Category Archives: Technology

My 2013 in review

Looking back on 2013 I realise that, professionally, it has been one of my most interesting and diverse years yet: two major Climate Gathering events, half a dozen new clients for my public policy consultancy, lots of writing and even a few speaking engagements. Policy topics covered include climate, water, waste and resource efficiency, as well as technology, copyright, privacy, taxation, citizenship and government. Certainly worthy of a short blog post. Continue reading

Get Smart, Stupid! Digital Technology, Climate Change, and the Missing Human Element

The Dublin Climate Gathering this month considered the intersection between digital technology and the climate change challenge with the aim of fleshing out “Plan C”: a vision for a clean, digital, low-carbon economy. The concept is based on the understanding that if you want to stop people going from point A to an unsustainable point B, it is necessary to show them a better alterative C. Although nobody can yet be certain of what a future low-carbon society will look like, is generally accepted that digital technology will be a key enabler in any scenario other than large-scale de-growth. Furthermore, given the central role digital technology has come to play in western lifestyles, any appealing vision of a low carbon future must incorporate the conveniences and quality-of-life improvements people have come to expect from digital innovation.

The role of information and communications technology (ICT) in facilitating transition to a low-carbon society is well understood in European policy and has been promoted in various ways over the years. In a 2009 communication the European Commission set out its vision for “mobilising Information and Communication Technologies to facilitate the transition to an energy-efficient, low-carbon economy”. In it the Commission sets out a number of contributions ICT can make to transition, including:

  • use of digital technology to manage energy in major energy-using sectors such as buildings and transport;
  • enabling business models and lifestyles that use less energy and other material resources; and
  • providing the information businesses and consumers need to help them make better decisions on energy use.

The strategy for harnessing these benefits has been moved forward through various avenues, including the Strategic Energy Technology (SET) Plan, the Smart Grids Taskforce, the Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS) Directive and Action Plan, and more recently a new communication on Energy Technologies and Innovation. Many of the recent developments are well outlined in this IIEA blog post by Paddy Buckenham on EU policy on ICT and energy/climate.

Smart cities

Urbanisation is one of the major global trends – by 2050, 70% of the world’s population will live in cities, the same level of urbanisation as seen in Europe today. Currently cities account for over 70% of GHG emissions and 60-80% of global energy consumption. If ICT is to help us reduce emissions then cities must be a key focus of the necessary innovation. The “smart city” concept envisages urban areas where digital technology drives efficiency in transport, buildings and energy by ubiquitous monitoring, analysis and integration.

Unsurprisingly, the key drivers of the concept have been the vendors of the enabling technologies, including IBM, Intel and Oracle. However European policy makers are increasingly engaged. In 2011 the EU launched its Smart Cities and Communities Initiative, with a budget of €81 million for demonstration projects in the transport and energy sectors. From 2013 this budget has been increased significantly to €365 million and initiative broadened to include the ICT sector.

Smart cities are a key intersection of digital innovation and public policy, as the public sector is of necessity a key partner. However much of the running to date has been made by the technology vendors, and it is a condition of the EU Smart Cities and Communities programme that consortia bidding for funding must be industry-led. The mismatch in scale and technical know-how between technology vendors and municipal authorities, let alone local communities, makes the question of who should drive smart city projects problematic. In particular it raises the question of who is deciding what outcomes are desirable from the roll-out of smart city technology.

Speaking at the IIEA last year, the British Internet technologist and analyst Ben Hammersley addressed this point:

At present, ‘Smart Cities’ are being built on the foundation of the cultural values of the vendors that are selling the technology to collate the data around things that they think people should be optimizing […] However, people might not want to optimize their route to work on the basis of measures such as time, they might want to take the most aesthetically pleasing route.

This problem is acknowledged within the industry itself. At another IIEA event this year, Accenture’s global lead for Intelligent Cities Strategy, Simon Giles noted that “the discourse on smart cities has been created and dominated by technology vendors and integrators”. He identified lack of engagement with communities and urbanists as a barrier to bringing the smart cities concept to scale, creating the prospect of “death by pilot”.

Steve Jobs famously didn’t believe in asking people want they want before developing a product. “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them”. European policy on smart cities and ICT generally might be said to be following Jobs’s approach: people will see the benefits of smart cities, smart grids and smart meters once they are in place. The focus is on innovators and policy makers working together to roll out demonstration projects (“lighthouses”).

