BBWF 2018: Open data is the key to nailing smart cities

In an entertaining session at Broadband World Forum, a common theme emerged; open data, which is a key component of any successful smart city programme.

The format was an interesting one. Four smart cities were given seven minutes to explain their proposition, and then three minutes to answer questions. Featured were Milan, Athens, Helsinki and Amsterdam, though thanks to your correspondent getting lost on the show floor, the Amsterdam pitch was missed and will not get the attention it deserves. That said, the common theme throughout was open data.

Starting in Milan, data is being used to create a hub of intrigue for start-ups. There isn’t necessarily a focus on segment or vertical, more a top-line ambition to create jobs and value for the economy. As part of the initiative, more than 300 data sets have been made available for citizens and businesses to create new applications and services. Looking at the numbers, the scheme should be deemed a success.

There are currently 1600 start-ups based in the city, out of the total of roughly 8000 across the whole of Italy. 10,000 people are directly employed (or own) start-ups, 80% of which survive the first two years of operation, the most dangerous time for any business. These are certainly promising numbers.

In Helsinki the message is the same. The Mayor has an ambition to create the world’s ‘most functional city’ through digital, with tourism a key factor. Part of this story is opening data up to the community and local businesses to create value.

Finally, over in Athens, open data has been used in a different way. Thanks to financial difficulties in Greece, governments are not trusted. This makes it incredibly difficult to launch new schemes, though by opening up data to the general public and businesses, Konstantinos Champidis, the Chief Digital Officer for Athens, said the team are regaining credibility. The aim here is not only to try and help those citizens create something new, but develop a culture of transparency to regain the trust.

Trust is a key element in these smart cities strategies, as while open data does fuel innovation, the data has to be sourced in the first place. Should citizens not be open to having information about them or their activities collecting and analysed, the whole concept of the data economy runs dry.

We’re sure the presentation from the city of Amsterdam was equally as interesting as the three we saw, but the theme was plainly clear here; open data is a critical component of the smart cities mix.

Connected speakers could refresh smart home euphoria

Enthusiasm for connected devices is on the rise, but it’s taking the buzz away from smart appliances and the smart home category on the whole.

According to research from GfK, products which are geared towards improving connectivity and entertainment are gaining traction in the market, though this is replacing the appetite for smart home appliances which are geared towards efficiency and functionality.

“Take-up of smart home products in the UK continues to rise, with interactive speakers the hot product of the last year,” said Trevor Godman, Divisional Director at GfK. “In contrast however, the level of consumer excitement about smart home as a category has lost momentum somewhat – particularly for smart appliances and smart health products.  As smart home pivots to the mass market, it is essential that manufacturers look at what is holding consumers back and communicate compelling benefits that capture consumers’ imaginations.”

While Godman is taking a rather negative approach to the trends, we do not see it in the same light. The idea of the smart home, and various devices in the kitchen or around the house being connected and programmable is not a new idea. The smart fridge or connected light bulbs have been around for years without stimulating enough momentum for the segment to really take off. A creative spark was needed to engage consumers and offer an attractive proposition, unfortunately, smart energy readers do not offer this. Smart speakers and TVs do however.

For the mass market to embrace new ideas, there needs to be genuine excitement. Being able to switch the light in the living off with your smartphone might be functional and useful occasionally, but the smart speakers capture the imagination of the consumer. These are products consumers would actually want to buy, instead of a central heating system which reacts to the weather outside.

According to the research, the UK smart home market was worth £900 million in 2017, making it the second largest market in Europe. It has also become the fastest growing, increasing by 19% in value from 2016 and 35% by volume. There are now 336 brands offering 3,777 smart home products, while 85% of the UK’s online population now own at least one smart product, and the number owning four or more has grown from 35% last year to 44% this year. The fastest growing segment is smart speakers, though this does seem to be at the expense of other categories.

Manufacturers of smart cookers or connected mirrors might look at these statistics and worry, though GfK suggests consumers who plan to buy a smart device or appliance in the future have their sights set on a wide range of products. The smart home might have failed to deliver over the last couple of years, though the accessibility and entertainment value of smart speakers does seem to open up consumers to new purchases.

