A hefty £1bn has been earmarked by the government to fund new technology for the NHS over the next five years in order to make the massive healthcare organisation become more efficient and hit its target of £22bn in efficiency savings.
While £1bn is not a small amount of money, it is not, relatively speaking, a huge sum either when it comes to rolling out technology across an organisation that employs over a million people.
So health secretary Jeremy Hunt has commissioned former UK digital champion and all-round technology advocate Baroness Martha Lane Fox to come up with ways in which the NHS can use digital technology and services to ensure the investment is put to good to use.
"In the network age, universality, equity and quality must be at the very centre of how we build, adopt and scale new technologies in health. No one must be left behind," said Lane Fox.
With the concept of digital inclusion, whereby people have universal access to the services and benefits of new technology, at the top of the agenda, Fox came up with four main recommendations for the National Information Board.
The first is to ensure those with the most pressing health and social needs are prioritised when it comes to creating and introducing new digital tools across the NHS; given the diversity of ailments the healthcare organisation treats, this is not likely to be the most simple of tasks.
The second point is much more straightforward: the provision of free Wi-Fi in every NHS building. Of course, the NHS is the largest public healthcare organisation in the world, so that means implementing and rolling out free Wi-Fi access to a lot of buildings.
Lane Fox followed that with the recommendation that NHS staff are trained in basic digital skills to ensure that they can support patients' use of digital services.
Finally, the Baroness recommended that 10 percent of registered patients in each GP practice should be capable of using a digital service such as online appointment booking, repeat prescriptions and accessing their records by 2017.
Hitting this target shouldn't be too difficult given that people are becoming increasingly tech-savvy. However, the people who lean on the NHS the most tend to be of advanced age and have little or no digital skills, so it's vital that the NHS can still serve users through non-digital means.
The government noted that the National Information Board is currently considering Fox's recommendations.
A technology overhaul can bring significant benefits for hospitals, as seen with the £200m IT transformation of Cambridge University Hospital with the help of HP.
Libraries are often an overlooked part of society, but when you think about it they're pretty amazing places: shelves groaning with books ranging from weighty novels to chick-lit that you can just pick up and take away for free. Just make sure you return them on time.
Now, in an effort to increase the free brilliance of libraries, the government is supporting a £7.1m fund so that libraries across England can offer free WiFi.
Libraries without free WiFi will be given priority, while those with WiFi below the recommended specification can apply for funding to upgrade the service.
The fund will be managed by Arts Council England and the goal is to provide a free WiFi service to all English libraries by March 2016.
Culture minister Ed Vaizey welcomed the plan as a vital step in digitising libraries and meeting the demands of modern citizens.
“Ensuring that communities across England have access to free WiFi boosts the digital economy and enables more people to take advantage of everything the internet has to offer,” he said.
“By channelling the support through libraries, we can ensure that this opportunity to become digitally aware is available to the whole community.”
Brian Ashley, director of libraries at Arts Council England, added that it is important to maintain the social inclusion that libraries provide in the digital era.
“Libraries are excellent community hubs that bring people together, and we hope that free WiFi will encourage more people to use and enjoy their local libraries,” he said.
The move comes as part of efforts by the public and private sectors to spread WiFi services as far as possible into all aspects of society, ranging from the London Underground to sports arenas and museums.
Libraries that are given funding will have to avoid getting overzealous with any filters they deploy, though, as the British Library ran into trouble when its filters ended up banning Shakespeare's Hamlet after it ruled the language too "colourful".
Technology played a significant part in the promises made in the Conservative Party manifesto, including the next steps for the superfast broadband rollout, expanded mobile coverage and startup support.
So it is surprising that chancellor George Osborne's Summer Budget lacked any explicit mention of the government's plans for the technology industry and related sectors.
Osbourne focused instead on touting his vision of a working Britain for working people. However, dig a little deeper into the HM Treasury Summer Budget documentation and you'll find that the Budget affects the technology industry more than at first appears.
Osborne did not mention the superfast broadband programme in his speech, but the government will be allocating up to £10m to support its rollout in the South West, slated to start in April 2016.
The fund will require local projects to bid for financial support, and priority will be given to those that aim to deliver ultrafast broadband speeds of 100Mbps.
The government did not say how it will deliver tax reforms for small businesses or bolster the development of startups, but the chancellor mentioned the need to release London's economic grip on the UK and build up business in the north of Britain.
Osbourne championed the concept of the ‘Northern Powerhouse' and other areas outside the capital that are seeing a growth in new businesses. These include Tech North and the growing technology clusters in Bournemouth and Liverpool.
Larger companies, including UK technology firms, can look forward to corporation tax relief as rates will drop from 20 percent to 19 percent in 2017 and to 18 percent in 2020.
Osborne said that "Britain needs to raise its game" when it comes to skills, and that the government will introduce an unspecified apprenticeship levy on large enterprises to create three million apprenticeships for young people.
The UK is home to many large technology enterprises, and it would not be surprising if such corporations were among the first to be required to provide apprenticeships that address the UK's digital skills gap.
