Author: peterkwells (Page 1 of 8)

Some initial thoughts on the UK National Data Strategy

The UK government recently published two big documents: a framework for its National Data Strategy (NDS) and a report by the UK Government Office for Science (GOS) on the future of citizen data systems around the world.

The government started work on them about two years ago. I provided input to both documents. They have ended up roughly as people expected, given the UK’s particular political context. The ministerial foreword for the NDS says that it is “unashamedly pro-tech”. The GOS report is more nuanced. 

The strategy aligns with the government’s need to recover from the Coronavirus pandemic, respond to technological change and establish its future course after leaving the EU. The current UK Government is strongly in favour of using technology and data to help with these challenges, although there are doubts about whether their leadership really gets how to do it.

The strategy describes itself as being about all information stored on computers and, if it is delivered, would impact all sectors of the economy and society with the exception of health and social care (which is due to get its own data strategy), geospatial (which already has its own data strategy), and the police and state surveillance agencies (who have had a strategy for a few years now).

That is a lot of ground to cover and a lot of potential impact.

I have concerns about strategies that stretch that broad, we cannot look at everything through the lens of data and data experts, but given data’s current prominence in government policy circles it was to be expected. 

The NDS includes a diagram of its pillars, missions and opportunities. The diagram does not picture any risks.

There is an open consultation on the strategy. The first few questions focus on the pillars and missions of the strategy.

To help me with my thinking, and perhaps those of other policy people and technologists, here are some initial thoughts on:

  • the need for clearer aims
  • the need for a pillar of citizen engagement
  • the mission to unlock the value of data
  • the international mission

At this point I have deliberately not included thoughts on bias and inclusion, cities, ethics, open data, data protection, human rights or the planned integrated data platform for government.

For those who do not know me I have experience with policy and delivery with the public and private sectors in multiple countries, like to make technology work for people, and choose to remain optimistic that that can happen.

Do read these thoughts with that perspective in mind.

The framework needs to have clearer aims and a pillar of engaged citizens

The Government Office for Science report on the future of citizen data systems recommends that the UK is clear about its aims and encourages the public to be active and engaged. This is an important element to support both the agility and the humanity that will be needed over the coming years of technological change.

Unfortunately this is not something that the framework manages to achieve. This is probably the most significant gap.

Data is not an area where technocracy should rule. There are political decisions to be made about the priorities, winners and losers.

During the last two years it has been great to see more debate about politics and technology including from trade unions and think tanks from across the political spectrum. Their work looks at data through different lenses than the usual ones of engineering, protection and innovation. But the strategy is not clear on the political choices it is making.

The document has a vague set of opportunities and uses terms that it does not clearly define such as “responsible innovation” “progressive values”, “UK values” and “pro-growth data regime”.

The ministerial foreword says that we need to ask “fundamental questions” about data, but the document does not clearly set out what these questions are, what tradeoffs exist, how the government intends them to be answered, or who by.

It says that the government “seeks to maintain the high watermark of data use set during the pandemic”. While there has been lots of good use of data in the response to the pandemic I suspect most citizens know that the evidence of it all being good is mixed at best. Being realistic about what was done during the pandemic might help build some of the trust that will be needed to deliver the strategy.

As I was uploading this post the news was breaking that a basic error in the collection of data in England about positive tests for Coronavirus had not been spotted for a week.

Overall the report is nearly 30,000 words long. It is better written and structured than most policy papers, but still a long way from being something that citizens can engage with.

As an expert I can make a reasonable stab at engaging with the framework, but as a citizen I would not be sure what it meant for me, my family, friends, work colleagues, a new business idea or my latest idea to help my community. 

Rachel Coldicutt has done a great job trying to make the consultation relevant to the social sector, but this is also a challenge for other sectors and will be an ongoing task beyond the consultation itself.

Having clear aims and recognising that citizen engagement is a pillar of effective data use would make it easier to build both into the missions and ongoing delivery of the strategy.  

You cannot unlock the value of data with a national framework to increase access to it

There are many predictions about how much data will be generated over the coming years and how much economic value and jobs this could create. The NDS repeats some of these in the description of its first mission to unlock the value of data.

This mission then focuses on a national policy framework for increasing access to data. This will prove to be both insufficient and too broad reaching. It risks reducing value and causing harm.

We need a more contextual approach that helps people, organisations, places and sectors work out if or how to use data to help them deliver their priorities.

Some examples from the worlds of postal addresses, finance, health and education.

Geospatial data, such as that held by the Ordnance Survey, OpenStreetMap and Google, is widely recognised as foundational data that can unlock value in most countries. It was a topic of discussion at the launch of the UK’s government data portal in 2010.

The 2013 Shakespeare Review for the UK government recommended a national data strategy that would, amongst other things, increase access to data held by government trading funds, such as Ordnance Survey. The 2017 Conservative Manifesto contained a commitment to open up geospatial data.

The 2019 UK geospatial strategy failed to follow through on that commitment even for one of the simplest datasets, postal addresses, despite several previous attempts that demonstrated that this was something that only the government could do.

In short even though the necessary policy commitments for increasing access to geospatial data were in place at several points over the years, there has been an inability to deliver on those commitments.

Government could make a stronger intervention than a policy framework, for example by creating a legislative framework for access to data as myself and others once suggested, but I now expect that this will turn out to be both insufficient and too broad.

The open banking standard was designed to increase access to consumer data held by the major retail banks with the goal of increasing competition. After initial attempts at making it a voluntary initiative, the Competition and Markets Authority mandated compliance by the 9 largest banks.

It has had some successes but, to be as effective as it was, it needed to be designed within its particular context and with a broad range of expertise. As initiatives like open banking spread to other sectors the UK will need to design those initiatives in their context too.

In 2018/9 one of the projects I led at the Open Data Institute mapped ways to increase access to data. The team quickly realised that there were a huge number of ways and this was a contextual problem.

Meanwhile the UK learnt that open banking did not, as originally planned, necessarily increase competition in the sector. It helped create a market for new fintech services, but competition for existing services came from new entrants like Monzo, Revolut and Starling. These organisations used data to help build their services, but access to existing data has not been the key to their success. 

Finally, it is important to be aware that broad mechanisms for increasing access to data can reduce value and cause harm.

The most wide reaching example is the use of data by the online advertising industry, but there are many other examples which affect people in different ways such as the sharing of NHS and schools data with the UK’s immigration services, the Metropolitan Police Gangs Matrix, and anti-terrorism activities such as the Prevent programme. All of these activities rely on government policies for access to data.

A broad national framework could lead to more cases like these, for example would Islington council have been obliged to share data about people who sleep rough with the Home Office so that it can be used to enforce immigration policies? And, if so, how would this have impacted the services that Islington Council provides? What about a council in Scotland or Northern Ireland?

The unease that this data use creates in citizens leads to the concerns seen in Living with Data’s review of the public’s understanding of data practices.

Those concerns can lead to citizens and organisations that hold data but do not want it to be accessed and reused to resist in ways that make the data of increasingly poor quality, biased or misleading.

This does not just hinder the use of data in new services. It can harm data holders, existing services and the people that use them.

Rather than a national policy framework for increasing access to data, any mission to unlock value in data will need a more contextual focus that recognises data is just one tool amongst many others and that supports people, places, sectors and organisations to learn how data might, or might not, help with the problems they actually have.

The mission to champion the international flow of data conflicts with other government policies

The strategy has a mission for the UK to champion the international flow of data. It says:

the UK now has a unique opportunity – as a world leader in digital and as a champion of free trade and the rules-based international system – to be a force for good in the world, shaping global thinking and promoting the benefits that data can deliver while managing malign influences

The strategy does not recognise how this mission conflicts with other government policies and actions.

