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Policy and technology: a "longue durée" view

Random thoughts on policy for technology and on technology for policy

Why the Free Flow of Data matters for SMEs

Data is the new oil. But the peculiarity with data is that by itself, it’s not worth anything. To create value, companies need to have not only the data, but the skills and the “data mindset“. And many large companies in traditional sectors typically have huge amounts of data, but lack the skills and the mindset. To extract value from these data large traditional companies have to collaborate with small data analytics companies that are able to transform data into information and knowledge. This is why BASF worked together with Yukon Digital (a data analytics SME) in order to deliver predictive maintenance for their chemical industrial plants.

But we don’ have to think of SMEs as mainly data analytics companies: in their vast majority, they are traditional businesses which typically lack the skills, and mindset, and often the data themselves. Yet even in this case, they can benefit from big data solutions by collaborating and sharing data with other data-driven companies. What often happens, in this case, is that SMEs can partner with companies that actually gather the data through sensors.

For instance, small transport companies can optimize their fleet management by installing devices in their trucks, such as those provided by Dash.by . The supplier takes care of providing the devices, gathering the data and analyzing them. Shop owners can use “beacon apps” to understand how customer move and interact in the shop. Farmers use sensor-equipped tractors that include analytics services.

Yet, despite these opportunities, both large and small companies are typically reluctant to share their data. Even for non-personal data, which do not have privacy implications, it is not clear who owns and control it, and there is limited transparency over what different companies can do with it. SMEs often lack the skills not only to make the best use of their data, but to understand the terms and conditions that govern data-driven services.

This is why the European initiative on the Free Flow of Data is so important. Data sharing across company and country borders brings benefits to SMEs – whether they are big data startups or traditional business. But there is a need to ensure trust and the right incentives for companies to share data. It is not about establishing rigid rules about who owns the data – but about creating the conditions for the widest reuse of data.

Because, after all…

The best thing to do with your data will be thought of by someone else

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A hard look at European e-government: have we made enough progress?

Eight years are an era, in Internet time. And this is the time passed since the last e-government Ministerial Declaration, signed in Malmö in 2009. To put it in perspective, at that time Nokia and Blackberry had 70% of the market share in mobile.

What has changed since then in European e-government? A lot of progress has certainly been achieved – but is it enough?

On the bright side, many things have happened. The revised PSI directive introduced the “open data by default” principle; the eIDAS regulation set the standard for mutual recognition of ID across Europe; and the new European Interoperability Framework presents both a modern vision and an implementation roadmap. The “building blocks” architectural approach has been widely embraced and composable services such as eInvoicing, eDelivery, eSignature, eID, and eTranslation are already being deployed. Governments have deployed online services , and have started to bring in new skilled workers through “Digital Service Teams“.

Yet the results cannot be considered satisfactory if we take as a yardstick the objective of the Malmö declaration [pdf] of “services designed around user needs” and ·”seamless eGovernment services for the setting up and running of a business and for studying, working, residing and retiring anywhere in the European Union.”

Let us just take one example. Before Malmo, in 2008, 32 of Europeans out of 100 shopped online and 17 used government services – a 15 points gap. Today, 55 shop online and 28 use government services – a 27 points gap. Europeans are today accustomed to “shop online first” but still consider using public services online as an exception. The gap has widened, and any person having used online public services knows that in general the usability leaves much room for improvement compared to private services. The only existing European seamless services are private.

Figure: Uptake of e-commerce and e-government in EU (Source: Eurostat)

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To be clear, this is not the only problem – but a sign that e-government is not (yet) having the desired impact. And in our historical context marked by continuous decline in trust in government and the rise of populistic movements that threaten free trade, democracy and ultimately peace, we simply cannot afford it.

So what are the underlying reasons for this limited impact? We see different progress with regard to design, implementation and deployment.

In terms of design, the progress is remarkable. We moved from an obsession towards online service delivery to a more balanced approach between front and back office. The strategic approach has moved from monolithic systems to open, composable building blocks. The vision set out in Malmö and deployed with the eGovernment Action Plan remains valid and it is now accompanied by the European Interoperability Framework 2.0 – an impressive document worth reading.

