Digital Public Institutions Part 2: New Organisations We Might See Soon

Hill Valley Courthouse, the defining near-future public institution of my childhood — Image courtesy of Jawed

As I’ve written previously, I’m convinced that we’re soon going to see the creation of new kinds of government-funded or government-mandated organisation that are set up specifically to deal with the social and political consequences of the internet.

In this post I’m going to speculate about what roles these new Digital Public Institutions might have. I expect that in the not-too-distant future some of these predictions will look hilariously wrong, but if I can even get a couple right I’ll call this a good day’s blogging.

An important note. I don’t actually expect any of these institutions to emerge first (or ever) in the US or the UK, despite the strong head start that both had in all things internet. I think we’ll see the kind of innovations I’m writing about today emerging from countries, cities and regions outside the anglophone world. Outside this echo chamber exist places where the public has both more faith in government, and less faith in government than Britain and America. Both such environments are more likely to foster the kinds of services I’m going to write about. If all this seems confusing, read on. In no particular order:

  1. Digital Graveyards
“Soldati caduti — panoramio” by Salvo Cannizzaro. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Different cultures vary in how much they respect or revere the dead, but few pay the departed no respects at all.

In the current world when a person dies their digital presence enters a kind of limbo. Social media accounts stop updating with a sickening sense of incompletion, and the ownership of photos or videos taken by the deceased enter uncertain territory determined by the individual Ts&Cs of sites and apps. Plenty of services just start to delete your stuff if you don’t login for a while, or if you stop payment. And, of course, digital companies come and go in timeframes that are incredibly short compared with your local cemetery, place of worship, or national archives.

So if you want to preserve everything you can of someone you’ve lost, the situation current situation is pretty dire and highly stressful. If your religious beliefs mean that honouring ancestors is a serious moral duty, then things are worse still.

So I believe that we’ll soon seen some countries introduce laws and digital institutions that will aim to preserve the memory and dignity of the dead. These might be nothing more than mandates to companies about how they should behave in relation to the data created by dead people, but I can imagine some governments choosing to establish perpetually public funded institutions that actually store and share the materials relating to the deceased.

2. Identity Providers

John R. Seymour from the US National Archives

Most countries are a lot less troubled by the notion of national identity systems than the US and the UK. Identity cards and identity numbers are part of the historical cultural baggage of a great many countries.

Simple string-of-digit identities are not exactly state of the art, though, and possess way too much potential for abuse. So I believe we’ll start to see new national identity systems that are reboots of the historic infrastructure, administered by new or radically reinvented public institutions.

Government identity providers will have to adapt to do far more than simply issue digital identity cards. In a world in which Facebook offers an existing, almost ubiquitous, highly popular identity infrastructure, the challenge for governments will be to make state-backed identity systems that play nicely with the existing tools and services, rather than ignoring them. Projects to look at if you’re interested in this are Estonia’s e-residency scheme ,and the UK’s Verify service, both still very much nascent.

3. Privacy Protecting Institutions

In most countries the public will happily endorse digital networks that are highly surveilled by national security organisations, considering it a worthwhile price to pay for reduced terrorism, child abuse and organised crime. This is clearly the current position of strong majorities in the UK the US and France, and many other countries too.

But in a small number of countries and regions, especially those with traumatic national memories of abuses by the secret police, the consensus will probably be different, weighing the value of privacy more heavily and national security much less so. In such places it will rapidly become apparent that the tools and infrastructure built in countries with more pro-security-state views are not providing the protections deemed socially desirable in more traumatised locations. I predict that in a relatively small number of cities, countries and regions politicians will eventually find that they have support to spend public money on technologies that are deemed to be truly privacy protecting. This would be a totally new activity for government, and so new institutions will be needed to deliver the goods, and to assess possibly secure systems in the marketplace.

Such institutions will probably also collaborate with the national firewall authorities (every country either already has one or is going to have one soon) and collaborate with business regulation authorities too. This is because, to achieve the voters’ goals, it will be necessary to impose privacy driven conditions upon foreign digital companies who want to offer their services to customers within local boundaries. One can easily imagine in future that companies like Snapchat or Instagram will face a range of rules they may have to obey if they are to be let through the national firewalls. Setting and negotiating these rules will take staff and facilities that simply don’t exist in most countries, and so new capabilities will have to be developed.

Lastly, for privacy advocates saddened by my prediction here, such new institutions will eventually provide models that could be fully or partially imported in response to the privacy and security related crises which will doubtless plague the mid 21st century.