There is validity to this approach: practical examples of smart technology in action are needed to fully communicate their benefits. However a smart city is not a product you can put in somebody’s hand to take or leave. It implies changes in how citizens interact with their urban and home environments, which at a minimum requires meaningful prior consultation. More fundamentally, however, it should be built on a foundation of shared values between citizens and municipal authorities, facilitated but not dictated by technology providers. The desired outcomes of smart city projects must be set out in human terms, incorporating not just energy efficiency but other needs of citizens such as increased public safety, more leisure time, usable public space. Similarly, the trade-offs including potential loss of privacy must be understood and agreed.

As Simon Giles put it:

I think we lack a narrative. We really don’t understand what it is and we can’t articulate what the value proposition is and until we understand that this is never going to go above pilot and into scale.

In other words, the problem is essentially that technology vendors and to some extent municipal authorities understand what it’s possible to do but they are less clear on why you would want to do it in the first place. If the smart city concept is to reach the scale necessary to have any meaningful impact on emissions we must learn how to integrate it from the outset with the basic needs and desires of urban citizens: to introduce the missing human element. Demonstration projects are certainly needed, but we also need a shared understanding of what smart cities are intended to achieve, how they will be used by citizens, and what the benefits will be in human terms.

Of course this is easier said than done. One way of ensuring the human element is included is to work in collaboration with citizens and communities to develop a set of indicators or success factors for smart city projects. The existing EU Smart Cities Stakeholder Platform is already considering these issues and may be the vehicle for such an effort.

Open data and citizen innovation

Another way of involving citizens is to put the technology and data in more hands to allow innovation at the level of the citizen. If our lifestyles and the way we interact with our urban environments have to change in order to achieve sustainability, the role of ICT should be to make these changes easier, more appealing and more convenient. To make this happen we need an explosion of innovation at a consumer level. Such innovation can be catalysed by making the underlying data on urban life accessible to more people as open data.

As I argue here, the great promise of open data is that it breaks the one-to-one relationship between those who produce data and those who provide services based on that data. Allowing small-scale developers to develop applications based on data gathered by public authorities or infrastructure providers can greatly expand the uses to which this data is put. Putting intelligent transport or energy-efficiency apps in the hands of citizens can provide a feedback loop between citizen and city, giving citizens the tools to drive the smart city agenda.

The case for public data – generated and stored at public expense – being openly available is easily made and the EU has recently adopted new rules on this basis. However to really fuel an explosion of “smart citizen” innovation, data collected by the private sector must be included, and policy makers will have to consider what incentives and safeguards should be in place to facilitate this.

This post was written for the IIEA‘s Environment Nexus web site. View the original post

The Oireachtas great leap backwards: it’s not just about

Read this first: Why it matters that the Oireachtas just killed I was going to comment on Simon McGarr’s blog post but the comment grew long enough to merit a post on my own very occasional blog.

I worked in the Oireachtas as a Parliamentary Assistant between 2005 and 2007. At this time there seemed to be a bit of a push behind “eDemocracy” and I was aware of efforts to ensure the provision of acts, bills and debates in structured formats. The grand vision seemed to be that the authoring, amendment and publication of all data related to the Oireachtas would ultimately be compatible with its exposure to the public as structured data. This was very much a work-in-progress at the time, and legacy systems were still centre-stage, in particular the little-loved Lotus Notes.

My understanding of the workflow then and now is that Oireachtas debate records are inputted into Lotus Notes initially and this is the format in which they are first made available to members and staff. Prior to this summer’s changes, they were then parsed into XML files from which the Oireachtas Debates web site was generated. The raw XML files were also publicly available, from which was generated. Theoretically anyone could use these XML files to provide web interfaces to debates but as far as I’m aware is the only site to actually have done so.

The process of converting the raw Lotus Notes records into XML appears to have been outsourced, either to Cahill Printers or Propylon. Propylon certainly created the XML schema and authoring system and their web site claims they “manage and publish the Verbatim Debate records of both houses in multiple formats”. However this useful site by Leo Bollins, who is the Principal of the eDemocracy Unit of the Oireachtas, suggests that Cahill Printers does the actual conversion.

Mark Mulqueen, Head of Communications for the Oireachtas, confirmed to me on Twitter that the recent changes to the site were designed to achieve efficiencies by ending the outsourcing of “a large amount of work involved in debates. That’s where a saving arises.” I asked him if this meant that Propylon were no longer managing the debate records and he replied, “Yes, I can confirm that to be the case. Using existing resources we will provide access to debates more quickly”.

So it appears that the Oireachtas has decided to save time and money by eliminating entirely the stage in their workflow that parsed raw debates records into XML. This stage has been replaced with a (presumably automated) process that generates web pages from Lotus Notes. It’s easy to see how somebody with little appreciation of the value of providing open public data in a structured format could have viewed this stage as a costly luxury, and its elimination as a simple and obvious “efficiency”. It’s particularly disappointing, however, that nobody in the decision-making process seemed to be aware of how much of a backward step this “efficiency” would represent. As John Handelaar of told The Irish Times, “We are replacing 2012 with 1995 overnight”.