The purchase of smart home devices might not be growing across the board, but that isn’t necessarily awful for those who have their eyes on the long-game. Smart speakers are normalising the idea of the connected economy. Once the basic concept has been accepted by the mass market, the opportunity to sell becomes significantly easier as value is more readily realised and accessible.

Philips might preach about the benefits of a smart central heating system, but the frivolous purchases were needed to normalise the segment first. The smartphone ecosystem didn’t explode overnight, there were years of adoption as the touch user interface become second-nature, the same could be said here. Frivolous purchasing is needed before the connected bug can spread throughout the home.

Smart speakers starting to drive next era of digital

Years usually pass before the world realises a technology breakthrough actually happened and it catches on; the voice user interface might just have arrived at that watershed moment.

The fantastic breakthrough of touchscreen mobile phones is often attributed to Apple, though if you go back to 1992 IBM unveiled a phone called Simon which featured the first touchscreen. Apple didn’t invent the concept of touch screens, it simply innovated, making the iPhone a genuine smartphone as opposed to a PDA. This might seem like an odd introduction, but the same trend is emerging in the smart speaker world.

Amazon and Google did not invent the concept of the voice user interface, they simply used their brands to effect change and offer a product which was dutifully adopted by the masses which call themselves fans. In releasing their own smart speakers, the two internet giants did what other companies couldn’t; they normalised the voice user interface.

According to Nielsen’s MediaTech Trender survey, the smart speaker has penetrated the mass market and is normalising the concept of the smart home, as well as the idea of your voice being the control function. Across the US, 40% of homes now own at least one smart home device, with 24% owning a smart speaker, up from 22% in the previous quarter. Of those who currently own a smart home device, 65% plan to purchase more. Looking at the speakers themselves, usage is up, the average user interacts with the device for 72 minutes on the weekend and 65 minutes during the week, while 81% of users report using voice-command searches for real-time information, such as weather and traffic conditions, during a typical week. The more normal it becomes to use your voice in the home, the more acceptable it becomes elsewhere in the world.

Another interesting statistic from the report are the services synced to the speakers. Music streaming services are unsurprisingly the most popular, 53%, while the second most popular is shopping apps at 52%. With the user seemingly becoming accustomed to ordering goods through the smart speaker, there are a horde of new opportunities emerging, from grocery shopping to on-demand purchases linked to advertisements.

Finally, the most device synced to the smart speakers is the smartphone. This might seems like a very obvious statement, though only 32% of the respondents have linked their smartphone to the device. This is a small percentage of what is possible, though the potential to learn more about these individuals who have synced their devices is quite exciting. The virtual assistant is no-longer limited to the users home and can start to learn about habits in the big, wide world. This offers a much more in-depth opportunity to create valuable, personalised services.

As it stands, the smart speaker is little more than an entertainment product. 90% of users listen to music on the devices, 81% search for real-time information such as the weather, 68% listen to the news and 68% use it for alarms or timers. However, these devices are introducing new concepts and features which are gradually becoming accepted and normalised by the user. The voice user interface is an incredibly important one.

Just like the touch interface opened up new opportunities to make money, the voice interface will do the same. But this is a while down the road, mass adoption of both new devices and the normalisation of new concepts need to take place first. New ideas open the mind up to even more new ideas, including services and products, as well as blurring the lines of what would be considered intrusive or unacceptable. The smart speaker is playing a critical role here.

Google attempts damage control on privacy regulations

Google has unveiled its ideas on the regulatory framework of tomorrow in what looks like an attempt to influence legislation and restrict the long-arm of government intervention.

On the whole, the internet players of Silicon Valley have largely been left to do what they want. This is not to say there are no regulations or consumer protections, but the breadth and depth of regulatory red-tape is no-where near the same scale as the telco industry. In airing its ideas on what the regulatory environment of the data economy should look like, Google is seemingly trying to maintain this status quo.

“Today, we’re sharing our view on the requirements, scope, and enforcement expectations that should be reflected in all responsible data protection laws,” said Keith Enright, Chief Privacy Officer at Google. “This framework is based on established privacy frameworks, as well as our experience providing services that rely on personal data and our work to comply with evolving data protection laws around the world.”

