Saturday, 13 February 2016

Digital Divisions

Digital technology was touted as the great new hope in the Island's latest economic plan.  It ought to be a useful way to diversify the economy, but as I have commented elsewhere if is concentrates on financial services it could end up increasing strategic risks.  The other driver for digital in Governemnt is the potential to save costs, at least on the government side of the equation.  A bit like online banking, what it actually does is to move an element of cost from the organisation (branches and staff) to the customer - the need to have a computer  or similar, and connectivity to run the account.

There have been a few stories recently of our States involvement in technology.  Interestingly the reporting of them , which may well reflect the thinking behind the development is a little concerning.  They reflect a problem I have encounteed many times working spftware development: un-acknolwedged assumptions.

The first is an item that certainly has some merit.  I know the original developer, Rob. I used to work with him many years ago, though in those days I did the javascript stuff and he did the presentation bits!  It is well worth reading the reasons the application was developed as a moble web rather than a smart phone app.  Also the rationale for replacing the text system.  They are all related to maintenance and support effort/costs by the provider.  That is typical of a tech driven solution.  So I ask , what about the end users.  Think about  typical bus users and wonder what proportion have smart phones.  Surely smaller than the proportion who have ordinary mobile phones. The result is an improved experience for those who have access, and a  proportion of user  will now have lost service.  Is that progress or not?  Would we be better spending the money on  providing service, actually having more buses on the  routes?  Thats the debate that should be happening in the States chamber, or at least it would be if we had a functioning system.

Second is the parking payment app .  I think the headline suggesting that scratch cards could be obsolete by September is wrong.  The developer hasn't been chosen yet, so the timescale for deployment must be at best tentative. But far more important, does the States really think every car driver is going to acquire a smart phone and the app by September?  Clearly that's not going to happen. At best it is going to have to be a parallel system for sometime.  That is probably going to cost more, not less until the new system is ubiquitous.  Perhaps they have in mind some carparks for free or on a disc, and others app only.  Privilege for a digital elite , or possibly soon a majority, while the minority are left waiting  uninformed at a bus stop because they haven't a smart phone to hand to pay for parking or check bus times.

There is much more to this smart phone app  interaction mode with government than meets the eye.  It is terribly convenient for those who have an authoritarian, controlling, top down view of society. You can get a sense of it from this recent piece There are frequent calls for moves to a cashless society - there are even governement agencies in other jurisdictions that will not accept cash  despite the fact you don't actually have a right to a bank account.  In fact with the ever more draconion KYC and politically exposed person limitiations being impossed,  ever more people will find it impossible to access the financial system.  I have no problem with people knowingly surrending their privacy and allowing governement and finaicial institutions tracking their every move and expenditure, if they want to, but I do object most stongly to being forced to do so.  I don't do loyalty cards, and while I do  have a couple of bank cards, I seldom buy anything with them if I can avoid it (and I usually can), and I certainly don't have a smart phone.

Part of the problem here is a mental mode of those that are doing what they think of as normal.  It happens all the time - the weather forecasters who describe rain as miserable, and sunshine as glorious, and the news broadcasts that claim interests rates going up is bad news, and going down is good.  It is all a matter of perspective relative to how you live your life.  Rain can be good news for growers and gardeners, whilst interest rates going up is a boon to savers.  But of course the overwhelming majority of those  who are in the editorial positions are car driving , smart phone using mortagors.  In their circles those given 'facts' are undisputed.  It is the same in politics - the Westminster bubble syndrome, and technology is not so very different.  It is a sort of attribution error thinking that you are yourself somehow typical or representative of pretty much everyone. That your lifestyle and choices and options are similar to everyone elses.   In reality you are comparing to a small select similar group, not the entire population.

Since we have moved on to politics and policy, I'll get to the last item, as reported here:  I am not surprised they are angry.   It is rather problematic for governemnt to claim to be supporting and promoting  the local sector at the same time as effectively saying the local  talent is not good enough for their needs.  It something the States of Jersey is good at - wordy and sometimes worthy statements of intent, but ineffective or inconsistent action in implementing them.  I cite States Reform, the demise of tourism, and the state of our agricultural sector and the absence of a Rural Economy Strategy, and the persistent failure to meet the population policy (when we had one).  

It is harldy surprising then that I could name three or four talented people I know locally who used to be in software development, but are no longer in the field.  Interestingly all had decent careers in other fields beforehand, and all still live locally.  I rather suspect a large part of the problem here is that those who are making the decisions cannot recognise the skills and abilities of those who are local.  It is a common enough problem.

More than a few times when I worked as a contractor consultant I was hired by big consultancy firms like KPMG, PWC  to deliver projects they had won.  I don't know if the customers knew these big names didn't have the expertise they thought they were buying.  Often times it was about risk perception on the buyer side . If you get a big established consultancy to do the job you won't get half as much grief when it goes wrong than if you hired an 'unknown' name.  Backside covereing is an essential art in any civil service from what I hear, and  'nobody ever got fired for buying IBM' still echoes faintly down the corridors. 

Of course it is a self perpetuating  situation - you never get credit for delivering - the consultancy claims that, and the buyer never really gets to know that the delivery was by a tiddling specialist third party.  If the States only throw low risk tidbits to the local developers while reserving tables at the banquet for external suppliers, you just end up with hungry and impoverished locals with no reputation in that aea  and money pouring out of the island's economy. Because if there is one thing those successful large consultancies do know it is how to succesfully live off  the host.