The UK has long regarded itself as one of the leading countries in technology, digital and data but in my own international work over the last few years most observers say that the UK has lost any edge it had to European countries, the USA and China. Perhaps this is due to the government’s focus on Brexit, or maybe it was never the leader that some people thought and this has slowly become more visible. 

The GOS report on the future of citizen data systems shows quite how much effort other countries are spending to support innovation and to create new global standards for regulation. As Benedict Evans recently said “regulation is an export industry, and a competitive industry“. It is hard to see how the UK can compete at the necessary scale.

The UK is at risk of failing to secure a deal for free trade in data with the EU to replicate the one that it already has. There is “a lack of progress on …. protection of personal data” in the current trade negotiations. This will cause significant disruption for citizens, businesses and governments.

Meanwhile outside the world of data the UK government illegally suspended Parliament last year; is being criticised by many observers for the planned Internal Markets Bill which may breach international law; and has reportedly gone as far as exploring a floating border between the UK and France rather than uphold moral and legal obligations to treat humans compassionately and fairly when they seek asylum.

These are actions that I did not foresee when optimistically imagining how the UK could set its course after Brexit. I struggle to see the current actions as those of a nation that is a force for good in the world and, from my own experience, I can see how it will affect any work on international data flows by the UK government or its representatives. 

Until the government changes these other policies then much of the effort that seems planned under this mission is likely to be wasted.

I would suggest that the UK needs to be in more of a listening mode internationally, at least until it has managed to get its footing again after both the pandemic and Brexit.

In conclusion

As I said at the beginning the UK National Data Strategy is large and broad and these are just some initial thoughts to help me work out if I can help push the NDS closer towards being useful in making data work for people. At the moment I fear that the NDS is too broad and too optimistic in what central government can achieve with data. That risks more wasted years for the UK.

Other thoughtful people are working on responses too. Some of those will be to the consultation, others to the activities that the strategy describes. My thoughts will hopefully help those other technology and policy people in their own work.

As usual I do apologise that these thoughts are a bit long-winded, I will offer my usual excuse that if I had more time I would write my thoughts more concisely.

England’s new digital contact tracing app trial needs to be more transparent and open

A week ago England started trialling a new app for digital contact tracing. I am a participant in the trial.

There is some progress from the last trial on the Isle of Wight that is praiseworthy. There is lots of documentation about what has been built.  But unfortunately I can find very little information about how the trial is designed, how it is being evaluated, and how it is progressing.

This is an important gap.

While I am a strong supporter of responsibly and proportionately using technology to effectively tackle the pandemic there is little evidence that digital contact tracing is effective.

Governments need to be open-minded that the app might not be effective, and should be honest with the public about the progress and outcome of the trial.  This is a necessary part of making any public service trustworthy.

If the government does not publish information about the trial we risk speculation and rumours filling the gap.

Increasing transparency and openness about the trial will help it progress and, if the trial shows that the app is effective, help with the subsequent rollout of any public service.

Government recommends that clinical trials are transparent and open

Part of the English trial is a clinical investigation.

This has been registered and approved by the Health Research Authority. The Health Research Authority recommends that research protocols are published in the interests of transparency. The app team have decided not to do this.

The HRA say that such transparency will both help with the research and reduce duplicated efforts – for example in other countries, and UK nations, carrying out similar initiatives. While some of this information is being shared privately, it could also be shared openly.

Other governments have not published information about their trials. This is a chance for the UK to lead by example.

As Chris Whitty, the UK’s Chief Medical Officer, said on the launch of the HRA’s new MakeItPublic campaign: ‘Transparency and openness is essential in making the most of the commitment of patients, service users and healthy volunteers who take part in research.”

Government recommends that public services are built openly 

Meanwhile part of the trial is non-clinical and not covered by the HRA approvals process.

This part appears to be about user experience and features – for example the new app publishes an area risk score and allows people to check-in to venues using a QR code.

GDS, the Government Digital Service team that leads on design practices for public services, says people building services should make things open, it makes things better. This is not only about sharing code and final designs, it is about sharing why and how design decisions are made.

There is a wealth of prior art and experience in the public sector that the app team could usefully learn from. It is another chance for the UK to lead by example.

The last English digital contact tracing trial failed

This is the trial of a second English digital contact tracing app.

The first app crashed on the Isle of the Wight. Government did not publish results from that trial either, but two reasons were given for its failure.

Government Health Minister Lord Bethell told the House of Lords that the trial had taught “one important lesson: that people wanted to engage with human contact tracing first, and quite reasonably regarded the app as a supplementary and additional automated means of contact tracing”.

Later Matt Hancock, the UK Secretary of State for Health, confirmed rumours that there were technical problems with the app. It would not work on Apple iPhones unless it used a protocol designed by Apple and Google.

But, let’s be honest, many people suspected a third reason.

The first app was not sufficiently trusted because of the loud, public debate about it and the resulting lack of trust among part of the public. Why would the public trust something with unclear benefits and potentially large risks?

The overall test and trace programme was subsequently found to have broken the law, so perhaps the public has good judgement.

While we do not have a loud, public debate about the new trial yet there are many people both in and outside the UK who might have a reason to start such a debate. Meanwhile the public’s trust in this government’s use of technology will only have worsened with the recent exam algorithm debacle.

If the government does not publish information about the trial we risk speculation and rumours filling the gap. If the app turns out to be effective then this could damage the UK’s response to the pandemic.

A step towards trustworthiness?

England’s new digital contact tracing app trial needs to be more transparent and open. People should be able to see the design of the trial, how the app is being evaluated, and how the trial is progressing. If the trial shows that the app is effective, this will help with the subsequent rollout of any public service.

The trial could go further still. The evaluation could be independently performed. But it remains to be seen whether this government can take this initial step towards trustworthiness.

The Wight way or the wrong way

This is a piece I contributed to a book on the Coronavirus pandemic, called Pandemic Where Did We Go Wrong? It is very slightly rewritten to suit the web, for example some footnotes have turned into links and others into text. The brief was to provide a summary of what happened to England’s contact tracing app for “second year journalism students”. It is deliberately non-technical and non-opinionated.

Intro from the book

The UK was not ready for Coronavirus. The UK needed to build a test and trace capability suitable for the scale of the pandemic. A key part of the Government’s strategy, a contact tracing app, broke on the Isle of Wight.Peter Wells explains why…

The need for contact tracing

As the pandemic struck it became clear that the UK had existing public health capability but not to the required scale. It would need a massive programme of work to strengthen it. Public health is a devolved matter, all four national administrations and local public health authorities across the UK started work.

Contact tracing is part of the public health response to any infectious disease. Expert contact tracers interview infected people to discover to whom they might have transmitted a disease , they then interview those contacts to discover if they might have the disease and to whom they could have transmitted it, and so on. The contact tracer uses their expertise to recommend what activity each possible contact should take.

Research into the Coronavirus showed that people became infectious before they showed any symptoms. Some researchers became concerned that this would lead to traditional contact tracing methods being ineffective. The disease would spread before contacts could be traced. This would lengthen the lockdown, cause more economic damage, and cost lives.

A group of scientists in Oxford led by Professor Christophe Fraser, the Coronavirus-Fraser group, started to explore whether technology, in the form of a mobile phone contact tracing app, could help.

The rise of the NHSX app

The app would use Bluetooth signals to detect which phones had been in contact with each other. If a user told the app on their phone that they had tested positive for Coronavirus, other app users who might be at risk would be informed and advised to take action. The methodology had previously been explored in theory, but had not been used in an actual pandemic response anywhere in the world.

In early March 2020 Professor Fraser met with Matthew Gould, the CEO of NHSX – a unit of the Department of Health and Social responsible for digital transformation – to explore the idea. The Government agreed that the scientists would develop the theoretical framework and models, while NHSX would work with partners to start developing an app.

In late March Matt Hancock, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, announced that NHSX had started developing a contact tracing app.