The three page document, which you can see here, is largely what you would expect from one of the internet players. Commitments to collect data responsibly, transparency for the user, limitations on collection and usage, offering control to the user, accountability of third-parties and interoperability are all aspects, but this is not what the helpful commentary is about. This is not about protecting the user, it is about Silicon Valley maintaining control of its own destiny.

With the US Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration evaluating new legislation, the Senate about to start grilling tech executives and the White House preparing meetings with industry, the future is clear. The US Government intends to take a firmer grasp of activities in Silicon Valley, offering a more stringent rulebook and more protections to the consumer. This is not good news for the internet players.

To date, the internet players have made fortunes in the grey areas. There are more freedoms to use personal information and create advertising solutions as these are organizations which have slipped between the regulatory cracks. They have resisted the same rules as telcos, much to the frustration of the traditional communications industry, though this is not necessarily a bad thing. These are different types of businesses, applying the same rules as telcos is the square-peg-round-hole situation. These are businesses which are creating new services and innovating with data in ways some could not imagine, and need the flexibility to do so. That said, they should still be held accountable to regulation.

In releasing its ideas, Google is seemingly practising its own version of damage control. If new rules are on the horizon they’ll need to be influenced. A number of these practises are already in place at Google, meaning the business can continue to generate billions without a huge disruption to operations. That cannot be said its neighbours in Silicon Valley, but this is of little concern to the Do-No-Evilers.

Another interesting aspect to this announcement is perception. The industry has been hit hard by privacy scandals over the last few months, the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica saga is the biggest example, though Google has been collecting location data on users who have opted-out; it is far from innocent. In making these suggestions public, Google is putting a friendly face back onto the brand; its helping with the data privacy issue, not compounding it, will be the PR message here.

While this perception of helpfulness will help with its consumer reputation, it will also aid its grilling from the Senate. Enright is one of several executives who have been summoned to testify in front of several politicians to discuss how social media companies work and data privacy is secured. In demonstrating proactive enthusiasm prior to the grilling it might gain some much needed favour after Google left its chair empty during the Senate Intelligence Committee testimony.

The wild-west internet is slowly being swallowed up by the steady progress of regulation. The rules will never get in front of technological advancements, but to protect its billions, Google and its Silicon Valley neighbours will have to put on big smiles to influence rule makers.

It turns out regulating the data economy is really hard

New data regulations may well define the economy and society over the next few decades, and they are still far from perfect. But before you get too critical, you have to realise just how complicated this thankless job can actually be.

An interesting question to ask is whether privacy should be a right protected at all cost by regulations, or should rules makers allow the user to trade his/her privacy for benefits? This is the foundation of some information businesses, Facebook is a good example, as targeted advertisements allow for the delivery of free services. On a more simplistic level, free TV channels such as ITV having been doing this for years without the hyper-targeted platform.

If data is the oil of the 21st century, rule makers need to figure out how personal information can be used without inhibiting privacy.

“You have to remember it is a very tricky balance to strike,” said Jocelyn Paulley, Director at law firm Gowling WLG. “On the one hand regulators do want to take a flexible approach which allows for innovation, but they do also have the responsibility to create rules which protect the right to privacy, it is a human right after all.”

Privacy InfographicAs Paulley points out, it’s a little bit more complicated than simply just writing down rules and punishments. The issues arise when you try and predict the future. There are so many different paths technologists and innovators are heading down, how do you possibly write iterations for all the different possible outcomes. Regulators certainly don’t have the man-power to undertake such tasks, and they most likely don’t have the competence either.

Today’s approach is about applying flexibility in the rules, while also listening to the community about what developments are likely to emerge in the future. While this leaves grey areas, Paulley highlights there is little choice at the moment. The breadth of developments in the technology world means almost theoretical laws are written, before being applied into specific use cases. Interpretation does create complications, though the last thing regulators want to be (despite doing an excellent impression at times) is a speed bump to progress; sometimes the grey areas just have to be accepted as the lesser of two evils.

“Part of the complications in the UK are that we are a common law society, not a constitutional one,” said Paulley. “At European level, GDPR has been written to allow for future developments and for member states to localise some rules.”

