Government scientific advisor switched on when it comes to IoT

So what goes in? Something like this.

  • Vegetative telekinesis is going to be very big – here are some reports that say so
  • Vegetative telekinesis can help in responding to the important challenges facing the nation – climate change, an ageing population, skill shortages in our inner cities…
  • There is an opportunity for the UK to be a world leader in vegetative telekinesis; there are centres of excellence in our universities
  • The government should take a leadership role while avoiding the dangers of too much regulation or attempting to pick winners
  • The best way forward is for an open and competitive market with level playing fields and maximum competition.
  • Their ignorance of science makes the public concerned about the possible adverse implications of vegetative telekinesis, and their fears need to be addressed and then allayed by an open and transparent framework of consultation.

It was in this spirit of low expectation that I approached “The Internet of Things: making the most of the Second Digital Revolution”, a report by the UK Government Chief Scientific Adviser. The report itself was published in the run-up to Christmas and does not seem to have attracted much attention or interest. That’s despite a foreword by the Prime Minister and some trailing by other ministers including Oliver Letwin, the curiously-titled ‘Minister for Government Policy’.

The good

To my surprise, the report turned out to be really quite good – or to be precise, parts of it were very good. In particular, the Executive Summary, which contains all the main recommendations, was great. It avoided fence-sitting, and it sets out what the government should do, and how it should do it. The recommendations are specific enough that they could be used as a scorecard to assess how well the government actually did do.

After the obligatory stuff about UK world leadership and the importance of removing barriers, the report moves swiftly on to identify eight specific areas for action:

  • Commissioning
  • Spectrum and networks
  • Standards
  • Skills and Research
  • Data
  • Regulation and legislation
  • Trust
  • Co-ordination.

And despite the language of ‘removing barriers’, this is a comprehensive shopping list of dirigiste activities for government. For example, on ‘commissioning’, it says that the government “must be an expert and strategic customer for the Internet of Things. It should use informed buying power to define best practice and to commission technology that uses open standards, is interoperable and secure.” It then goes on to call for government to support scalable demonstrator projects, and to “take appropriate risk” in doing so, thereby using such projects “as tools to frame public conversations about these technologies and how to embed best practice”. This should “go beyond simple deployments of commercially available technology”; moreover, such projects that receive government support “should produce open data for use by all as frequently as possible”.

The report also has strong things to say about the infrastructure, and particularly the connectivity, for the IoT: “As the network infrastructure for the Internet of Things will be delivered by diverse providers, there is a risk that this will result in independent, fragmented or partial networks, damaging connectivity with potential to reduce network resilience. This the case for mobile phone networks, in which two people standing side by side have access to different networks…with widely different signal strengths.”

This is the government’s Chief Scientific Adviser’s somewhat shocking perspective of access-based competition, which has been the bedrock of policy and regulation for mobile networks for thirty years. Once again, the report is delightfully direct, though its specific recommendations here are slightly less so. It simply urges the government to “work with experts to develop a roadmap for an Internet of Things infrastructure” and to “collaborate with industry, the regulator and academia to maximise connectivity and continuity…”

Standards are another area where it’s possible to make nice noises without taking any kind of strong position. Once again, the report does not take that easy road. Instead, it says that the government should “use expert commissioning to encourage participants in demonstrator programmes to develop standards that facilitate interoperable and secure systems. Government should take a proactive role in driving harmonisation of standards internationally.” The point about this call is not that it is controversial but that is both clear and specific; again, a more cautious adviser might have considered this as the government making a rod for its own future back.

The bad

As I’ve rather hinted, not all of the report is as good as this. While the Executive Summary is really clear and sets out strong policy guidelines, they don’t appear to have grown out of the body of the report. It isn’t really clear who the main body is aimed at; it’s a bit like a primer, for an intelligent but not very informed civil servant.

Chapter 1, ‘The Ecosystem’, is very short and reads a bit like ‘the IoT for dummies’; Chapter 2, oddly titled ‘Adopting the Internet of Things’ is mainly a non-exhaustive compilation of things to be worried about – the obligatory ‘public concerns’ section. Chapter 3 ‘Economic Potential’, is a collection of forecasts from consultants’ and vendors’ studies, without much critical discussion.

Chapter 4 on ‘Applying the Internet of Things’ purports to be ‘light touch case studies’, but it reads more like a small group of hobby horses being saddled up and ridden round the paddock. It is inevitably out of date and partial, and suggests that the experts consulted were not from the sharp end of industry. The list of contributors at the end rather confirms this, with lots of academics and a few consultants. The section on Transport is mainly about cool things to do with private cars, the section on Energy is unsurprisingly about smart grids, there’s a chapter on Healthcare that focuses on devices, and one on Agriculture that talks about traceability and precision agriculture. All worthy subjects, but not the only things that matter in these areas; and in the space available they aren’t discussed properly, or put in context. Why have a discussion on food traceability without even acknowledging the horse meat scandal? Why does climate change turn up in the discussion on precision agriculture but not in the Energy or Transport sections?

Still, it feels mean to carp too much. The three recommendations on commissioning, networks, and open standards, would be sufficient to justify the report’s existence. A more cautious “adviser” could have written something a good deal more mealy-mouthed, that would have hedged its bets and avoided providing commitments that could be seen as hostages to fortune. So two cheers for Professor Walport, and here’s hoping that this advice is followed.

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