“It’s the data stupid!”
During the 1992 US election campaign, when Bill Clinton declared, “It’s the economy, stupid”, he did so in an attempt to urgently shift public attention away from his personal life. His point was that highly engaging topics can act as a distraction from what matters most – and that voters should have cared more about new jobs and financial prosperity than they did about his troublesome past. Today, when it comes to digital transformation, there’s a danger of focusing on exciting new digital features and capabilities, while forgetting what’s important: how services are run and where vast amounts of data are stored, shared and governed.
We’re now seeing a tsunami of digital change, which for many, creates a perfect storm. With the emergence of FinTech, a raft of innovative new digital finance services (partly operated by start-ups, such as Monzo, Fidor and Metro Bank) are revolutionizing the traditional world of banking. All around us, new types of businesses inhabit the digital space. For instance, Airbnb operates from a digital platform and owns no hotels while Uber operates from a digital platform and owns no taxis. This is known as “Uberization” – where better, cheaper, faster services rapidly outrun or replace traditional ones using technology to deliver high-quality user experiences and achieve worldwide market success. Following FinTech, there is HealthTech delivering new digital, personalized medical services in the place of doctors. LegalTech is replacing traditional lawyers, and even EduTech, is dramatically improving the accessibility of learning for the next generation.
So, what about PubTech: innovative new digital services and platforms to deliver public services? Surely these too are on their way? If not from the powerful US tech giants like Facebook and Google that are pushing for more public data to be shared, then from hungry new start-ups looking at public service delivery as a potential new revenue stream. We’re seeing the potential of chatbots to replace human lawyers and speed-up divorce proceedings, as well as smart metering, smart lighting and smart CCTVs. There’s also smart rubbish collection and smart crowd-control, and predictive policing, which is using big data to respond more effectively and even prevent crime happening in the first place. These services are part of the tsunami of digital change hitting the public sector.
For the mayor of a big city, it may be tempting to quickly absorb these new services and show citizens how the wonders of technology can drastically improve the environment, resilience, public safety and quality of life. At town halls around the world, there are streams of tech companies lobbying to deliver smart services and create ‘Smart Cities’, fuelled by initiatives such as the EU’s GrowSmarter project. In all cases, making cities smart involves using citizens’ data. The question is: where is that data stored, who controls it, who processes it, and most importantly who owns it?
We call this the Digital Economy or Data-Driven Economy. Google has proven how powerful data can be in the Digital Economy. Now the likes of Facebook, Airbnb, Uber and Booking.com are creating services on top of personalized data. As an individual, it’s your right to hand over your data to these giants and sign at the bottom of the contract. However, for a public body, it’s a different matter. Orchestration of data about citizens, students, patients and tourists, needs to be transparent and done in such a way that any individual can always demand access to its whereabouts and can know who has access to it (just as with the Right to be Forgotten).
To safeguard citizens and their data effectively, public services need to look at the platforms they are using. Whenever the data stays put in their own IT department, it’s simple. But the moment a third party is introduced to deliver (cloud) services from external platforms, the risk is that the data is no longer accessible under professional SLAs. With PubTech, as with every other sector, all kinds of inventive new digital services are possible; but if the control and ownership of data transfers along with the platform to a third party provider, it’s out of citizens’ reach and there’s no turning back. “It’s the data, stupid...”!