It quickly became clear that other people had views.

A group of technologists, including myself, asked the government to be wary of trusted untested technologies and recommended that it act transparently. The government said that it would act transparently and that people would be able to trust the app.

European academics specialising in  privacy were concerned that an app which traced people’s contacts might reveal too much information about citizens to their governments. They started developing their own approach to digital contact tracing, known as DP-3T. This approach was termed ‘decentralised’ and ‘privacy-preserving’, in contrast to the UK’s approach which was framed as ‘centralised’ and as endangering privacy. They tried to persuade the public, European governments and the EU to support their approach.

Google and Apple, who make the operating systems for the vast majority of smartphones in use, announced that they supported this de-centralised, privacy-preserving approach and would release their own protocol that would make it easier for governments to build apps. They said that they would not support centralized apps, like the one that NHSX had started developing.

The Ada Lovelace Institute, an independent research body, performed a rapid evidence review and found “an absence of evidence to support the immediate national deployment of the technical solutions under consideration”.

The Coronavirus-Fraser group’s mathematical models showed that if the app tracked the disease well enough and the people using the app behaved as expected then the spread of the virus would be reduced, but it was not clear what would happen in the real world. Mathematical models help us understand what might happen. They do not tell us what will happen. The Government continued on their course.

Updates were given to the national press but despite the promises of transparency detailed information was not shared, whether with the general public or with experts outside the Government. In the absence of information public debate continued, often fuelled by social media speculation about who was building the app and what their motives were.  

In late April 2020 NHSX told the BBC that they were running a limited trial on an RAF base in Yorkshire. No results from this trial were published, but the Government concluded that a bigger trial was needed to understand how the app might work in the real world.

The Isle of Wight trial

In an interview Dave Stewart, the leader of Isle of Wight council, suggested that the Isle of Wight could be used for a trial of the app. If the trial was successful then the island’s tourism industry could be one of the first to be reopened and the Government would owe a favour to the island.Matt Hancock agreed with Dave.

On 4th May he announced that a trial would take place on the island before the app was rolled out nationwide, saying “where the Isle of Wight leads, Britain follows”. Some island entrepreneurs started selling t-shirts with the slogan on it. It is not known how many they sold.

The government’s announcement of the trial said that its overall test, track and trace programme was being trialled on the island, but the press release and accompanying press coverage focussed on the app. The Isle of Wight Green Party spokesperson, Vix Lowthion, asked the Government how they would  be measuring the success of the ‘test, track and trace’ programme. There was no answer.

By now it seemed like there were daily press stories about the app. It dominated questions in the Government’s press conferences.

Changing direction?

In the week following the launch of the trial it was reported that the UK was building a second contact tracing app that would follow the Google-Apple de-centralised model; that any contact tracing app would face technical challenges in being accurate enough to be useful; that there were plans to expand the app functionality, and that Parliament’s Joint Human Rights Committee recommended new legislative safeguards before the app could be safely used.

Civil servants spent an increasing amount of time trying to understand the public debate and get their messages to cut through the noise, while the people on the Isle of Wight were still deciding whether to use the app at all. 

In the circumstances it must have been pleasing that 55,000 people downloaded the app in the first few days. Unfortunately it was not clear how many were on the Isle of Wight and how many were curious journalists, technologists and politicians. Public surveys showed that a sufficiently high proportion of UK citizens would be willing to download the app, but surveys do not always reflect actual behaviour.

Unfortunately after the early enthusiasm about the number of downloads there were few official updates from the trial.

The promises of transparency were not being met. The reasons gradually became clear. 

Time for a U-turn

On 19th May, two weeks after the trial had started, Government Health Minister Lord Bethell told the House of Lords that the trial had taught Government “one important lesson: that people wanted to engage with human contact tracing first, and quite reasonably regarded the app as a supplementary and additional automated means of contact tracing”. 

Government publicly shifted their focus to the need for manual contact tracing and delivering on the Prime Minister’s statement that England would have a “world-beating” test and trace programme by the start of June. 

The aftermath

Local news site NewsOnTheWight wanted more detail. They started asking questions of both Isle of Wight and NHS officials about how the app had performed on the island. They were promised answers, but none were given.

The UK Government launched England’s new national test and trace programme on 28th May. Like the new programmes in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland the programme did not have an app.

The Government said that the app would be added at a later date and would be the cherry on the cake.  But it was unclear when the cherry or the cake would be in place.

There was talk of launching a second version of the app on the Isle of Wight, but it never appeared. Ministers said the app would launch at the end of June, and then that it would launch in Winter

It became clearer that the “world beating” test and trace programme was facing problems too.

What went wrong?

While central Government officials had built a new national contact tracing service, a new central data store and a new Joint Biosecurity Centre to help make decisions, local involvement was lacking and the system failed to cater for the many languages spoken in England. A more human approach was needed.

On the same day that news started to emerge of a major Coronavirus outbreak in Leicester, the Government announced that the original plan for the contact tracing app had been abandoned and that England would start to move to the de-centralised model proposed by Google and Apple .

As well as the important lesson that humans wanted to talk with humans, the Government’s announcement confirmed rumours that there were technical problems with the app. It would not work on Apple iPhones unless it used the technology that Apple had announced two months previously.

The wrong strategy?

Apart from these ministerial announcements there is still no official output from the Isle of Wight trial. We do not know whether the app found any cases of the virus that would not have been found by manual contact tracing.

Press stories continue to emerge about why the app had failed and how it could come back stronger than before, but there also seems to be a growing realisation that the app had been the wrong place to start all along.

Other countries, like Germany and France, had begun the pandemic in a similar situation to the UK and had built strong test and trace programmes rooted in local public health institutions that were trusted by the people they served. They were now trialling apps, but the apps were built on strong foundations. They really were just a cherry on an already baked cake. The cake was tasty, the cherry was a bonus.

The Government had trusted in untested technology solutions to respond to the pandemic. Perhaps putting more trust in institutions and humans would have been a better strategy.

(Reminder: this is from a book that has other things written by people who are not called Peter Wells. The contributors include Dave Miller, James Ball, Juliet Rix, Paul Corrigan, Angela Antetomaso Forbes, Dr Alex Connock, Matthew d’Ancona, Dr Steven Mccabe, Simon Morioka and Claire Kennedy, Dr John Lister, Dr Paul Davies, Dorothy Byrne, Paul Connew, Professor Barnie Choudhury, Neil Fowler, Ben Parsons, Professor Vicky Pryce, Professors David Bailey and Phil Tomlinson, and Professor John Howson. You can get the book printed and delivered by Amazon.)

The UK address mess: a way forward?

After two years and £80m the UK recently published its first Geospatial Strategy and committed £963m to a new 10-year Public Sector Geospatial Agreement.

Shortly afterwards Facebook acquired Mapillary, increasing their bet on OpenStreetMap, while the UK Government invested £500m in satellite firm, Oneweb. The 16,800 word strategy is out of date.

It needs to be more disruptive if it is going to help deliver on Government Ministershopes that data will be the backbone of the UK’s recovery from Coronavirus. It needs to do more to encourage the UK’s geospatial institutions to adapt to and thrive in the 21st century.

This blogpost contains an idea to help.

Understand the address mess and then start cleaning it up with a new government service.

UK address data is a mess

UK address data is a mess. The data is low quality. It is hard to understand what can legally be done or how to fix things.

The problems that affect citizens, particularly with new build properties, are well known. Mismatching and missing addresses have caused problems during the Coronavirus pandemic. 

The legal complexities are well known. A lot of money is spent on lawyers.

And governance is a mess. The Geospatial Commission, GeoPlace, Scottish Improvement Service, Northern Ireland Land & Property Service, local authorities, Ofcom, Land Registry, the VOA, Ordnance Survey and the privatised Royal Mail are all involved. Organisations find themselves talking with several of these institutions to get things done.