In terms of implementation , the progress is patchy. The building blocks are being delivered successfully. Implementation of PSI directive is practically complete by all MS, while for eIDAS it’s still at an early stage. The EIF implementation is still partial. Overall, there are some excellent, truly end-to-end services and some very advanced countries, but the landscape is very diverse and unequal.

In terms of deployment, the progress is insufficient. Governments show a limited capacity for engagement of key stakeholders across the value chain: other administration levels implementing interoperability guidelines, stewards of base registries publishing data in standard format, private service providers using building blocks, developers reusing open government data, citizens using public services. What we need is a truly end-to-end digital government experience, that can only be achieved by involving all relevant parties from the early design phase.

We need to bring all stakeholders together under a common vision, and infuse renewed energy into innovation in government. This is why we need a new EU ministerial declaration.

On behalf of the Estonian government, the Lisbon Council has presented some initial proposals for discussion.

Now it’s your time to speak. Do you agree? What is missing?

Comment our proposals, let European Member State know what you think.

We all need a better digital government – let us know how we get it.

We need ethical principles for news sharing, not just for journalism

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I keep receiving fake news, the latest in Whatsapp. What can we do about it?

There has been a shift in journalism. Media are no longer the gatekeepers: people get and share news on Facebook and alike.

This is a good thing: it’s a democratisation of news sharing. But it doesn’t work now because people are not educated about what and how to share. They struggle to distinguish truth from falsity. As Carlota Perez would say, we have the technology, but we don’t have the institutions.

This is not strange. This is normal. You have innovation, then you set up norms that help making the best of it.

Some people suggest that these platforms should monitor false news. This is one form of governance – moving the responsibility from mass media to social media. I don’t like it, I think it is paternalistic and I certainly do not trust Facebook more than traditional media.

I think education and responsibility is more important. Journalist have ethics and principles: if people start taking over the job of journalist, they should learn from those ethics.

We need to jot down a set of principles for news sharing:

  • Read the message fully and carefully. If you feel an immediate impulse to share even without reading, be even more careful: it is probably because the message is deliberately designed to push you to share.
  • Verify the source of what you share. Don’t share anything that you can’t trace the origin of. Even better if you have two different sources, and perhaps reputable ones. It’s not difficult.
  • Verify that the message is not already debunked as a scam. Just google it.
  • Be suspicious of any message that openly ask you to disseminate it. They are most likely scams.
  • Do not copy paste messages, especially if they contain first person verbs. I just received a message in different Whatsapp groups saying “I have friends in the police”. Of course I trust a message if a friend of mine says he has direct insight, but the truth is he did not have these friends, he was copy-pasting. If you copy-paste, you are directly lying to your friends.
  • And most of all, remember the tale of The boy who cried Wolf! If you share false news, people won’t listen to you.

What other principles can we add? And can we make a kind of self-certification for these principles to show, for instance, in our Facebook photo profile?

If Trump is a zig, how long before we zag?

“The path that this country has taken has never been a straight line, we zig and we zag.”

This is what Obama said to reassure americans about the Trump presidency. Trump is considered just a phase, an antithesis in Hegelian terms. It is temporary. It won’t last. People will quickly realize their promises won’t be fulfilled and will return to sanity.

I beg differ. What we see is different. Populist leaders, from Putin to Erdogan to Berlusconi to Netanyahu, they are not fast to go even if clearly they do not deliver.

Take Berlusconi: when he was elected, we thought it was just a moment of craziness. Perhaps the most authoritative Italian journalist, Indro Montanelli, famously declared in 2001 that Berlusconi was a plague that could only be cured by vaccination, i.e. by placing him into governments. Then Italians would realize his promises were unfounded, and they would vote him out the office. It didn’t happen, at least for 10 more years.

Populists are masters in finding scapegoat, external enemies to explain their lack of success. Berlusconi blamed the rigid political system, the press, Europe, the judges.