The great promise of open data is that it breaks the one-to-one relationship between those who produce data and those who provide services on top of that data. If members of the public want to search or manipulate the Oireachtas records in particular ways, they don’t have to wait for the Oireachtas itself to produce the necessary tools, they can use third-party tools where available, or even build their own. The Houses of the Oireachtas, in their search for efficiencies, have reinstated this one-to-one link, and the public are now entirely dependent on their staff to produce services on top of the debates records. At present this amounts to a keyword search facility that currently produces an “internal server error”. This is not good for the public, and it’s not good for the management of the Oireachtas either.

The standard response of the Oireachtas authorities to the large number of TDs and Senators who have raised the issue is that they want to meet with John Handelaar to try and resolve the issue. That’s the sort of reply that will satisfy most members for the time being, but it reduces the issue to a question of the interface between the Oireachtas and one individual web site (albeit the only web site that has done anything useful with the Oireachtas data). A properly-briefed TD or Senator should be pursuing the issue as a generic open data question: why has the Oireachtas apparently taken such a huge step backwards in its provision of public data in a modern, clean, structured format?

A further pedantic point is that it’s important that queries on this issue are directed to those responsible, i.e. the Houses of the Oireachtas Commision. This Commission, made up of the Ceann Comhairle, Clerk of the Dáíl and a number of TDs and Senators, manages the business of the Oireachtas independent of the government. Its chair is the Ceann Comhairle, Sean Barrett, and his office seems to be the most obvious first port of call.

Apple’s App Store still banjaxed for Irish customers: no games

As an iPod Touch owner I was impatiently awaiting the launch of the iPhone 2.0 software, which allows you to download custom applications from the iTunes App Store to run on your iPod. Lots of cool stuff had been promised, including games such as Super Monkey Ball, Cro-Mag Rally, Tetris etc. Apparently half of the applications released at the launch of the App Store were games. In Ireland, however, the App Store only displays one lonely game, the less than inspiring Mr Potatohead simulator Mr. Shuffle.

A thread on Apple’s support discussions site throws out all sorts of theories, and documents users’ attempts to get answers from Apple on the problem. Some posters put it down to the general shoddiness of treatment of Irish customers (no movie rentals or TV shows from iTunes after 2 years), others to some difficulties with the Irish censors. Responses from Apple staff indicated that developers had simply decided not to release their games in Ireland for some reason. This theory was quickly discounted:

So Apple expect us to believe that every games developer in the world decided to not make their games available in Ireland? Sounds more like a default excuse to me. “We dont want to look into the problem, so we’ll just blame the developers”

Somebody even wrote to the Irish Film Censor’s to confirm that they don’t have anything to do with the matter. Somebody else emailed one of the game developers, Pangea Software, who responded as follows:

Something has been wrong with the Ireland store since Thursday because only 1 game is showing up. There should be 200 games. Apple knows about the problem, but it looks like it still isnt’ fixed yet. Hopefully they’ll have all the games up there soon.

So it’s Apple’s problem after all, but they don’t seem to be in a hurry to fix it. Tomorrow will be one week since the store went live, and I can’t imagine the fix is technically complex.

In the meantime we have to make do with Mr. Shuffle, which doesn’t look like it’s worth €2.39 to me. However, I couldn’t resist posting a sarcastic review to iTunes. It probably won’t show up, so the text is below:

The one and only

I’m a huge fan of this app because it’s quite simply the only game worth buying from the App Store if you live in Ireland. In fact, it’s the only game you can buy from the App Store if you live in Ireland. Apple quite rightly feel that we Irish need time to get to grips with the complexities of Mr. Shuffle before we can be expected to deal with the likes of Super Monkey Ball.

Update: They posted my review! They obviously don’t read these things too carefully. And the games are finally starting to trickle in: Mr. Shuffle has been joined by MotionX Poker, Platinum Solitaire, SuperPong and Bubble Bash.

IBEC oppose blanket WiFi coverage for Dublin

Dublin City Council has put public WiFi for Dublin back on the agenda, and it doesn’t surprise me to learn that IBEC are agin it:

“In effect Dublin City Council would be diverting public funds to put existing WiFi operators out of business, causing redundancies, and it could have an overall negative impact on the broadband market through what boils down to below cost selling.”