Other countries faced similar issues and are cleaning them up. While there are lots of dedicated people in the UK we are not making fast enough progress in doing the same.

UPRNs will not clean up the address mess

Government has many levers to try and clean up this mess.

The Geospatial Commission has agreed to get UPRNs published as open data. UPRNs are a unique number for every property. The Commission will learn that this is an ineffective lever to pull on its own.

The new FindMyAddress website by GeoPlace is designed to help citizens find the UPRNs for their homes and places of work.

The new website has a poor user experience. Because of the address mess the very first thing you see is 5300 words of legal text. 

But there is a more fundamental problem. UPRNs are boring and should be invisible. UPRNs help data geeks, like me. UPRNs are useful when they connect together services.

Citizens know addresses. If a citizen needs to know their UPRN then something somewhere has gone wrong. Every visit to this website is a failure.

“Take me to 10033569645, James”
Image by Elliot Brown CC-BY-SA 2.0 

Build an address service

Government needs to build a service, not a website

The website has a nice bit. The text area to search for addresses. A user starts to type in an address and it helps them find an address and UPRN. A neat bit of work by GeoPlace and Aligned Assets.

Turning that neat address search functionality into a common component that any service designer can easily reuse, let’s call it GOV.UK FindMyAddress, would be a place to start cleaning up the address mess.

GeoPlace and Aligned Assets should be working with local authorities, Government Digital Services and the Digital Land team at MHCLG to do this.

The search field would become an API designed to improve the flow and data quality from a user entering an address to a UPRN being passed to back-end services.

The code should be open source. Many people will help maintain it, while anyone can fork the code and do their own thing. Openness supports competition as well as collaboration.

The API would also help to discover errors or omissions in the data. It can feed those back into Geoplace and local authority’s address management processes.

Collaborative maintenance will gradually improve both data quality and the service. Win win.

Other things that a service team should explore

A service team would also explore business models and governance.

Perhaps the Office of National Statistics should be involved. It would provide one of the most foundational parts of statistics and the planned public sector integrated data infrastructure with long-term stability. 

Rather than regulating Royal Mail and paying them £16m for access to postal addresses, the new service could publish postal addresses too. The same data foundations can support both digital and physical services.

Collaborative maintenance will reduce costs and this new service will outcompete Ordnance Survey on some of the planned uses for their OS Places API and AddressBase products.

This will reduce the need for some of the £963m 10-year Public Sector Geospatial Agreement. Hopefully the contract allows the price to change as needs change.

This competition from within the public sector will help provide the OS with the impetus to change and provide better services in other parts of the UK’s geospatial data infrastructure.

A way forward?

Creating a GOV.UK FindMyAddress service that helps deliver better services and better address data might be a good idea. Or it might not.

But it is more likely to clean up the address mess than anything in the UK’s Geospatial Strategy.

We need to fund teams to explore innovative ideas if the UK’s geospatial data infrastructure is going to thrive in the 21st century.

Socially distanced drinks, contact tracing and ‘appy hour

Following England’s abject attempts at getting a contact tracing app up and running, we need to try something different as we start to exit lockdown. Hopefully we will see more focus on getting manual contact tracing working in local places, including pubs.

The UK’s newspapers report that “Pubs, bars and restaurants will have to take the names and contact details of customers before they are allowed in”. The UK Secretary of State for Health, Matt Hancock, discussed the idea on one of our Sunday morning politics shows*.

Meanwhile there are expectations that more pubs will have apps that allow people to order a drink without going to a crowded bar. The Prime Minister has said that only table service will be allowed. Some civil servants have apparently termed this ‘appy hour’**. 

There are three different needs here – the ability to order a drink for a table, the ability to log contact information for who was in what pub at what time, and the ability to provide contact information to contact tracing teams – but I expect many places will combine them into one ‘thing’. It reduces the effort for pubs and the millions of people that use them every week.

It is good that England is (finally!) getting a grasp on the basics of social distancing and contact tracing, but now we need to learn how to do it good enough. Unfortunately, I fear that, as with the contact tracing app, we will end up with another adversarial and national fight over how to do this.

I fear lots of discussion of national tech solutions that could work for the entire country with little understanding of the needs of different people and pubs, the relationships between pubs and their customers, or thought about what data and apps pubs already collect and use.

Two very useful twitter threads that were started by Frederike Kalthenauer and Rory-Cellan Jones contain links to some of the stuff that is already happening in other countries.

Yesterday I thought I’d take a walk round our town, Whitley Bay – home of the famous Spanish City to look at the many closed pubs. Here are some pictures and notes to help other people understand the context in this one English town.

It might be useful if your interest is in contact tracing, building an app, pub app policy, data protection, or simply picking a pub to go to in Whitley Bay.

The Fire Station

People who leave Google reviews have left 1510 reviews and scored it 3.8/5.

It is a Wetherspoons pub, one of about 900 in the UK. I’m partial to their steak and kidney pudding. It is excellent value for money.

Wetherspoons have an app which famously allows other people to buy you drinks as well as ordering them yourself. Wetherspoons use data to optimise their business, for example their prices are tuned to local competition. They deleted their email database when GDPR came in.  It seems reasonable to expect their app to start collecting contact tracing information.

The boss of Wetherspoons is strongly pro-Brexit and has used beer mats and the pub magazine to promote the UK’s exit from the European Union. It has an, um…, challenging relationship with many of its staff.

Issues like these will mean that some people would not trust Wetherspoons with data about their pub visits, but I expect that people who do not trust Wetherspoons don’t go there anyway.

Most Wetherspoons customers will give them accurate data because they trust Wetherspoons and they trust the app that they already use

T e Victoria

People who leave Google reviews have left 203 reviews and scored it 3.9/5.

Part of the local Blackrose chain. Lots of TVs for sport. Always busy with, mostly male, day time drinkers.

Their window has a new poster up advertising an app. There was no link for me to try it.

I expect that they will get a licence to use one of the many pub apps that will emerge on the market. I expect that many of the customers will simply shout when they want a drink.

I also expect that lots of their customers will either refuse to give contact information or provide false names, probably the names of ex-Newcastle players.

Despite that the pub’s staff will know most people’s first names, jobs and who they drink with. Good pub staff know things like that. That could make for some interesting conversations if a local contact tracing team came knocking on the door.

The Fat Ox

People who leave Google reviews have left 275 reviews and scored it 4.3/5.

The Fat Ox is part of the Craft Union chain which has over 300 pubs. It has a couple of TVs for sport. There is pub-rock, ska, and soft rock on the weekends. 

Their windows did not have a new poster up advertising an app.

Despite their larger size I would expect the Craft Union chain to take the same app as the Blackrose chain, while the Fat Ox will have the same challenges with customers, false data and contact tracing as The Victoria.

The Dog and Rabbit

People who leave Google reviews have left 290 reviews and scored it 4.5/5.

Independent pub running out of an old shop. Brews its own beer and stocks other microbrews

Designed for middle-aged drinkers – a large proportion of whom will be members of Camra, the UK’s campaign for real ale. I am not a member of Camra but can occasionally be seen here, quietly reading a book in the corner.

The pub has a sign saying “we have no wi-fi, talk to each other”. Mobile phone signals work perfectly well and no one stops you if you use your phone. If I remember correctly the till is manual. It’s a quiet pub.

I’d expect people to use hand signals to order beer, the staff to have a decent idea of who was in the pub on which night, and for there to be a manual book for people to sign in and out. Just like they have a manual book for tracking accidents.

Most of the names will be accurate, if a little hard to read.

Image: the author’s mockup of a contact tracing book based on the type of accident books that exist in pubs, restaurants and museums up and down the country. As you might be able to tell Art was my worst subject at school.

The Fox and Finch

People who leave Google reviews have left 290 reviews and scored it 4.5/5.