4. Digital training institutions for leaders and public servants

Political and public service leaders will not be able to make it through the 21st century without having to learn something about digital systems (as dearly as many would love to avoid doing so). This is because digital technologies change what is possible in public policy in a way that is different from traditional government assets like a new bridge or a new missile. With those physical assets it is possible to delegate all the domain knowledge to lower ranking experts, and still make reasonably passable decisions with nothing but the skills of a classic generalist (good writing, common sense etc).

But the affordances of digital technologies affect the nature of what governments can actually do at a deeper level than most physical assets. They open up hard to grasp new policy options (land registration in distributed registers, machine readable regulation, federated identity systems) and they offer an enormous, career-limiting lengths of rope with which unskilled leaders and political parties can hang themselves (see the UK’s famous health IT catastrophe for just one example of many). Many more will before change comes.

Eventually, though, we will start to see governments that have become fifty-times-bitten-and-twice-shy about failed technology projects start to build and fund new kinds of training systems for both elected and un-elected decision makers. These may be new institutes at universities, new units and departments within government itself, or new businesses supported with state funding. Whatever mix emerges, ultimately it will be government that will end up paying, as a way of protecting its own legitimacy to rule.

5. Education Technology Building Organisations

There are already a huge range of education technology companies out there offering a wide range of different teaching tools. And in many countries this will be entirely sufficient for the needs of schools, which will pick and choose from the market.

However, given the political sensitivity of some education topics, for example the question of what is in history textbooks, it seems very likely to me that some governments, perhaps in less liberal countries, will decide that they directly need to take charge of the production of core educational technologies.

The argument that educational content needs to be controlled to limit immoral or threatening ideas will be given a boost by more positive and optimistic arguments citing Big Data. One of the most exciting things about modern education technologies is the possibility of quickly working out where individual students are struggling, customising teaching on the fly to make concepts as easy to grasp as possible, and preventing people from falling permanently through the cracks (Kahn Academy is great at this). This kind of ‘no one left behind’ functionality gets much better and more reliable with bigger sample sizes. So it won’t be long until someone points out that having all the students in a country using the same lessons-and-tests system will produce the most statistically reliable data, and thus enable the most personalised, responsive education. The pitch will be very attractive.

With the addition of moral, historical and linguistic content that is politically sensitive, at least a few politicians will be unable to resist the temptation to establish digital curriculum institutions whose tools are mandatory across schools.

6. Soft power technology producing organisations

By Michael Tan (Walkabout12) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Governments of richer countries have been sending aid to people in poorer countries for a long time. And rich countries also spend a good amount of time trying to make people in other rich countries think they they’re good news (cf the Goethe Institute, the British Academy and so on). Often a big part of this is to generate goodwill amongst either elites or wider populations of target countries so that they are less likely to make decisions the are against the interests of the originating country.

Away from state control, the US government already considers some of its flagship private sector companies as forms of soft power. When people in Tahir square held up signs saying ‘We love Facebook’ this was hardly bad for US-Egypt relations (well, at least with the protestors).

I think it is possible that some countries will decide that they can build and ship digital services that will improve their reputations amongst the people of other countries, especially where those countries are poorer. So, for example, it is not difficult to imagine the launch of a good quality journey planner app for a city with none, branded with USAID’s logo. And if it’s a good app, it’s not hard to imagine it being good for the USAID brand. This form of ‘nice technology as soft power’ will require new capabilities amongst the sponsor countries, and thus possibly new institutions to arrange and deliver the work.

7. Institutions to police quality in software and hardware development

The Man from the Government Calls — W.C Redfield, from the Library of Congress

Most coders will groan at the idea of government officials reviewing their work, demanding proof of their qualifications, and revoking licenses to a field of employment which currently requires none. It’s more or less the diametric opposite of the (now rather quaint) Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.

However given that virtually all rich countries regulate virtually all highly skilled, highly powerful professions, it seems inevitable that this will happen in time. One trigger for what currently looks like impossible regulation could be a series of large scale security breaches that cost an economy a lot of money. Or it could just come from coordinated lobbying from lawyers, accountants and doctors growing frustrated that their highly-skilled peers have escaped regulation that binds them.

HatTip — this idea is only in my list thanks to Francis Irving’s own great thoughts in this area.

What are your predictions for new public digital institutions?

My primary goal in publishing this piece is to solicit your own ideas about what sorts of institutions might start to emerge, whether in your country or any other. And because the future here but not yet evenly distributed, I’m keen to hear about where such new public digital institutions have already emerged and I’m just not aware of them. If you’ve heard anything, please do tell!

I have no doubt that I’m probably wrong about at least half the ideas on this list, but that’s OK. My goal is to encourage discussion and advocacy about the sorts of new digital institutions people would like to see, and discussing and campaigning about those that they’d rather avoid. And if I get enough plausible sounding ideas I might well write a part three, giving you all shoutouts along the way.