Will this allow for privacy to be treated as a commodity? Perhaps, but more needs to be done to educate the consumer.

This is perhaps the most touchy aspect of data privacy. Regulators might well be open to the idea of users trading their privacy for benefits, but rules are there to make sure consumers are not abused for their ignorance. Understanding the data economy is incredibly difficult, made more thorny by the complexities of terms and conditions. Technology companies muddy the waters intentionally, therefore regulators cannot offer too much flexibility otherwise the protections are not there for the consumer.

If you were to ask the consumer today whether they would trade privacy for free services, they would probably say no until you start laying out the bill. £10 for Facebook, £2 a month for Google, no free Spotify, 50p for the Evening Standard each commute, £2.50 for every game you download on your smartphone, £50 a year for email and cloud storage, 1p a message and 10p a minute for calls on WhatsApp. It starts to add up and suddenly trading privacy becomes an attractive option, but consumers lack an understanding of the mechanics of the digital economy.

Part of the European Commission’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is geared at creating a greater level of transparency. With the Cambridge Analytica scandal, part of the reason the consequences were so great for Facebook was due to a lack of transparency. Data science has advanced at a remarkable rate over the last few years, especially when it comes to targeted advertising platforms, but Facebook hadn’t taken the user on the journey with them, explaining how personal information was being used. When the curtain was pulled back, the sight of CEO Mark Zuckerberg manically pulling levers on the big data machine while frantically shouting “Senator, we sell ads” shocked the general public.

Facebook Data

By forcing technology companies to collect opt-in from consumers, regulators are also ensuring the consumer receives an education on what it actually means. Companies now have to explicitly state what personal data will actually be used for. Paulley highlighted the hope here is by becoming more transparent, the consumer will trust these companies more, therefore fuelling the data economy. However, there is a risk once the users understand how the machine works they will opt-out of the system. This is perhaps one of the reason companies have not been so forthcoming with the dark arts of data science; the fear of a negative reaction.

This fear has now become a reality at Facebook. By concealing the dark arts of data science, the trust was broken. Facebook had advanced data science so much without taking the consumer on the same journey, the reality of progress was scary. Campaigns such as # DeleteFacebook on Twitter emerged making the consequences of privacy failure very real. Perhaps this was a watershed moment which will ensure companies do not resist the rules and promote transparency themselves; when you are caught out (and it always happens eventually) the consequences are just as bad, if not worse.

GDPR has some promising areas, but there aspects, such as criminal screening in recruitment, which need more clarity in the future. Flexibility is required to promote innovation, but rigidity to safe guard the consumer. Regulators haven’t gotten it right so far, but that isn’t entirely unexpected. Writing rules for the data economy is unchartered territory, and it’s very complicated.

Infographic: Is privacy a right or a commodity?

With the digital economy leaning more heavily on user openness and sharing personal information, you have to ask how privacy should be regulated.

On one had you have those who want to protect privacy at all costs. That is perfectly reasonable, but it does make it difficult for certain aspects of the digital economy to work effectively. Most publications, for example, now offer free content to the user but the value exchange is personal information which can be used to create advertising platforms.

In pushing for hardcore privacy protections in regulation and legislation, you have to wonder whether this business model could operate effectively. GDPR has caused all sorts of issues for some organizations, and this is only the tip of privacy reforms.

If you asked the consumer to pay instead of offer information as a value exchange, they might not be too happy. Free has become the norm nowadays. So is regulating to stringently protect privacy the right thing to do when the consumer might be happy to trade privacy for benefits?

We do not know the answer to this question, so we asked Telecoms.com readers for their input.

Privacy Infographic

US telcos back down from data sharing following Senator finger pointing

The very public investigations by Senator Ron Wyden of Oregan have seemingly forced US telcos to back out of location-sharing partnerships with data brokers as privacy policies of the world’s largest companies continues to be questioned.

The practice itself surrounds the selling of geo-location data from the telcos customers onto third parties, who in turn aggregate the data before reselling onto other organizations. While the concept of selling personal data, whether it is location, interests or professional information, is relatively common throughout the digital economy, the cloak and dagger means of conducting business here is starting to face greater levels of scrutiny.