It is an independent pub that seems designed for middle-aged and middle-class people wearing reasonably smart clothes. I had a sausage roll there once, it wasn’t good. I haven’t been back.

I expect that they will get a licence to use one of the many pub drink apps that are on the market or that will emerge.

Most of their customers will use it and provide accurate data.

The Split Chimp

People who leave Google reviews have left 469 reviews and scored it 4.5/5.

Sister pub of the Split Chimp in Newcastle. A real ale pub with good beer and, if you’re lucky, excellent pork pies. It has the best pub music in Whitley Bay***.

It has younger customers than the Dog and Rabbit. Because of its location – it is part of the revamped Spanish City on the seafront – its customers also include both dog walkers and people who are visiting the seaside.

They run their till on an iPad. I expect that whatever software they use will be upgraded to support drink ordering apps and contact tracing.

Most of their customers will give them accurate data, because the app will be designed to encourage people to provide it with accurate data to feed the software supplier’s machines.


Image from TripAdvisor

People who leave Google reviews have left 897 reviews and scored it 3.9/5.

Beefeater is a big chain of pub restaurants owned by the large Whitbread organisation. My wife is confident that this pub does the best value for money steaks in Whitley Bay. If you time it right then you can get a great table to watch football matches. It is also on the seafront and connected to a hotel so gets a lot of visitors.

Beefeater run a reward scheme where you get points for how much you spend. If you signup to their email list you can learn of special promotions.

I’m not aware of them having an app. I expect Whitbread have got a team of staff and suppliers working to develop something and will have it ready to launch when the pubs reopen. I doubt the app will be as good as the Wetherspoons one.

Most of their customers will give it accurate data, because the app will be designed to encourage people to provide it accurate data to feed Whitbread’s marketing machine.

The Rockcliffe Arms

Image from

People who leave Google reviews have left 244 reviews and scored it 4.4/5.

Part of a small local chain, SJF****. 

The Rockcliffe is a classic British backstreet boozer. Once a week there is a meat raffle. Scampi (flavour) fries and bacon (flavour) rashers are always available. It always seems to be full of people who’ve stopped off while taking the dog for a walk, people playing backgammon, and people having a quick drink after work before going home to eat dinner.

I’d expect them to try to take the same app as The Fat Ox and The Victoria, but their customers will end up using the same manual methods as The Dog and Rabbit.

What can we learn?

These are not all of the pubs in Whitley Bay. Far from it. I didn’t even mention Berties Club (with its famous karaoke), the Nord Bottle Shop (which has a backroom to drink a bottle or two in), or the Whitley Bay Brewing Company. But hopefully this gives people a taste of the variety that exists in most small towns.

The pubs are a mix of large chains, small chains and independents. That will affect the type of apps that they try to build or buy. The customers in the pubs vary and have differing relationships with the pub and the staff that work there. Those dynamics will affect how customers behave when they use apps, and whether or not staff try to persuade them to use them as they are designed.

Within this single town there is a range of different contextual relationships, problems and opportunities. That will affect contact tracing and efforts to contain the pandemic. 

I expect that a range of different approaches to suit those different local contexts will give a better outcome than any national tech solution. I suspect that the UK’s many pub landlords, pub customers, and local public health directors would agree.

So, if you’re in a national conversation about pubs, apps and contact tracing and thinking about a single national solution then I’d suggest that you instead start thinking about how to shape and regulate a market with many local solutions.

* It is not clear from these briefings whether the idea is only for England, or for all four UK nations. After all, public health is a devolved matter. I expect it is only England.

** A phrase that always give me a Housemartins earworm

*** That means that it has music which suits my tastes, lots of 70s and 80s punk, new-wave and indie with the occasional bit of political hip-hop

**** They also run The Bridge Hotel in Newcastle. A stunningly lovely pub that featured in the recent film Stan and Ollie as the hotel where Laurel and Hardy stayed when they performed in Newcastle

Local data for local places can help save lives

This post is based on desk research, conversations with various people in national and local organisations, and a talk I gave at an OpenDataSavesLives meeting. For more Coronavirus stuff that I’ve worked on see the Ada Lovelace Institute’s “Exit Through The App Store“.

Coronavirus is a pandemic. For a couple of centuries we have known that data is one of the most powerful tools in a pandemic. The UK prides itself on being a world leading nation in the use of digital, technology and data. Yet in England, the largest of the UK’s four nations, we are struggling to get data to local places so that they can use it to help save lives.

The role of local places in a pandemic

In England local authorities are responsible for public health in their area. They also play a vital role across many services including housing, business support, health and social care. They work with a range of partners to do this. Hospitals, doctors, care providers, police forces, charities, businesses and citizens (through both existing and new structures). 

At the moment England can see the end of the first wave of the pandemic and is starting to relax lockdown measures. The focus has shifted to what is called test, trace, and isolate. Widespread testing to understand where the disease is, contact tracing to track down who else might have it, and isolation to contain new outbreaks of the disease.

These are tasks where national decisions and health research play a role, but a similarly important role is played by local places.

Having good data about the spread of the virus in local places might help a community group to tailor hygiene advice to meet language needs, a business organisation to distribute hand sanitisers to shops, care homes to take extra precautions, public health officials and statisticians to produce local predictive models, or a local authority to manage a local lockdown.

Local organisations are often the most appropriate organisations to do this because their staff know their places and the people who live there. They are trusted, or not, in different ways than the central government.

Data and information about the pandemic

But to take these decisions they need information.

Some of this information will come from these organisation’s connections with their places – a community organiser might hear of an outbreak because a friend is affected by it, or people might see complaints about shop hygiene on a local social media page.

Other bits of information need to come from data, for example the number of people tested in an area and how many were positive, or the number of contacts traced and whether there is a difference between demographic groups.

Local places are struggling to get access to this data, but it does exist.

The national government has set up national programmes like the Covid-19 data store, NHS Test + Trace, the NHS symptom tracking service and Project OASIS – which brings together data from various symptom tracking apps. As an aside this seems to be an exceptionally English approach, most other nations of a similar size seem to have built on existing regional and local structures.

All of these national programmes use data, for example to improve operational performance, to inform national decision makers, to support medical researchers, and to inform national media debate.

But the data they collect and steward is not getting to local places and those local places need it too.

It is not just me saying this

In public you can see regional Mayors, MPs, and Directors of Public Health complaining.

In private you hear the same and more.

Charities collecting and publishing data about social care because of government failure. Local academics being told that their research needs to conform with national health needs. Regions exploring whether to launch their own symptom tracking services. Businesses offering data services that may be of lower quality than that which the national government already holds. Local officials and community groups struggling to find out who to speak with to even start a conversation about data access.

In May there were reports that an interim operational review by a cross-government team highlighted the problem of data access. Tom Riodan, the CEO of Leeds Council, was given a role in the national Test + Trace programme after that review. His role is not only about data access but, as a result, some progress seems to be happening.

Despite this the national programmes still lack urgency and there are now concerns that the government will supply local places with dashboards that it and its national partners design, rather than giving local places access to data so that they can use it to design and operate whatever decision making tools they need. 

Meanwhile the public complaints will continue and the opportunity to make decisions that could save lives will be lost.

Accessing and using data in trustworthy ways

When data access is provided then it will need to be used in trustworthy ways.

Research by organisations like the Ada Lovelace Institute, UseMyData and Understanding Patient Data indicates that most people are more comfortable with data use if they see benefit for them and their communities. I hope local places have learnt lessons from the national government’s failures on transparency and excessive confidence in the capability of technology and data to solve complex problems to realise that even though they have the legal power and start with some trust that they need to to be transparent, engage with people who might be impacted, and be wary of harm.

Local public sector organisations have had the legal power to use personal health data since COPI (Control of Patient Information) notices were issued back on 1 April 2020. The notices were passed to support this kind of use.

