Activate 2013 – Thoughts on a Conference

guardian-activate-london-9-july-2013Last week the Guardian newspaper hosted its annual Activate conference focusing on all things digital. As with last year’s event, there was plenty of food for thought and  – perhaps inevitably for a tech conference – the odd technical glitch (I’m looking at you, Google Glass):

The broad focus of the conference allowed for a series of wide-ranging discussions that encompassed everything from the recent Prism scandal in the USA to the role of young people in tech and how big institutions like the UN are adapting to the rapid pace of technological change. What follows, then, isn’t a comprehensive, blow-by-blow account of the day, but six highlights that I took from the day:

  1. Adapting to change: The first speaker of the event was from the World Bank, an organisation that has previously been criticised for its inability or unwillingness to adapt to change and innovation. Chris Vein, the Bank’s chief innovation officer for global information and communications technology development, spoke about how that is beginning to change. Vein believes that achieving the Bank’s aims requires a seismic shift in the way that both the organisation and its partners go about their work. He’s attempting to bring an agile methodology into everything that the Bank does. This means working more closely with communities and countries and eliminating an approach that favours technocratic know-how to replace it with the politics of consensus and inclusion. The methodology advocates that policies and programmes are: user-centred; data-driven; reusable, scalable and sustainable; community-centric; open, secure and private. Whether adapting software design processes to the development industry will produce the kinds of results Vein and his colleagues are hoping for remains to be seen.
  2. Prism, the NSA and Edward Snowden: Given the recent scandal in which security agencies, tech companies, ISPs and governments were all implicated, it was hardly surprising that questions about privacy and security cropped up throughout the day. Who reads our emails, who tracks our website visits and why and how can we ever put our trust in tech companies that have routinely violated our right to privacy were all common themes over the course of the conference. For Google’s Vint Cerf, the key is to strike a balance between the expectations and demands of customers and the legitimate interests of the state in fighting cybercrime, online fraud and terrorism. In many cases, collection of our online data is not for the purposes of snooping by the state. In Estonia, for example, anonymised data from 100,000 mobile phone customers allowed the city authorities in Tallinn to better plan and manage traffic flows. Yet, consent is key. Ericsson’s Hans Vestberg believes that customers need to be informed about what data is collected and why – if tech companies and others are more transparent in their dealing with the rest of us, then it is possible to restore some trust.
  3. Tech barriers: At most tech conferences, it’s not long before talk turns to digital exclusion. And while it’s a hugely important issue, it’s one that has been covered elsewhere in much greater depth. One of the more interesting panels on the day, examined the tech barrier from another angle. A panel of young tech entrepreneurs (aged 13-32) spoke about how and why they got into the tech industry. In an age when bedroom singers can become global superstars and five guys with a laptop can create a sci-fi epic, it’s hardly surprising that the new generation of tech entrepreneurs are starting off with some modestly priced tech and a lot of imagination. In the past, start-ups required significant capital investment, a network of buyers and and an established pathway to reach customers. Today’s tech start-ups, by contrast, can be built on a shoestring budget, while app stores provide a ready-made market of millions. It’s opening up the tech world to a whole new generation of young entrepreneurs who likely wouldn’t have got a look-in just a few years ago.
  4. Helen Clark: Well, it’s maybe not a story as such, but the conference featured an interview with Helen Clark, former New Zealand Prime Minister and now Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme. Like other speakers at the event, Clark believes that greater transparency and openness regarding the regulation and interception of online communications is necessary. Much of the world’s legislation was drafted in an era before the internet, social networking, chatrooms and SMS. Legislators must now play catch up and respond to justifiable public anger. She also believes that much greater transparency is needed from large institutions, such as the UNDP. Inclusion and participation have long been buzzwords in development circles, but if development is to be truly participatory, then institutions must adapt and adopt the technologies that can help make that happen. Of course, technology can never overcome all barriers, but development organisations ignore it at their peril.
  5. Open data changing the world: An all too brief panel session looked at some of the ways in which open data is changing the way we live and work. Innovations like bus checker apps, which tell you when the next bus is due, would be unthinkable without transport authorities opening up their data. For anyone who’s ever waited endlessly for a bus, a bus checker app can seem like your best friend. To take a more serious example, however, the UK’s decision to open up anonymised prescription data has allowed the NHS to save £200 million by replacing expensive, brandname hypertension medication with generic versions that are a fraction of the cost. But with the open data train making impressive progress up the global policy agenda, do we risk riding a wave that, in the end, goes nowhere? We need to be much more careful about open data to analyse the value it brings.
  6. The next big thing: No tech conference would be complete without some predictions as to what the next innovation will be. Helen Clark’s attitude to tech predictions is probably the right one (don’t make them – you’ll never be right), but that didn’t stop some others on the day making their predictions. So, what does the year ahead have in store? Fatser internet is on the way, cheaper devices are here, wearable technology that interacts with its user is big right now and will likely continue to grow and Medium is offering a new experience for writers and readers looking for something a little more serious from the internet than the latest Youtube sensation or celebrity gossip. Who’s right? I don’t know – but the guessing game can be fun.

For more in depth content, video interviews and information about the conference, see the Activate 2013 homepage.