The consumer facing platforms or businesses collecting the information in the first place have never been entirely honest with the user, meaning every revelation is treated as a scandal. As a result of the Senators investigation, Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile have all agreed to curb the practice (but not stop it), but, as is becoming common place, honesty and apologies only come after being caught. The level of deception is starting to become quite remarkable, and it does make you question what other skeletons are being hidden in the closet.

“After my investigation and follow-up reports revealed that middlemen are selling Americans’ location to the highest bidder without their consent, or making it available on insecure web portals, Verizon did the responsible thing and promptly announced it was cutting these companies off,” said Wyden. “In contrast, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint seem content to continue to sell their customers’ private information to these shady middle men, Americans’ privacy be damned.”

While this might seem like a victory for the Senator, it should be worth noting the telcos have provided suitable wiggle room to continue selling the data. The dodgy brokers in question look to have been barred from working with the telcos, but this is by no means the end of the story, it is after all an opportunity to make money; no principle is too great or sacred to trump the potential of making money.

Verizon has stated it would continue to sell data to companies that would use it in-house, highlighting fraud detection or customer identification as examples (it is doing it to help the user after all), Sprint highlighted the good work it has done as well, while AT&T has said it believes there are no other example of unauthorized use of customer data. In its response to the Senator, T-Mobile said:

“The program provides our customers with valuable location-based services. Although the program is relatively small, it delivers numerous societal and consumer benefits, including through services like roadside assistance, medical emergency alert services, and bank fraud prevention. Because other national carriers provide similar programs, these valuable services are available to the vast majority of U.S. mobile wireless consumers.”

T-Mobile also confirmed it would tighten up the procedures to make sure the data is being used ethically, responsibly and legally, however the messages all seem to be the same; we’re not doing this to make money for ourselves, it is for the benefit of the consumer.

Privacy is a big question being asked by both consumers and politicians right now, and it would not surprise us if this is just the tip of the iceberg. Several companies have been caught out for bad practice or misleading practices, but we suspect there might be a bigger scandal out there, hiding in the dark corners of the web.

AI will double size of digital economy to $23 trillion – Huawei

Huawei has released its Global Connectivity Index 2018 with the team claiming artificial intelligence will provide the necessarily catalyst to almost double the value of the digital economy to $23 trillion by 2025, but only if IoT is embraced.

Almost every technology company on the planet is attempting to leech onto the remarkable traction AI is continuing to get, though the realities of the technologies and the business models it enables are by no means guaranteed. Huawei has pointed towards a worldwide shortage of skills to capitalise on the potential, though new data regulations, such as GDPR and e-Privacy, might have a negative impact on developments as restraints would be placed on how information can be collected and used.

“We are now witnessing a paradigm shift initiated by AI,” said Kevin Zhang, President of Huawei Corporate Marketing. “According to the GCI study, advanced economies that saw growth from ICT development plateau are using Intelligent Connectivity to open new opportunities, while some developing economies are also finding ways to tap the new technology to speed up their own strategic growth plans.”

While this all sounds very encouraging, according to the data there is still a substantial amount of work which needs to be done. Intelligence in the digital economy can be realised following the delivery and adoption of IoT. ‘Digital labels’ will be assigned to all people, things, and devices, gaining the ability to sense through the power of data. This insight and intelligence will drive the adoption of new business models and the creation of new services, though Huawei only marked the UK 3/10 when it comes to investment in IoT, which is above the global average but not necessarily the most flattering of judgements.

This might sound very doom and gloom, it would appear Huawei does not hold many countries in high esteem when it comes to the investment and progress shown in IoT. The US only scored 4/10, Germany received 3/10 and Sweden, recognised as one of the more advanced digital economies to date, was marked 4/10.

Although the adoption of connected devices is on the low-side as it stands, Huawei clearly believes there will be a turning point in the near future. By 2025, the team believes each person will own five smart devices on average and 20% of people will own 10 or more. At the same time, there will be more than 20 billion smart home devices which will become a natural extension of the sensing of individuals and homes. Looking at the more general connectivity trends, the forecast for the total number of connected devices is 100 billion, with 77% of the world’s population being able to access the internet, with 70% having access to gigabit mobile networks. During the same period access to broadband will reach 75% of homes, of which 30% will have access to gigabit broadband.

