As I wrote in Government Computing recently, I’m pleased this government has finally begun to respond to my calls for broader architectural thinking within and across digital government - see recent pronouncements by Sir Jeremy Heywood, Mike Bracken and Tom Loosemore .
And they are also recognising the importance of working with local authorities on his architecture, though it’s not entirely clear from Liam Maxwell’s recently reported comments whether they believe this should be a flat or a hierarchical ‘working with’, that is, buying in to a pre-agreed model or co-developing one. There is also some interesting work going on in GDS and local government on digital reuse.
In Labour we believe we need an architecture for digital services which enables local government to re-use and re-purpose digital applications from both national and local government as well as sharing data safely and ethically. We recognise this is a technical and organisational challenge – and opportunity – and it is one we’ve been wrestling with as part of our continuing Review of Digital Government.
We were very pleased to have so many local government contributions to our Review from city councils to professional bodies, testifying to the keenness of local government to engage on this subject. Indeed as one chief executive of a local authority told me recently, with the devastating funding cuts from this government digital has to be a major part of simply maintaining essential services.
The case for federated open architecture
As part of the Review we are seeking to establish some principles for how national and local government and third sector organisations should work together to deliver digital services: openness - APIs and communities; the right mix of tight and loose standards to help organisations gradually adopt a common platform as legacy contracts expire; and, of key importance architecturally and politically, federation. Federation would allow different organisations to control their own constituent’s destiny, data and priorities.
We are thinking about what a federated model might look like in practice as well as having fun with how best to describe it – Federated Android Model (FAM) and Federated Open Architecture (FOA) both emphasise open standards and shared architectures. One of the concerns I have had is that this government’s response to legitimate criticisms of centralised public sector databases and authentication has been to outsource more and more to the private sector in the expectation that the market will solve the problem.
There are many reasons why this might not be the case.
Last week two events emphasised to me the need for a federated approach. The first was the revelation that Adobe was tracking every word you read.
Adobe is gathering data on the ebooks that have been opened, which pages were read, and in what order. All of this data, including the title, publisher, and other metadata for the book is being sent to Adobe’s server in clear text.
This was ostensibly to address copyright which is complex area, the basis of an important trade-off between incentivising and optimising innovation and creativity and Adobe were quite right to build in copyright protection measures.
But to centralise them and collect data was to create a bigger problem, a honeypot for potential cybercriminals and a justified area of concern for their customers.
A more thoughtful approach
A meeting I had with a Manchester tech start-up [pictured] illustrated a more thoughtful approach.
Reason Digital are a social enterprise dedicated to using technology to deliver social alue – ‘maximising the good you do using the web’ is how they put it. As well as digital government I am also the shadow minister for social enterprise so they ticked two of my portfolio boxes.
They have been looking at ways of using technology to help protect sex workers. The nature of their work and the locations in which they find themselves means sex workers are often vulnerable to crime. What is more these crimes can be particularly difficult and costly to solve because witnesses are reluctant to come forward and crime scenes often public and therefore subject to interference.
So Reason Digital thought that if they could alert sex workers of relevant incidents in their vicinity – harassment, a foiled attack for example - together with details of the suspect, that would help sex workers protect themselves.
Working with sex workers they created a smartphone app which could be used to report an incident and its location.
But how to decide who to send it to? Track where all the sex workers in a city were and hen notify the ones closest? No, working with sex workers they were especially alert to the dangers of a centralised, real-time location database.
Instead, they chose to notify all phones with the app and give each the ability to decide if that notification was relevant to their location. This meant that the real-time details of each sex worker are not brought together into one place. Information (for example, an attack) was shared, the relevance of that information was context dependent and the understanding of that context was left in the domain of the person most concerned as well as whether or not to share more information. And the app is device independent.
Federated open architecture indeed. Adobe – and others – have something to learn.