I count myself as a child of the first digital revolution. My grandfather, a retired engineer, was fascinated by emerging computer technology in the 1970s and introduced me to binary systems, programmable calculators and early home computers such as the ZX81.
In 1981, before going to university, I worked for GEC’s research lab, writing code for a computer the size of a room to simulate the effect of sending digital signals down fibre optic cables. I was paid in cash each Friday and had to sprint to the bank to pay my earnings in before it closed at 3.30 for the weekend.
Now, 35 years on, our world is unrecognisable. I am, I admit it, utterly dependent on my smartphone. The phone part is entirely subordinate to a range of other functions, from travel planning, to tweeting, to paying for stuff (no more sprints to the bank!). In pretty much every part of government services, we have moved away from paper forms to online as the default route – while recognising that we mustn’t exclude those who don’t have access to reliable internet.
Back at GEC in 1981, we had no idea where my fibre optic simulations, or a colleague’s early work on voice recognition, would take us. But we were laying the foundations on which today’s everyday experiences are built. That’s quite a thought, as we stand on the brink of another revolution. Profound shifts in how we gather, analyse and use data are underpinning advances in forecasting, manufacturing and monitoring.
Conservation, food protection, farming and all the other sectors that Defra deals with are huge generators and users of data, and there are many examples of how data is transforming our work. Drones monitoring flood defences. Satellite mapping that helps restore ancient river courses. Sequencing equipment that can tell us whether newts have been in a pond without the need for lengthy surveys.
My heart is lifted by the opportunities I encounter that improve people’s lives by supporting productivity and the environment. Precision farming, using data to determine where fertilisers should be applied or to target pesticide on individual blades of wheat, saves money and reduces the risk that run-off from fields will pollute our rivers. That’s a real win-win.
But technological advance doesn't just happen. It needs people with the right abilities and attitudes to come together. It needs 'imagineers', people who can imagine things beyond the boundaries of current knowledge, and keep trying until they find out whether they are possible or not. It needs early adopters who are prepared to take a risk, to invest or to go out on a limb when others want concrete evidence of benefits. And it needs other people, too.
People to see opportunities and make connections. People to set frameworks so that innovation happens within publicly acceptable bounds. People who can anticipate and prepare for the consequences of technological advance, including the human impact on jobs and skills. And people to create an environment of open collaboration where all these things can thrive.
Technology really is all about the people.
Comment by Paul posted on
Over at HMRC we have the same issue Bill. Our losses to IT at the moment are rather bad. I'm a fan of computers, and like Clare have been since my dad brought home an ZX81.
We were told the other year we would have IT at work that was better than what we have at home. At home it does not take my PC over five minutes to open a spreadsheet, nor do I have to re-boot it several times a day to fix issues.
We have all these new systems coming in, they all need a network connection, yet when people are logging on en-mass in the morning the whole system grinds to a halt. I appreciate we are trying to get with the times, but please put the infrastructure in place first to support this increased use. Not to mention that we are now getting training courses via web videos...
Comment by Bill posted on
Please, do us all a favour, and forget the high flying headline grabbing stuff, and actually give the people that work for you decent IT that does the job it is meant to, first time, not with known issues from the start, and a support network for when things do go wrong that makes a chocolate look like the most useful invention of all time.
Welcome to life at DWP.