And he got away with that.

Because public policy is difficult, success is hard to define, especially in the era of post-truth.

I don’t have a solution, but I know that populism doesn’t go away quickly, easily or by itself.

 

You don’t have access to real-life big data? Just create them through simulation!

As I previously wrote, lack of  access and reuse to corporate data can be a bottleneck for developing Artificial Intelligence.

One alternative is to re-create the data through advanced simulation. Simulation helps creating massive quantity of data from the so-called “digital twins” of industrial “cyber physical systems”. Obviously simulated data are a simplification so they might miss several real-life issues, but at the same time you are able to experiment with a much wider set of potential situations that are not yet available in real-life – such as a disastrous failure in a chemical plant.

Are simulated data good enough to substitute real sensor-generated data?

 

No data sharing, no #AI party

Artificial intelligence and machine learning requires huge amounts of data: after all, more data beats better algorithm. One of the major competitive advantage of players such as Google in the machine learning space is the massive amount of data they have.

But traditional companies, such as manufacturing, simply do not gather enough data to train algorithms effectively and do not have the internal necessary skills. Industrial plants have hundreds of machines, each equipped with hundreds of sensors (the so called Industrial Internet of Things). They produce a LOT of data, but the insight generated would grow exponentially if it was possible to cross-analyse and compare the data from MANY DIFFERENT plants and companies.

One solution would be for these traditional companies to allow third party big data companies to access, aggregate and analyse their data, and develop algorithms for them. However, big data companies tell us that their clients do not allow them to reuse the data for developing new algorithms and products, but only only for performing one-off, customised analysis. Some even say that this lack of data reuse is the main barrier towards achieving AI-led industrial plants (the industrial equivalent of the self-driving cars). There are pilots, such as data innovation spaces or industrial platforms, but they haven’t yet reached a critical mass.

Why so? Companies do not allow third parties to access and reuse their data mostly because they perceive the potential risks as higher than the advantages. In particular, the main perceived risks are twofold:

  • that the third party data company builds products that enable their competitors to learn from their best practices, and hence reduce their competitive advantage;
  • that the third party data company enters the business of running industrial plants thanks to the algorithms developed, and becomes a direct competitor.

In the context of servitisation and increased cross-sector competition, these risks are not without foundation. And big data solutions are still in the “promising” area, they have not yet delivered breakthrough. Yet the reluctance to share data can itself prevent developing these AI innovative solutions.

What do you think? Are traditional companies right in not allowing data access and reuse by third parties? How do we break the vicious circle of no data sharing – no AI progress?

Conspiracy theories are not what they used to be

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My daughter told me she had an assignment about conspiracy theories for school. She thought that the very name seem to remove any credibility to it. By labeling something a conspiracy theory, you immediately treat it as unfounded.

It didn’t use to be that way. When I was younger, conspiracy theories were a fundamental part of our democratic life. In Italy, government behaviour has been murky at best especially during the 70s, the so called “years of lead”. That was the time of “state terrorism”, and when Pier Paolo Pasolini (pictured above) wrote his landmark “I know” article on Italy’s number one newspaper Corriere della Sera. And the term “conspiracy theory” was used by right wing reactionaries to quit credibility.

How times have changed. Today, conspiracy theories are about secret, large-scale atmospheric spraying program, or about moon landing, or about – can you believe it – the Rotschild. Conspiracy theories are now equivalent to fake news or post-truth politics. They are a joke.

As a result, I am pushed (together with most people I know) towards ridiculing conspiracy theories. If I have to choose between those conspiracy theories and the mainstream message of mass media, I choose the latter. Of course I still exercise my critical sense towards mass media, but my gut feeling of intolerance (especially after the US elections) is stronger against conspiracy theories than against mass media.

In other words, the low quality of conspiracy theories is achieving a polarisation of the discussion, much in the same way that terrorism polarises the policy debate. The world becomes divided between conspiracy theorists and mainstream, just as between ISIS and Bush/Trump/LePen.

