Making IT Good for Society — Reflections

There is a poignant scene toward the end of the first series of Graham Linehan’s 2006 sitcom The IT Crowd, when the show’s eponymous geeks are ordered to emerge from their basement and make an appearance on one of the company’s upper floors. There, a celebration is underway of the company’s newly ten-fold increased productivity, all because of the increased connectivity of its computer systems. The IT crowd listens while the manager praises the lawyers, the accountants…and the toilet cleaners who have made all this computer stuff happen. The IT crowd turn and head for the lifts. “They do this every time,” says Roy, frustrated. “They never remember us,” Moss agrees in disgust.

The IT Crowd’s socially inept male techies, the outgoing BCS (The Royal Chartered Institute for IT formerly British Computer Society) president, Jos Creese, reminded his members in an excellent speech in early March, is the image the vast majority of the public still has of people in IT, even though they are transforming all aspects of society and have created the world’s best-known and most powerful companies, passing such giants as Pfizer and Exxon-Mobil. It is time, he said, for BCS members to transform how they see themselves — and how others see them and the rest of Britain’s 1.5 million-plus IT workers. There is no other way to fill the skills shortage IT now faces: young people and, especially, women, are under-represented. Creese hopes for transformation, not just more recruitment; he hopes to see the BCS regroup around its core social purpose of making IT good for everyone.

Critically we are seeing more and more women in leadership roles driving transformation of public services and large organisations, many leading in issues such as privacy, identity, customer service as well as addressing complex social challenges where IT can play a transformative role. We have heard about global names such as, Meg Whitman at HP, Marissa Mayer at Yahoo, and Virginia Rometty at IBM, but we also have people like Janet Hughes at GDS leading on GOV.UK Verify, Kasey Chappelle who joined American Express, last year, as Global Privacy Officer and Director of Commercial Compliance. Kasey spent over 5 years at Vodafone as Global Privacy Council motivating and encouraging a new approach to personal data within the organisation. We have Martha Lane Fox seeking to DotEveryone by raising awareness of the value of internet technologies for British Society and of course Helen Milner at the Tinder Foundation, seeking to make good things happen with digital technology. We have Liz Coll at Citizens Advice working tirelessly to understand the relationship people have with their own personal data and how it is being used by organisations. We also have the leadership team at the Market Research Society and Fair Data trust mark, Jane Frost and Debrah Harding, promoting ethical principles around the use of personal data. We now see the preferred candidate for appointment as the next Information Commissioner is Elizabeth Denham coming from Canada, the home of privacy by design.

To accomplish all this, to really make IT good for everyone, Creese argued that the IT profession must become more than building IT solutions and fixing them when they break. He is absolutely right; and yet his discussion leaves a gap. The powerful companies he mentioned, for example, have become wealthy by capturing and monetising human behaviour. Part of the reason IT does not attract women and young people is the way the IT function is expressed: often, the desire to build a better world through IT is turned by the demands of business models into creating systems that solve trivial problems or manipulate people into providing large amounts of personal data that become products in themselves — or both. As 29-year-old Jeff Hammerbacher told Business Week back in 2011, by way of explaining why he had left Facebook to found Cloudera, a start-up aimed at analysing large piles of data to help find medical treatments, “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads. That sucks.”

In recent years, programming has become marginalised. Instead, the explosion is in data, the optimisation of experience, and connections — between machines, not people. All of that is currently the “sexy” end of IT. There is of course some governance, such as the ISO and Carnegie-Mellon’s Capability Maturity Models, but all these efforts stop below the “why”. As top companies are fighting with each other to amass and market the largest pile of personal data in human history, IT people have become the soldiers just following orders. IT needs to be good for society; to make that happen IT people must be prepared to challenge the layer that historically they have typically merely implemented. Ethics must become part of the IT curriculum; so must privacy by design. We must build the connections between what IT does and the role of the people who work on it. If they do not understand the “why”, they won’t be invested and motivated. People need a sense of mission and purpose.

At almost every meeting I attend, in my role at Mydex, the talk is about identity, data and attribute exchange, I find myself with people all too often focused on monetisation and accessing more data for less money, whilst ensuring they are legally covered. Their organisations’ strategy statements clearly state “we are 100% customer focused”, “we start with user needs” and their own customer feedback clamours for reduced effort and simpler processes. Yet there seems to be a disconnect here between stated aims and what gets the focus.

I believe that when organisations begin to engage in personal data more deeply, either as a relying party or by making the data they hold available as an attribute provider, it simply won’t work unless it is about more than increasing revenue; 80% of the long term sustainable benefit is not about selling data. It is about reducing friction in customer transactions, reducing the effort in customer journeys, reducing risk and back office costs in data filled into forms, legal compliance, and being better able to anticipate and respond to people’s needs. This reduction in cost, effort and risk leads to improved satisfaction, increased, trust, loyalty and proactive recommendation and promotion of those organisations and services that achieve these outcomes. This in turn drives growth.

The people writing the code must understand human rights and the disastrous consequences that can befall individuals; as J. Robert Oppenheimer said, just because you can do a thing, doesn’t mean you should. Electricians are not allowed to deliberately wire a building so that it bursts into flames and they must be educated to a standard that ensures they don’t; yet IT people who can write the lines of code that expose all your data to the world don’t know whether their work will cause harm and they have no mechanism for checking. There is no verb in programming that says, “Why?” or “Is this legal?”.

As Creese said, IT has not marketed itself well as a profession; the rampant success of the industry over the last few decades has left IT professionals complacent in the idea that people must like and understand IT because everyone uses it. But more than that, if IT people are limited to thinking about writing tight, efficient code, and they are never asked to understand why, then “making IT good for society” will never happen.

Creese and the BCS have adopted the right trajectory. We all have the chance in our daily lives to set expectations, to ask more from those that serve us. Technology is no longer just ‘IT’, it is being woven in the fabric of humanity; right now, we have the responsibility and opportunity to recognise this, to embrace human and ethical values, to do it right. I designed the Mydex Platform to embody these core principles; that’s why I and they are glad to be supporting the BCS Challenge Series.