Other organisations, such as charities or businesses, can use open data which is aggregated to a safe level.

For these organisations then daily publication of symptom, testing and contact tracing data at the level of LSOAs (Lower layer Super Output Areas) is likely to have the right balance between data protection and usefulness for public health. It is hard to be certain without access to the data. 

If the national programmes do not have the expertise to navigate these issues then they could get help from the Office of National Statistics who can both work through how to publish the data and help to communicate how this data for local operational decision making has different characteristics to statistical data.

The power of networks

When the data is available then it can start to rapidly be put to use.

Some local authorities are already working with their communities to prototype what they can do when, or if, the data arrives.

In other places there are networks ready to help.

ODI Leeds’ OpenDataSavesLives connects local authorities, health organisations, academia and businesses across the country. There are networks for specific groups of people like the Association of Directors of Public Health or Catalyst which helps charities. And networks for specific places like the Newcastle-based National Innovation Centre for Data’s DataJamNE, the LocalCoronavirusResponse team, or the network around the London Office for Tech and Innovation.

Networks like these can help get the data used in building tools for local places, evaluate the outcomes to discover what works and what does not, and share their learnings across the nation.

But they need the data

There are lessons to be learnt here, and not just about public health programmes in a pandemic.

If the UK wants to level up across the country it will need to do a lot more work on devolving data governance and learning how to get both local places and citizens represented in decision making about data. Perhaps the plan for the UK’s recovery after the pandemic or the national data strategy will tackle that particular challenge.

But there are also immediate steps that need to be taken.

We urgently need to get data out of these national programmes and to local places. It will help save lives.

Comment: What would an open data future look like?

This blogpost was originally published in 2016 when I worked for the Open Data Institute. I have learnt things and would write my parts differently now, for example framing as an “open and trustworthy” data future and with a better understanding of distribution of power, human rights, rule of law, and equitable sharing of benefits. I am republishing here as the post was one of many that were not copied onto the current Open Data Institute site. That makes it hard to find, and I want to be able to easily refer to it in the future. The content is available under a CC-BY-SA licence attributable to the Open Data Institute.

This [was] the fourth in a blog series discussing how the future affects data infrastructure. The first describes why we are considering three potential data futures, the second explores the locked-down future, and the third explores the paid future


By Peter Wells and Anna Scott

What will our ‘data future’ look like? Well, there are three possible directions in which it could turn: a locked-down future where data collection and use is tightly restricted, a paid future where data is licensed for money, and an open future where data is made as open as possible.

At the Open Data Institute, we like to describe data as roads: roads help us navigate to a location, data helps us navigate to a decision. While the locked-down future has missing roads and locked gates, and the paid future is dominated by toll booths, the open future has roads that we can all use. Both the paid and locked-down futures are more limited in their use of data than the open future. Where they create less value and only some can benefit, the open future creates a virtuous circle from which everyone can benefit.

In the open future governments, businesses and civil society use and publish as much data openly – for anyone to access, use and share – as possible. Open data will be maximised, while privacy is respected.

There will be transparency in what personal data is collected, how it is used and shared: both privacy and openness create trust that is essential when using personal data. This transparency helps people make better choices. There is free access to personal data, under careful conditions, for approved researchers and they openly publish their findings.

We choose openness for economic, environmental and social good

The choices we make with data are extremely important. The open future will only emerge as governments, businesses and people embrace it and create an environment that encourages the open future to flourish.

In the open future, businesses see that by being open they can grow their business, build greater trust with their customers and retain a competitive edge in the rapidly changing world of the 21st Century. Charities and social enterprises see how it helps their missions. Organisations of all kinds understand that they can open up data and work together to solve common problems while still being competitive. Whether it be in the banking sector, the agriculture sector or anywhere else, businesses support open innovation, are transparent about their operations, and supply open data that everyone can benefit from.

People recognise the economic, environmental and social benefits of data being used by anyone for any purpose. They are told how their data will be used and anyone can verify that what they are told is what happens. People have the literacy to do fun things with data and make good choices about which services they choose to trust with their personal data.

Meanwhile, governments recognise that the open future helps meet Sustainable Development Goals and generates economic growth that we can all benefit from. The extra revenue allows governments to fund the maintenance of their countries’ data infrastructure in areas where the data market fails or where they want to create certain policy outcomes. The data infrastructure is as reliable as necessary and as open as possible. It provides a solid basis for services to be delivered and open innovation to happen.

To some extent this open future for data is an evolution of openness in society: open governmentopen webopen sourceopen standardsopen innovation and open culture. Within each of these movements, some people choose paid and closed models, while others choose openness. We believe maximising openness is the best choice because it brings the biggest benefits across society.

The open future and the Data Spectrum


In the picture above the red line is the locked-down future, the blue line is the paid future and the green line shows the open future on the Data Spectrum, running from closed to shared to open data.

In the open future, we can expect the closed part of the spectrum to contain more data than in the paid future. In the paid future, the lure of money leads to us sharing data that should have been kept private or could have been opened to benefit all of society. People feel that everything can be shared if the price is right and sacrifice privacy for cash.

In the open future, we have a better understanding of what should be closed and what should be open. The ‘shared’ layer is significantly smaller. It is reduced to those occasions when we share data for service needs – such as through open APIs – or for research.

The rest of the data is open, for anyone to access, use and share.

Maximising collaboration and efficiency

In the open future, funding and oversight from government and regulators help make data infrastructure reliable and open.

Government might intervene to make data open to maximise economic value to society, for example to ensure transparency about the performance of a sector, because the resulting data assets are widely valuable or to create a more competitive marketplace. Government might also intervene and keep data closed to protect privacy.

Some of our data infrastructure will have been built by organisations working together to solve common problems. Collaborative maintenance models – like that used by OpenStreetMap – are likely to exist in great numbers, and be used for other core data assets such as addresses. Responsibilities, costs and benefits are shared in these parts of the infrastructure. The organisations work in the open and the data produced by their collaboration is made open. Their culture has changed to be one of openness, and this matches what their communities expect.

In other parts of our data infrastructure, data will be shared between organisations.

Data intermediaries, or aggregators, will add value by combining datasets or offering additional services. They are likely to use freemium models, with an open data feed that anyone can use and a premium feed for customers who need high-volume usage or early access to data.

There will also be organisations that share personal data, facilitated by institutions of trust who certify sharing according to agreed principles and open standards. Both the organisations and institutions of trust will be transparent in how they make decisions. Where it does not damage privacy, they will publish aggregated data about the personal data that is being shared.

Releasing aggregated data for the benefit of everyone and being transparent about how and when data is shared can increase innovation, improve trust and help make consent meaningful. There will be the necessary expertise and data skills in the organisations that deliver services, maintain and regulate data as well as increased data literacy amongst the people who choose whether or not to use those services.

The single-minded focus on data sharing – whether it be personal data or other data assets – that we saw in the paid future is like building a road network that consists mainly of toll roads. In the open future, data is like the road infrastructure that we have now: most roads, no matter who maintains them, are free for everyone to use.

This will not be easy. Realising our open future will require us to build and maintain a data infrastructure that is as reliable and open as possible, and that maximises value by bringing together privacy and openness. By doing this we support, transparency and accountability; we grow our economies and we receive better services.

Data helps us build this future but it is humans that choose the direction.

Peter Wells is an Associate and Anna Scott is Writer / Editor at the ODI. Follow @peterkwells and @annadscott on Twitter.

Data institutions and implicit assumptions

I used to lead the Open Data Institute’s work on data institutions. The team both piloted data trusts and explained that a range of approaches existed – including things like data representatives and data cooperatives – that can change how decisions are made about data. Hopefully to make those decisions more trustworthy. There are many other people working on data institutions in the UK, in Europe and around the world. I’m often surprised by how many.