The problem is not the influence of conspiracy theories – it’s their low quality. It is a pity because there is lots of space for good and useful conspiracy theories, with the deep linkages between mass media, politicians and multinationals. Just to mention one I come across every day, the Spanish newspaper El Pais is constantly spinning facts, becoming a sort of renewed Pravda of the declining Socialist Party.

But not everything is bleak. I think we are witnessing a democratisation of conspiracy theories. They used to be reserved to the cultivated elite, but now they have been taken up by a wider audience. The decline in quality is an inevitable consequence of this democratisation. And this is not necessarily bad. Conspiracy theories could be seen as a first step towards political conscience. We should build on them as a sign of critical thinking. They will get better over time.

Certainly the decline of newspaper and loss of trust in mass media has played a role in this. But this is not to say that we need the old newspaper back. Mass media have failed their promises and they only deserve not to be trusted. And we most certainly not need Facebook to protect us from fake news.

In the medium term, conspiracy theories and fake news will be defeated by intelligence and criticisms, as they have always been. People will grow out of it. While there is damage being done in the short term, I just do not believe that we can attibute Trump and Brexit to the people being fooled by fake news.

And most certainly the solution is not to bring back the old media or to be protected by new media.

Startups, servitisation and space

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One can’t spend a day without discovering a new app or online service that delivers something at home. It’s not just the explosion of food delivery, which is today one of the most crowded startup markets. You can now shop groceries using Deliberry, or Amazon prime. Uber is moving into the home delivery market. Glovo brings everything home for you. MrJeff collects your clothes and gives them back clean and ironed. Wallapop lets you buy and sell second hand stuff from your neighbours, based on your location.

We are starting to outsource cleaning, ironing and cooking: we used to do it ourselves, or have a maid to do it, but now there are specialised services. This is also related to the servitisation trend, where instead of owning a car or a bike, we rent it by the hour. This specialisation / servitisation evolves in a new spatial distribution of activities. By the way, it could actually be a good thing for the environment.

I was recently invited to teach at the University of Sassari, in Alghero, Sardinia, by professor Plaisant. Amazing place, and really interesting discussions. I there realised how much these trends are mainly urban. This spatial redistribution happens within the city. The rural areas are almost totally excluded. They don’t receive Amazon Prime or Glovo, they can’t buy food to be delivered at home. This explosive trends towards home delivery is excluding those areas which could actually most benefit from it. This could be one important component of this deep cultural divide that became apparent in the US elections.

This is nothing new, but prompts two questions:

  • can we build a peripherality index  by scraping delivery fees and conditions from home delivery services?
  • can we build sharing economy apps around the needs of rural areas, where for instance residents of the countryside run their own delivery services which become interoperable with existing home delivery services? A kind of last mile shared delivery?

And let’s not forget that overlooking the needs of those in rural areas can be very, very dangerous.

Beyond startup-corporate collaboration: midcaps as the missing link

As I pointed out in a previous post, the startup culture is now percolating into large corporations. Virtually all large companies have collaboration programs, from formal collaboration to co-working to competitions.
Nesta has published two interesting reports addressing the main types of collaboration and the related bottlenecks (see image below).
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Governments have also promoted this kind of partnership as a way to for startups to grow. Rather than focussing on creating new large companies from scratch, recent efforts in Europe have focussed on matchmaking between large corporates and startups, for instance in the context of the Startup Europe Partnership. Collaboration is important for startups in order to scale, and for large corporates in order to innovate in traditional sectors and avoid being out-competed by new players.
This is certainly commendable, but is it enough? Large corporates are important, but they represent only a fraction of the economy. We can’t overlook the fact that a key role in Europe is played by smaller, more traditional midcaps companies, especially in traditional sectors such as manufacturing. Imagine for instance how big data startups could leverage the huge amount of data gathered by sensors present in most industrial machinery to develop predictive maintenance models.
This is even more worrying since, contrarily to large corporations, most midcaps lack the awareness and skills to establish and manage collaboration with startups.
How can we help startups to partner with the core traditional players of the economy? Is there any experience and lessons learnt worth sharing?

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