All of these numbers are necessary for the development of the intelligent, data-driven economy, though you have to wonder how realistic they are. By 2025, gigabit speeds on mobile is certainly feasible, though we wonder how widespread this milestone will actually be. The power of AI and data-driven business models is un-questionable, though you have to wonder how much of an impact the likes of GDPR and the up-coming e-Privacy regulation will have. Optimists are saying nothing, doom-dayers are looking for new jobs already, but it is almost impossible to say right now.

The power of AI-driven solutions should not be questioned, it could be the difference between an organization being the next Google or Yahoo, but such forecasts should be taken with a pinch of salt. There are a lot of moving parts, all of which are powered by investment and confidence, and all of which have a possibility of going wrong. For such forecasts to become true, the telcos, which will act as the foundation of the digital economy, have to demonstrate a more bullish attitude towards the roll-out of future-proofed networks. Digital intelligence is almost entirely reliant on connectivity, which is staggering forward.

Industry reacts as Europe tries to tame the Wild Wild Web

For years it has been more accurate to describe the digital landscape as a lawless frontier than a bountiful, connected economy, but while Europe attempts to tame the beast, industry is hitting back.

The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) deadline might have passed in the midst of a flurry of emails attempting to re-qualify leads for continued spam, but the communications industry isn’t taking time to lick its wounds. Next on the agenda to ensure privacy and data protection standards and rights are maintained in the bloc is the e-Privacy regulation, implementation targeted for 2019, and the lobbyists are hitting the bureaucrats hard already. The argument here is a simple one; rules kill innovation. It is hard to argue this point; without rules imagine what could be done, but what would be the cost? Rules in place for a reason, and one of those reasons is when money is concerned, people cannot always be trusted.

The e-Privacy regulation, which was initially intended to be released in conjunction with GDPR, hopes to add further clarity to a number of principles of GDPR and while also enhancing protections to consumers. While GDPR was created to enshrine Article 8 of the European Charter of Human Rights in terms of protecting personal data, ePR will focus on Article 7 in respect to a person’s private life.

The communications industry might not be happy with the changes to regulations, warning there would be a cost to growth and innovation, but in truth these organizations have been operating in a lawless economy, where the consumer had few protections. These companies have been taking advantage of the fact regulators were struggling to keep up with the evolution of the communications space; realistically these rules should have been in place for years, but such is life and the realities of the public sector.

On the more dramatic side, you can have a look at the video below:

Like A Bad Movie – App-ocalypse from Like A Bad Movie on Vimeo.

This video was brought to the world through a coalition of associations using the tagline #LikeaBadMovie. It is PR at its most stereotypical; a loose grasp on the facts, exaggerated, melodramatic, theatrical and over-the-top. Who should we be thanking for such a production? Interactive Advertising Bureau Europe, World Federation of Advertisers, European Association of Communications Agencies and Association of Commercial Television in Europe, amongst others. As you can imagine, these organizations are funded by the companies who have been benefitting from the lawless digital landscape, such as Microsoft, Verizon, Google, Amazon and Snap.

e-Privacy regulation is the new battlefront for these organizations as they seemingly lost out when it came to GDPR. Using Transparency International’s Integrity Watch tracker, we the last couple of weeks have been littered with meetings between the most influential figures in the European Commission and lobbyists representing some of the worlds’ largest communications companies. Specific content of the meetings does not have to be declared, there is likely to be some commercially sensitive information, but just using the search function with keywords such as e-Privacy, GDPR and Electronic Communication Code a series of meetings are uncovered. Some of the most active lobbyists include the likes of Facebook Ireland, ETNO, Microsoft, Google, Symantec and Deutsche Telekom.

We still might be trying to dig through the horde of GDPR emails, the legal (and financial) backlash of non-compliance might still on the horizon and we still don’t quite know how these rules will impact innovation, but the industry is not sticking around. GDPR was yesterday’s problem, e-Privacy is the next regulation for the industry to try and derail.