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English Data for English People, and Other Take-aways From the Decode Conference

by Mark Williams on November 02, 2018

Like Freddie Mercury and Monserrat Caballe before us, @rickstock, James @0charactersleft and I were drawn to Barcelona's beautiful horizon, and in particular the Decode Conference. Here's a brief write-up of what it was like and what we learned from the event. 

The breezy premise of this particular meetup was: Europe is getting screwed by the tech giants (GAFA) with money and data draining up and away from the people who live here, and we are miles behind with the technical landscape and investment we need to compete, especially in AI. So, how bad is it going to get? What can we learn from China? And what other bright ideas have we got? 

But let's not get too depressed too early - I present the MIRADOR!

The Mirador

I'm sure I got the right date. Mark, alone as always, at the Mirador, CCCB Barcelona

Before I share some criticisms I've got to say that there were some genuine wow moments from more than one speaker across our time in Barcelona. The format of the intense two days felt a bit long-winded at times, and gave away its clear academic bias (see the lecture chairs), but we could have coped with that. However, if this was supposed to be opening up a debate, and asking technologists and those from the private sector like us, their opinion, it sucked. It felt like a closed smaller group discussing between themselves had reluctantly let in an audience, and we were disappointed not to have actually got an opportunity to chat informally at any stage.

No coffee breaks physically at the venue (except for the enlightened few in a separate area, of course!), so no time to network and dig into the content. No name tags!? No after event, evening venue. Seriously, what was the point of us travelling? I could have had exactly the same experience at home on live stream. @evgenymorozov @francesca_bria - I promise to pay for the communal drinks, please can we get someone who co-ordinates collaborative events in the tech world to help next time?

How bad is it going to get?

Europe's very real worry is two-fold. That the privacy and data of its citizens are being mined out of its borders without recompense or control, and that its overall geo-political influence in the world will wane along with its tech. There was definitely a feeling in the room as we looked at the future, can Europe still be, and mean, something? GAFA lobbyists are already shaping trade agreements in their favour. This was one of the big bombshells in the room - Data and algorithmic rules are being concreted in TPP and NAFTA trade agreements, and being submitted to the WTO as proposed templates going forward. The clauses include:

  • Require countries to allow cross-border information transfers to flow freely
  • Prohibit forced localization (i.e., requirements for a business to locate computing facilities including servers and storage devices in a country’s territory as a condition of conducting business)
  • Prohibit any requirement to transfer software source code as a condition of doing business or investing in a country
  • Prohibit the imposition of customs duties on cross-border electronic transmissions, and;
  • Require countries to enact consumer protection and privacy legislation, with the details left to individual members.

What can we learn from China?

China got a lot of love in the room and the obvious questions about, you know, pesky human rights and that, was not really engaged with other than "its different there". However, in a sea of Utopian solutions, at least they have crafted an effective response. They have made a plan and have funded it properly. Think of it as a technical version of their belt and road initiative. That's what you can do when you do not have to deal with a fickle electorate. They have leveraged regulation and taxes and they have made rules for transfer IP to local companies if you want access to their market. They also make sure foreign companies cannot take controlling stake in indigenous companies, and are now offering digital services outside of their own data sphere. Apparently, there is growing techno-nationalism in China, a pride being gained in what they are achieving being felt on the streets. The Black-Mirror-esque social credit systemwhich is about social control through public reputation, rolls in by 2020 on the back of this. One wonders how this would be reacted to in the EU, although interestingly, Evgeny Morozov said in Barcelona that he wasn't opposed to a social credit system in principle, despite being ripe for abuse - but of course, we didn't get to follow that up after hours!

Both the US and China have large enough domestic markets to play rough in international trade. The UK does not, but the EU has that scale. Unfortunately it also has rules about state funding of R&D, and is like herding cats when trying to make big long-term plans and spending as a group. So what can the EU do?

We learnt that proposed new EU Tax rules mean companies can be taxed from where their products and services are delivered, rather than where the company is based. Reading the details, these are squarely aimed at GAFA type companies to redress the money draining out via Luxembourg or other member states with lower tax regulations. We know from GDPR that when the EU rules in time with a zeitgeist, it can transcend into policies for other geographical areas, or companies as we have seen with Apple's new pages allowing users to download all their data.

What other bright ideas have we got?

Not much to be honest! There was a collective inner groan when 'Blockchain' was brought up, the wet dream of left leaning technologists - especially those that haven't actually built anything with it. The problem is that 'Blockchain' has become a meme and can mean a myriad of different things and right now is more of a marketing term. In most cases what it purports to do can be done with current proven technology. The EU obviously hasn't read the memo from Australia yet so if you've got a project where you want to bolt on hashed link time-stamping then there is 5 million euros up for grabs for 'blockchain' projects - register for interest by April 9th 2019.

CAPS Project chart in the shape of a flower

There are some interesting 'Collective Awareness Platform' projects that were displayed as a flower, awww. We smelt it and thought it needed less hippy free-for-all, more cynical IT programme approach to prune the myriad of projects. Or maybe move it under the control of the innovation charity Nesta who seem to be a bit more focussed? 

As UK citizens we came back from the two days particularly worried about a post-Brexit landscape. On the political right, we are most likely going to be looking at de-regulation and lowering taxes for foreign companies, and have no will to stop GAFA running amock with acquisitions. On the left it sounded very much that we were looking at 'English data for English people', Rick's brilliant framing of the insanely high-risk unilateral ring-fencing of data sovereignty, with a side order of GAFA breakup through enforced competition and higher regulation. With the ongoing stories of government IT system fails, and a breathtaking naivety of how easy some of this stuff is to do. It was deeply troubling. Troubling enough for us to start throwing our own sceptical hats into the ring.

Our conclusions

When we reflected in the evening, we realised a lot of what we were presented tended to be very male solutioning. Let's spend oodles of cash and time building the biggest and cleverest AI dick that, when eventually complete, will beat everyone else and retrospectively seed everything we need - rather than building proven infrastructure that incrementally solves real social and commercial problems that are useful on the ground now. Whether she read the room or not, @francesca_bria reminded everyone that we were in the business of solving real problems right at the end, next time that message should be a banner across the front wall.

We left Barcelona grateful to have peered more into the Pandora's box of technology and geopolitics, and we have been pondering our place in those futures.

What would it take to actually build a data 'lake' that could combine open government data with voluntary data, and could we do it? Could we build an automatic collection of personal data through GDPR requests? How could SME's and organisations use AI pre-built from this common data to help themselves? What would the public appetite be to give health data to the NHS as well as Apple, or location data to Transport For London or their local city council? What structures will it take for pragmatic innovation to be able to spring from the ground up?

We don't know - but its going to be fun finding out.