Over the last couple of weeks I have been talking with people about data institutions. Many of the conversations surface similar implicit assumptions.

There can be only one

In many of the conversations people assumed that there could be only one data institution within a particular context. They had not thought about whether and when there might be multiple.

Some data institutions will exist to steward data for which you might want there to only be a single source of truth1I know. I do love a bit of epistemology and discussions about the nature of ‘truth’ but that would be an unnecessary diversion in this blogpost – for example the list of Prime Ministers of a country, the list of websites that exist, or who you are married to.

Many others will steward data or have a purpose where there might be multiple things doing roughly similar jobs but, perhaps, with different methodologies or priorities. Maybe one has a purpose of “for the benefit of the people of Newcastle”, another has “for the economic benefit of the people of Newcastle” and a third has “for the benefit of the businesses of Newcastle”. A single word can make a big difference.

Sometimes there should be only one data institution but multiple will exist. That’s life. We live in a wonderfully imperfect world.

Being open to the need to work with other people and other institutions is a better starting assumption than there being only one. Institutions might compete with each other, cooperate with each other, or both, but do expect it to happen.

Rip it up and start again

Another assumption was about the need for something new.

The way we steward data at the moment is not working, therefore we must need a new institution to fix the problem, right? Maybe…

Sometimes we need to fix things that are not working, or at least try to make them better. An existing institution might provide vital services, it might contain valuable knowledge, or it might do things that – shock! horror! – are only loosely related to data. Creating a new institution might break existing and important things.

I do not know of a good methodology to help people decide when to try a revolution and when to try evolution, but do make sure that it is a conscious decision

You forgot government

Many people thought that they needed a new type of data institution – like a data trust or data cooperative – when actually they might just need to improve a simple, old-school democratic institution like a bit of government.

I am very conscious that I live in the UK, a high-income country with an old and (relatively…) stable democracy. Not everyone does. I’ve worked a lot internationally, but mostly in similar countries. In these countries we have many institutions that are already legally responsible and democratically accountable for stewarding data for a particular purpose.

There will be institutions responsible for land registries, local places, criminal justice systems, welfare payments and – in a country with a national health system like the UK – health and social care. Perhaps, rather than working around those government institutions you need to use democratic processes to change their behaviour to make them more useful and trustworthy. 

Some people seemed to forget the government and implicitly assumed that they needed to take responsibility into a new institution that they would build and run.

Sometimes we do need to take responsibility away from the government, but at other times we need to add new responsibilities to government or just make existing bits of government work a bit better.

Again, make it a conscious decision.

Building institutions takes time

Building institutions takes time. Not just your time, but other people’s too. It will take even longer if you do not think about why you are doing it and do not surface and challenge assumptions about what any new institutional arrangements should look like.

Assumptions like whether there will be multiple institutions, whether there should be something new, whether the institution should be part of the government, what approach you need, or even whether that approach is suitable for your particular context.

Making those assumptions explicit and challenging them is likely to help you move a bit faster and be a bit more effective at actually making people’s lives a bit better.

The virus was under control

An experiment in writing fiction about a sociotechnical system.

Fred and Gabriel knew that the virus was under control, but they were still worried. 

The DNA test on their newborn child, Ariel had shown that Ariel might easily be infected by the virus. The result was red. Fred and Gabriel’s own DNA tests had been taken years ago when the tests had first been invented. Fred was amber and Gabriel was green.

Those scores were ok but red spelt danger.

The tests

The test was designed to predict how likely it was that someone would catch the virus. The simple scores of red, amber and green were designed to be easily understandable. The real test results were more complex. 

Everyone was susceptible to the virus, particularly if there was a large number of infected people in a group. Scientists had found that people who were easily infected shared certain patterns in their DNA. The tests were designed to spot those patterns. It was important to know who was susceptible because people became infectious before any symptoms were visible. To stop the spread of the virus it was necessary to reduce the chance of the first infection.

Reducing the spread of the virus was a priority for everyone. When the virus had first appeared it had killed many people and caused panic in many, many more. The virus was under control but people needed to be confident that there would be no more major outbreaks. A systemic response had been required.

The maps and the rules

The system was designed to minimise the chance  that people who could be easily infected with the virus could mix with each other. That would reduce the chance of a single infection rapidly spreading.

The DNA tests were part of this system. Everyone needed to be tested. The results were recorded and made available for everyone to see.

People were wary about other individuals whose results showed danger but to reduce the chance of inadvertent mixing there were maps and rules. The rules said that spaces like towns, hospitals, supermarkets, and offices could only have a maximum percentage of reds and a maximum percentage of ambers.

Anyone could look at maps that showed both the maximum and the current percentage of red, amber and green in each place. The maps helped people know if the rules were being adhered to.

Fred thought the maps were beautiful. 

The cameras

To make the maps and rules work it was necessary to know where individuals were. There was a network of cameras for this. 

The tracking cameras were originally deployed by the government’s centre for data modelling. The centre made  sure the population was happy by measuring happiness and recommending ways to improve it. Their early models suffered as the data quality was poor. The solution was to collect and share higher quality data in larger volumes. The people who worked in the centre used the images of people captured by the cameras to estimate the levels of happiness in different parts of the country.

The original happiness tracking system was repurposed for the virus through a software update.

Originally the system had identified people through mobile phones, glasses and watches but people found it too easy to swap these devices with each other so the system now used other methods. Face masks had been popular when the virus first appeared but were now banned as the best way to stop an outbreak relied on identifying people. As well as faces, the system looked at other attributes like the shape of people’s bodies, how they walked, and how they gestured while they spoke.

At first it had been expensive and slow to do these checks as it required expert people recognisers. Other experts watched the people recognisers to learn enough that they could design algorithms to make the process faster. Over time the people who worked at the camera manufacturers had made it even easier by optimising the camera hardware to meet the needs of the algorithms. 

Gabriel worked in one of the organisations around the country that designed, installed, maintained and updated the cameras, and the network that connected the cameras together. The job was as important as those maintaining other bits of vital infrastructure like electricity power stations, roads, and water networks.

The images from the cameras were linked to individuals and test results. The beautiful maps updated in time with people moving around.

The people

The government had given police officers, immigration officials, nurses, teachers, landlords and employers the responsibility to make sure the rules were enforced. The tests, the rules, the maps, the cameras and the people were all part of the system.

If a maximum percentage was breached then it was someone’s fault. That person risked a fine, jail or losing their job. But if they kept the mix under control then there were rewards – perhaps a promotion or more simply praise from the people who had been kept safe. You could spot one of the responsible people by looking for people staring at a map with moving dots of green, amber and red with an occasional burst of movement to get someone out of a room before someone else entered through another door.

The rules would affect Ariel, Fred and Gabriel. It would affect where Ariel could go to school or, many years in the future, where to get a job or who they could fall in love with. It would affect where the family could live and go on holiday. It would even affect which park to play in on which day and which other families to play with. The family would need to stare at maps too.

The rules would affect Fred and Gabriel in other ways. The system knew that they were Ariel’s parents and shared bits of their child’s DNA. If Ariel’s score was red then this might mean that Fred and Gabriel were more susceptible than their tests had originally shown.

The test results were not perfect. They were just a prediction. More data could improve the prediction. Because of Ariel’s red score the system might change Gabriel’s green to an amber, while Fred might become a red.

Breaking the system

Fred suggested retesting Ariel. There were a range of test providers. As the government said “every market is better when it is competitive!”. A different provider might give a different result. But Gabriel was not sure if this was true. Gabriel had heard that nowadays the different test providers were just different brands. The test was the test. That made it both effective and efficient.

Perhaps there was another way. If there was a new family member whose test result was green then that could bring down the score for the other family members.