The government also appears to be taking a hard line on filling the skills gap, outlining ambitions to push unemployed people under the age of 21 into education or apprenticeships from the first day of their benefits claim.
Downing Street will doubtless expect the technology industry to be a core provider of such apprenticeships and the work opportunities into which it wants to channel young people.
The Budget said that the government will invest £23m in a further six Next Generation Digital Economy Centres in London, Bath, Newcastle, Nottingham, Swansea and York.
The centres will be created with support from regional councils and local small and medium sized businesses.
"These centres will exploit opportunities across sectors of the digital economy, including the creative industries, finance, healthcare and education," the Treasury said.
Overall, the Budget is still relatively slim on technology investments and initiatives. However, more are expected to surface in the government's Productivity Plan led by Treasury minister Lord O'Neill.
In the meantime, the technology industry is left sitting on tenterhooks, waiting for the government to confirm or renege on its manifesto promises.
19 May 2015
As the dust settled after the General Election and a Conservative-led government emerged victorious from the fray, everyone clamoured to air their views on the result.
Political correspondents fired perspectives into newspapers and across the airwaves, while keyboard warriors leaped to social media to chew over the impact that the Tories will have in the next five years.
TechUK, an organisation that offers the viewpoint of some 850 UK-based technology companies, is in a prime position to give an overview of the tech industry's reaction to what many consider a surprise result.
Anthony Walker (pictured), deputy chief executive at TechUK, told V3 that the industry is pleased to see the Tories back in government, particularly with a majority that allows them to shake off the shackles of compromise imposed by sharing power with the Lib Dems.
"Talking to companies across the sector a day after the election, I think there was a sense of positivity about the fact there had been a clear election result," he said.
"We have a government with a majority in place. Also we have a government that clearly understands how business is the driver of growth in the economy, so I think the starting point is definitely a positive one.
"I think we're also seeing a lot of ambition to address some of the issues that the government couldn't address under the coalition government."
These problems include having a clear and unified approach to the data communications bill and an overall broad approach to the way technology is applied in counterterrorism operations.
Consistency was also touted by Walker as one of the positives of having the Tories back in power, as it gives the party the time and scope to deliver on initiatives such as government-as-a-platform introduced with the Lib Dems earlier this year.
"I think the most important thing for the sector is continuity, and I think that from 8 May there been a sense of: ‘Well, OK we're continuing to go forward.' I think there's a sense that if there had been a different result there might have been time for reflection and a different course," he said.
"The government will seek to continue the reforms they put into place. We've seen a lot of continuity which again I think is good. You've got ministers in place who understand their portfolios very well and how technology plays into those portfolios."
The Tories may be seen in a positive light by the technology industry, but with no Lib Dems to hold them back the government has already revived the controversial Snoopers' Charter, which could leave paranoid British citizens feeling a little queasy.
20 Mar 2015
Back in December 2013 when Amazon announced it was going to start trailing the use of drones to provide rapid delivery of certain items a few eyebrows were raised.
Not only was the idea somewhat fanciful but the fact it was announced in the run-up to Christmas and so would gain Amazon plenty of digital column inches was also notable.
However, it appears Amazon wasn't just out to grab headlines and has now secured permission from the Federal Aviation Administration to fly such devices.
Specifically it received an “experimental airworthiness“ for “unmanned aircraft (UAS)” certificate, with some provisos.
“All flight operations must be conducted at 400 feet or below during daylight hours in visual meteorological conditions. The UAS must always remain within visual line-of-sight of the pilot and observer. The pilot actually flying the aircraft must have at least a private pilot’s certificate and current medical certification.”
Amazon must also provide monthly data to the FAA on topics including the number of flights conducted, pilot duty time per flight, unusual hardware or software malfunctions, any deviations from air traffic controllers’ instructions, and any unintended loss of communication links.
“The FAA includes these reporting requirements in all UAS experimental airworthiness certificates,” it added.
Amazon is not the only tech company to take to the skies, with Google and Facebook both donning their flying jackets to test the use of hot air balloons and gliders to deliver the internet to far-flung regions of the globe.
In the UK the rise of drones is causing some concerns among the powers that be, with a House of Lords report suggesting a full database of users and flights should be created to help track their use.
The disparity in powers between the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) and Ofcom has once again been highlighted after the latter was able to fine BT £800,000 for the late launch of a text-to-speech service – far in excess of anything the ICO can issue for data loss incidents.
The ICO can issue fines to a maximum of £500,000 for breaches of the Data Protection Act – breaches that often result in sensitive personal information being lost or stolen, causing huge distress for those concerned.
However, Ofcom – which in 2013 fined TalkTalk £750,000 for some nuisance calls to customers – has been able to issue a far larger fine to BT for the late launch of the Next Generation Text Service (NTGS).
The NTGS helps people with hearing or speech impediments to either type what they want to say and have it relayed to the person on the other end, or, if hard of hearing, to have what someone says to them translated to text to read on screen.
Ofcom issued the fine because BT was five months late in launching the service, putting it live in October, when it was slated for an 18 April launch.
BT explained that the delay was caused by a problem with the sound quality of emergency calls, something that came to light at a late stage of the development process.