This is the sort of response I predicted in some comments I left on John Carroll’s blog back in July. To quote myself:

Switching on a citywide hotspot would be an admirable public service by the City Council, but it would bring them into immediate conflict with existing commercial interests, i.e. broadband and WiFi access providers like eircom, BT and BitBuzz. These companies would view any free or even cut-price access as unfair competition with their own offerings. This is almost certainly what lies at the root of the City Manager’s reluctance to push this one forward.

IBEC’s claims of prospective redundancies (which I don’t take seriously) should be set against the overall competitive advantage Dublin would gain as a city blanketed with cheap wifi. However in this case protecting the interests of existing players has weighed more heavily on IBEC’s mind than achieving an overall improvement in the economic environment in the city.

The City Council’s service wouldn’t compete with commercial broadband, but it’s true that it might result in loss of business for commercial providers of wifi hotspots. However there are still plenty of furrows for these providers to plough, and it would actually be of benefit if they were to concentrate on switching on hotspots in trickier locations than the city centre.

I am not without sympathy for the hotspot providers (one of the founders of Bitbuzz is a friend and former colleague of mine), but it seems to me that they are reaping the benefit of an artificial WiFi shortage in the city. If the whole city can be turned on cheaply, why should consumers be forced to pay high hourly rates and mess about with vouchers every time they want to get online in the city centre? Why should we have to find a cafe or bar to work in when WiFi can be provided in other public spaces?

IBEC “urges the Council to meet with industry to discuss their proposals and find a sustainable way forward”. I don’t doubt that their idea of a “sustainable way forward” is one in which the profits of their members are sustained. If the Council doesn’t agree to cut them in for a taste, I fully expect that at least one operator will threaten legal action in order to stop it going ahead. Such are the difficulties faced by anyone trying to provide a new public service in today’s ideological climate.

Online election hypewatch

I love to hear about the new and exciting ways in which the Internet and related technologies are going to transform our political system forever. I’m directly involved in such efforts myself, fiddling about with a number of projects whose aim is to apply the web to politics or vice versa. However I can’t bring myself to believe the predictions of those who tell us that we’re entering into an era of web-based democracy. From Karlin Lillington’s recent piece in The Irish Times titled “Web-based politics and democracy for the 21st century” (subscription required):

In the past in Ireland, air and print- time for politicians and parties was highly controlled around elections and the domain of the established media. However, that is all going to change. New technologies and services enable all sorts of small guerilla actions by individuals who can, anonymously if they wish, post unflattering or flattering material on a candidate onto a blog, a picture site or a video site. Likewise, expect candidates and parties themselves to use such tactics, probably anonymously of course, but not always.

I expect this is true, although I’m not sure if the impact of such activity, and of the other examples of “web-based politics” provided by Lillington, will be significant enough to justify her closing line:

Politicians and political parties, welcome to 21st-century web-based democracy. This is your official wake-up call.

I have a very simple theory about the role which the Internet and related technology will play in the next election. I’ve been sharing it with anyone who will listen for the past couple of years, so I may as well spell it out here. In summary, there is a small but increasing cohort of voters who will use the web sites of candidates as their main point of reference in deciding where to allocate their votes. That’s it.

You’ll note that my theory doesn’t mention blogging, the disruptive influence of the citizen media, guerrilla YouTube videos, or reinventing politics for the Internet age. In other words, it’s not a very sexy theory. But I believe it to be valid. There are a lot of voters out there for whom the web is the first point-of-contact when shopping, researching, or just browsing for fun stuff, and I expect many of them will take the same approach when deciding on where to direct their votes. They will expect each candidate’s web site to clearly lay out the candidate’s position on the main issues of concern, to demonstrate a track record of activity on these issues, and to generally convey the impression that the candidate is worthy of their vote.

Some voters may be influenced by what they read about candidates, parties, and policies on blogs and online discussion forums. Having hung around for a few years now, I’ve seen a few minor examples of posters changing certain political opinions after engaging in online debate. Here’s a thread on which you can find a couple of examples. However, the vast majority of people who enage in debate on these sites are already politically committed, and in many cases are out-and-out party hacks. In my view this is not a medium through which to secure the support of floating voters.

It seems to me that blogs, podcasts, videos etc. will have a negligible impact on the outcome of the election. This doesn’t mean that candidates shouldn’t make use of them, indeed I think they can go a long way towards conveying the messages I refer to above. However no web-savvy voter is going to be swayed purely by the fact that a candidate has managed to embed a grainy YouTube clip on their site. Judging by the YouTube efforts of candidates to date, it seems more likely that they’re opening themselves up to derision from web-savvy voters rather than winning them over. Candidates should be looking to enhance their core messages with a certain amount of online enagement, but shouldn’t expect that votes will be won purely on displays on technological mastery.

