential to be significantly higher than with Spectre. Specifically, an attacker could launch exploit code in a virtual machine (VM) and attack the host system from there – the server of a cloud hoster, for example.

The whole troubling report’s here (luckily in English).

***

Languid communications outfit BT has announced plans to cut 13,000 jobs, as it aims to slash costs by £1.5 billion.

The gigantic operation, which likes to do things at its own pace, will make around 12% of its staff, mostly managers and back-office workers, redundant over the next three years.

However, those BT customers thinking ‘great, this means it’ll take them even longer to answer the phone’ should be soothed by the firm’s plans to hire 6,000 new people to ‘support network deployment and customer service’ – and that, readers, very much remains to be seen.

A third of the job losses will be made abroad in the company’s Global Services outfit (‘ou est le ingénieur téléphonique?!’), in the wake of a forecast predicting a 2% revenue drop over 2018-19.

Understandably, the national secretary of the Prospect union, Philippa Childs, has said the plans are ‘a devastating blow to managers and professionals represented by Prospect’.

BT CEO Gavin Paterson, who, incidentally, took home £1,057,000 in bonuses in 2015/16 on top of his £969,000 salary, said: ‘We have the UK’s leading fixed and mobile access networks, a portfolio of strong and well segmented brands, and close strategic partnerships.

‘This position of strength will enable us to build on the disciplined delivery and risk reduction of the last financial year, a period in which we delivered overall in line with our financial and operational commitments whilst addressing many uncertainties.’

***

Bad news, expensive-illegal-powder-of-unknown-provenance fans: US researchers claim they have built a cheap chip that can detect cocaine.

The team behind the breakthrough reckons a portable cocaine breathalyser might not be too far away, so users of the drug may soon have to toe the line.

According to Joshua Harris from UK road safety charity Brake, drug-driving played a part in 81 fatal road accidents in 2016. He said: ‘These findings have the potential to improve the speed and accuracy of roadside drug testing.

‘We are calling upon the government to prioritise the type-approval of roadside screening devices that can detect all banned drugs and step up roads policing levels to deter offending.’

So, if you currently enjoy giving £80 to a cagey stranger on a street corner for the pleasure of nasally consuming an obscure and completely unregulated substance before going for a little drive, it may be time to seek a new form of entertainment.

***

The UK’s communications watchdog has finally revealed some good news about the country’s embarrassingly listless home broadband services.

According to OFCOM, download speeds have climbed by 28% since the beginning of 2018 to a national average of 46.2Mbps (which certainly isn’t anywhere near true round my house but bully for everyone else).

Unsurprisingly, rural internet consumers continue to suffer lower speeds than urbanites – but, then, country folk aren’t being slowly poisoned to death by clouds of toxic exhaust fumes, so maybe that evens things out a bit?

In areas with lots of buildings in them (towns etc.), 59% of connections are considered by OFCOM to be ‘superfast’ – that is, they deliver average speeds of over 30Mbps during the hours of 8-10pm – while in areas with lots of fields in them, only 23% of connections can truly be adorned with that sobriquet

On a national level, England leads the pack with average speeds of 47.8Mbps, while Wales lags at the back of the pack with 33.4Mbps.

And that concludes today’s average broadband speeds update. I very much hope you enjoyed it.

Friday roundup: A week in tech