You could pay people to manipulate the DNA of an unborn baby. It was said that this DNA manipulation would generate a better test result, with only a small chance of harming the baby. You could even improve other things at the same time – perhaps a bit more height and better hair. 

The system was based on data. Data came from humans – whether it be the baby humans, the humans who created the tests, the humans running the cameras and maps, or the humans who manipulated DNA to manipulate the tests. To break the system humans could feed it false data. But there was a chance of harm to a baby. 

The virus was under control

It was complicated trying to live a life under the system. But Fred knew the virus was under control.

The last outbreak had been when Fred was still a child, fifteen long years ago. Despite that, the system still tested and monitored for the virus. There were many organisations working to make sure the system worked as well as it did. Gabriel worked for one. The job put food on the family’s table.

Those organisations were spreading to more and more countries around the world. The organisations exported the system to the world and, in return, bought taxes and jobs back to their home country.

The system had been built for a purpose, reducing the spread of the virus, but the system had proved useful for lots more things. The virus evolved so the test needed to evolve too. The scores of red, amber and green sounded very simple but outside of a small group of people no one really knew how the scores were calculated. 

Fred and Gabriel stared at the system.

They started talking to other people who wanted something different. To begin with they might only be able to meet in little groups but that would change. They could make the maps more beautiful with more colours. Lots of new colours catching light everywhere.

Three policy ideas to help the UK adapt faster to the internet

The UK is having a general election on December 12th. Over the next week political parties will put out their manifestos. Those manifestos will contain lots of commitments about what the parties will do if they are elected.

When I looked at the manifestos for the last general election in 2017 I was disappointed at their lack of recognition of the changes the world was going through because of technology. To help this time, here are three simple tech policy ideas for any party. They’re focussed on helping the UK adapt to the current wave of technology change. They are a bit late for the manifestos, but they still might be useful.

A bit of context

First, a bit of context. Technology is always changing but it has changed a lot in the last few decades with the proliferation of computers, the internet, the web, and data. These technologies have changed things for governments.

Some citizens now have higher expectations from public services. They expect public services to behave like those they get from Google, Amazon or whichever service is hot this year, *checks notes*, such as ByteDance’s TikTok. Technology is enabling things that some may think should be public services — like accurate mapping data on smartphones, or being able to have a video call with a doctor.

Other citizens now have more fear. Perhaps because they are excluded from those services because they lack skills or access to the internet or perhaps they are at risk of being discriminated against because technology is being used to perpetuate, or accentuate, existing societal biases.

Using new technology to help deliver public services that work for everyone is a tough job that, despite good work by Government Digital Services, government still has not cracked.

Image from For Everyone via the Web Foundation

New technology has also enabled new businesses, markets and types of services to emerge. Things like smartphones, social media, cloud computing, online retailers, online advertising, and the “sharing economy”. The world is now more interconnected. Someone in Wales can rapidly build an online service and start selling it to people in India, and vice versa. Meanwhile because the technologies have also been adopted by existing companies they affect government’s role in existing markets.

Technological waves of change like this are not new — I recommend reading some history about the after-effects of the invention of ocean sailing, printing, electricity, or television — but governments have been particularly slow to adapt to this wave of technological change.

Why? Perhaps because the technologies have changed things globally. Perhaps because of the type of governments that we have had. Perhaps because of lobbying by businesses. Who knows. Future historians will be better placed to assess this.

Anyway, my suggestions are not about the details of each of these areas. Instead they are about how to increase the rate of adaptation for the next government. About how to get more radical change.

Tackle the fear around technology and politics

There is a lot of fear about what technology means for politics. Misuse of data by companies and political organisations. Highly targeted advertising reducing accountability. Foreign governments interfering in elections. This fear is exacerbating a pre-existing low level of trust in and disengagement from UK democracy.

Political parties should start with themselves. They need to be open about how they are using data and online advertising and publish data about their candidates to help voters make more informed decisions. Political parties should not use micro-targeted advertising during the election, and should challenge their opposition to follow their lead. Where necessary they should err on the side of caution when using advertising tools. After all, much targeted advertising is already likely to be illegal under existing legislation. Doing these things will help politicians learn how to responsibly use technology while competing for power. That will help them use technology responsibly if they get in to power.

Whoever gets into power should then ban targeted political advertising until it is shown to be reasonably safe. To understand the effects researchers will need access to data held by the big technology platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Google and Apple. Organisations in the USA have faced challenges when trying to do this with Facebook but approaches like the ONS ‘five safes’ and the Ministry of Justice data lab show that parts of the public sector have the necessary skills to design ways to do it. Government should use models like this to give accredited researchers access to data held by the platforms to inform future policy decisions and, perhaps, when to relax the ban for certain kinds of ads.

Develop technology literacy in more of the public sector

To implement a party’s manifesto commitments — whether it be implementing municipal socialism, moving to a zero carbon society, (re)creating an independent Scotland, agreeing new trade deals (if Brexit actually happens), free broadband, a charter of digital rights, or implementing an industrial strategy and increasing R&D — public sector staff need to understand how technology affects their work and technology experts need to understand the public sector.

Sometimes a horrified face emerges from behind my polite face. I apologise to everyone who has seen it.

Unfortunately too many people still do not get it. In my own meetings with governments I am often surprised, and sometimes horrified, by whole teams of people with limited technology literacy making significant decisions about technology. (Similarly, I am often surprised, and sometimes horrified, by teams of technology experts making significant decisions that impact on policy or operations with no real experience in those areas.)

Not every public sector worker needs to be a technology expert, and it is certainly not true that everyone needs to know how to code, but it is necessary to have technology literacy in many more parts of government. More public sector workers need to understand both the benefits and the limitations of new technology and the techniques that people, like me, use to build it.

This is one of the most important things to focus on. Different skills are needed by different roles, but an underlying element of technology literacy is useful for everyone.

To start providing this technology literacy I would recommend vocally demonstrating that technology experience is as valued as other skill sets and encouraging more technology experts to join teams that lack that experience, and by seconding non-technology staff into technology teams. In both cases people can then listen to and learn from each other.

An independent inquiry into technology regulation

Finally, regulation. Technological change needs changes to regulators and can lead to the need for new ones. There are a growing number of known gaps in technology regulation. Some of these gaps affect public services, like the police. Others affect public spaces, like facial recognition. Some affect new services like social media. Others existing ones, like insurance. In some cases it is not clear if regulators are appropriately enforcing existing rules, like equalities and data protection legislation, while there will be a large number of gaps that people simply haven’t spotted yet.

Previous governments have set in process various initiatives such as considering the need for a new social media regulator, a national data strategy, and a Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation (CDEI), but these initiatives are not adequate. They are controlled and appointed by the current politicians, operate within current civil service structures, and are mostly taking place in London. The changes bought about by technology are too fundamental for this approach to work. The UK needs something more strategic, more radical, more independent, and more citizen-facing.

An independent inquiry into technology regulation should be set up. It should have representatives from around the UK; with different political views; with experience from the public sector, private sector and civil society; and from both citizens that love modern technology and from the groups that are most at risk of discrimination. It should look across the whole technology landscape, have the power to call witnesses, and be empowered to make a series of recommendations for changes to legislation and regulation to help set the UK on a better path for the next decade.

Inquiries like this can happen faster than you think. The recent German Data Ethics Commission took just 12 months to come up with a set of excellent recommendations. Setting a similar timescale for an inquiry in the UK will allow the next Parliament and the next Government to focus on delivery.

It is necessary and possible for the UK to adapt to technology faster

Politicians and their teams can learn how to use technology more responsibly by tackling the fear around technology and politics; mixing up teams in the public sector can help staff learn from each other; and an independent inquiry into technology regulation can help set the UK on a better path to the future.

The UK needs to adapt to technology faster. For the good of everyone in the UK, but particularly those who are being disadvantaged by irresponsible use of technology, can we do it? Please?

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