In light of all of the above, I have decided it would be a useful public service to identify instances of hyperbole on this issue as I encounter them. Any articles I discover will be linked here with the tag “Hypewatch”, and I would encourage anyone who wants to contribute to this effort to use the same tag. I’m not suggesting that everything so tagged is completely over-the-top, just that it contains predictions which have yet to be tested in the white heat of an election campaign. In this way we can return to the issue after the election and assess which predictions held true, and which turned out to be, well, premature.

Ireland working for Microsoft?

Bill Gates and Charlie McCreevyFlorian Müller of the No Software Patents! campaign has posted an article claiming that Ireland is pushing for software patents because we are economically dependent on Microsoft and other US software companies:

Given his obvious bias, Irishman Charlie McCreevy should never have been entrusted with the control over the process on the software patent directive. Unfortunately, in his role as recently appointed EU Commissioner for the Internal Market, he is the most powerful man in the process. That man is a Microsoft vassal. Bill Gates’ wish is McCreevy’s command. We are not talking about an impartial politician but about someone who even vowed in a speech in the European Parliament that he would vigorously represent certain interests. If he is not stopped, then he will abuse the power of his office to wreak havoc to 24 EU member countries only to do what he thinks is good for one country — his own.

Those accusations may sound quite strong but they are based upon facts. Let’s look at the way things work in Ireland for those U.S. software companies like Microsoft.

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Home taping is killing music (2005 remix)

The Irish Recorded Music Association (IRMA) have been briefing newspapers on the “legal minefields” new owners of iPods and other digital music players may face. From an article in this week’s Sunday Business Post:

Dick Doyle, the managing director of Irma, told The Sunday Business Post that it was “against the law’‘ to copy music onto iPods and other devices. “People should know that private copying from one medium to another is illegal,” he said.

“There is no private copying exemption in Irish law. You cannot burn downloaded music onto CDs. You cannot transfer it onto an iPod.”

Thousands of iPods were bought in the run-up to Christmas by people hoping to download music onto them from their CD collection or internet sites. But Irma’s Doyle said that anyone doing so would be breaking the law.

“People think that if there is no commercial gain that they can do it,” he said. “They can’t.”

While the article unhelpfully mixes up a number of related issues (illegal downloading, ripping from your own CDs, burning legally downloaded music to CD), it does appear that IRMA are keen to remind people just how few rights they enjoy in relation to sound recordings. It’s not clear whether they are planning to come after you for ripping your CD collection onto your iPod, but they do want you to know that Irish copyright law offers no exemption for this activity. Having read Chapter 6 of the Copyright and Related Rights Act, 2000, it appears they are technically correct. The only exemption I can find which might apply is that of “Fair dealing: research or private study“.

Is this a timely reminder that the law needs to be amended to take account of the entirely reasonable activity of transferring your own CD collection onto your own digital music player?

Slashdot on car sharing

Slashdot carried a story a few days ago about car sharing services (car clubs) in the US. It qualifies as “news for nerds” because of the technology used to manage bookings and control access to the cars.

I’ve always thought that car clubs should be tried in Dublin, as they address both the traffic and parking problems. I managed to get an objective to support car sharing schemes included in an early draft of the new Dublin City Development Plan; it will be interesting to see if this survives into the final version, which is due in February.

For more on car clubs, check out this article from the Guardian.

The Graphing Calculator Story

Graphing Calculator iconThe Graphing Calculator Story is a bizarre and strangely touching story of how the Graphing Calculator which used to ship with every Mac was developed by a couple of programmers who were effectively volunteering at Apple without the company’s knowledge. It’s interesting that everyone involved, including those who assisted the pair to continue their work despite the fact that they had no clearance to be in the building, were motivated by the desire to see good work reach completion.

No Software Patents!

The new site, which was launched yesterday in 12 languages, may provide a focus for the campaign against software patents in the EU. Florian Müller is managing the campaign, which has the backing of three corporate partners: 1&1, Red Hat, and MySQL AB.

Here in Ireland, The Irish Free Software Organisation (IFSO) are leading the fight against software patents. Their software patents page lays out the current status.

Pinpointing voters on a map

Wired News are carrying an article about the use of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) in elections.

I spent most of the last election campaign wishing I had some way of linking my database of voters to street maps. This stuff is not rocket science, but the biggest impediment seems to be the limited availability of the geographic data itself, i.e. maps. In Ireland there seem to be two main suppliers of map data: the Ordnance Survey and a company called Mapflow. Both charge rates which would put this outside the budget of most campaigning organisations.