Claudio Pollack, Ofcom’s consumer and content group director, said the size of the fine showed how seriously the organisation took this failure.
“The size of the penalty imposed on BT reflects the importance of providing an improved text relay service to its customers with hearing and speech impairments,” he said.
BT must pay the £800,000 penalty to Ofcom, which will then pass it on to HM Treasury.
In a statement BT apologised for the delay but said that since going live it was please to hear positive feedback from users.
“We’re sorry we had to postpone the full launch of the Next Generation Text service. This was because of a safety issue with the quality of emergency calls that could have put users at risk," it said.
"The service has been warmly welcomed by users. Hearing and speech impaired people can now make faster, more fluent phone calls using ordinary smartphones, tablets, laptops and PCs, as well as existing specialised terminals.”
While no one would disagree that providing such a service is important and that BT’s failings warranted some form of reprimand, the scale of the fine when set against the ICO’s powers once again shows the madness of the current data protection regime.
The only hope is that when the new European Data Protection Regulation comes into force – which looks increasingly likely – the proposal for data watchdogs to be able to fine firms a portion of their annual turnover will make it to the statute books.
This should make the financial penalties for data protection breaches far more terrifying to big businesses, making data protection a more important consideration, and giving the ICO the chance to issue fines that will really make people sit up and take notice.
Cloud computing is heralded by many as the future of IT, but it's an occasionally obtuse subject despite the government wanting the public sector to embrace cloud migration.
However, selling cloud services to the public sector, often seen as stuck in the analogue age of paper documents and Windows XP, can be a bit of a challenge even for hardened IT suppliers.
So, in a creative attempt to solve this, the Government Digital Service (GDS) has created three fictional 'government buyers' for cloud vendors to target.
With names as everyday as Gareth Holmes, Patricia Greene and Jess Clarke these are three characters that have been assigned persona-specific ‘buys', ‘hopes' and ‘fears' when it comes to cloud procurement so vendors know how to pitch their products accordingly.
GDS also indicated how evangelical the three are when it comes to technology, procurement processes and desired outcomes.
I just don't want to get into trouble
First up is Gareth, a tech architect working for the government. Gareth is a cloud buyer who has good technical knowledge but needs a helping hand with procurement, according to Mark Branigan, a researcher at the Cabinet Office and Gov.uk blogger.
"Gareth wants a straightforward process he can follow which will reassure him that he's following the right procurement steps," he said.
Poor Gareth is made out to be a bit of a feckless coward, desiring "short and convenient processes" and shunning anything that requires innovative thinking and investment in time.
Still, he's noted for his rock climbing and love of the great outdoors, so perhaps he's simply wasted in the stuffy confines of government IT.
Two chickens and an eye for procurement
Meanwhile Patricia (pictured right) is an IT procurement specialist but lacks Gareth's technical prowess. She hopes to end up with the right cloud service to suit her department's needs, and fears the opposite result.
Branigan, perhaps erring on the side of patronising, explained that customers like Patricia need to "understand how services are described by suppliers so that she can find services that will meet her requirements".
GDS felt it was important to note that Patricia enjoys spending time looking after her two chickens, something V3 was not aware of as having a direct influence on cloud procurement desires.
'She enjoys Zumba and vampire books'
Last, but by no means least, is Jess (pictured), a project manager who cares about services that are delivered on time, on budget and provide direct outcomes.
Branigan paints Jess as an uncompromising customer. "Any delays caused by a procurement process are unacceptable to her, and she is very price sensitive," he said.
Jess does not like to waste her time understanding technology or procurement, either, instead preferring to dedicate herself to Zumba and vampire books.
"Jess needs a service which allows her to very quickly analyse her options and find the right product. She does not want to concern herself with the intricacies of the procurement process, and relies on others around her to look after this part," he said.
It's interesting to see the government exploring ways to simplify the process of selling cloud and IT services to the public sector, particularly given the focus on digitalising public services.
However, Branigan added: "We know that users don't always fit neatly into boxes and we test these personas regularly against the buyers we talk to in the lab."
With a get-out clause like that, V3 is left wondering whether the whole exercise was really worth it. We are, however, curious to learn more about this 'lab' Branigan mentions.
Politicians, eh? The incoming digital economy and society commissioner for the European Commission, Günther Oettinger, has not even set up his office with a plant and a picture and already he's in hot water for ill-considered comments.
During a meeting earlier this week he said that celebrities were "dumb" for putting nude pictures of themselves online.
"If someone is dumb enough as a celebrity to take a nude photo of themselves and put it online, they surely can't expect us to protect them," said Oettinger. "I mean, stupidity is something you can not - or only partly - save people from."
This statement, blaming the victims of a breach of their privacy and showing a slight misunderstanding of the cloud, has been rounded on by digital activists who see it as clear proof that Oettinger is not the right man to take on such an important digital post.
Pirate Party MEP Julia Reda has posted a blog criticising Oettinger, noting that it is somewhat worrying - as V3 would agree - that someone set to be in charge of European digital policy has either a misguided moral stance on the issue or a worrying lack of understanding of technology - or both.
"The person applying to be in charge of shoring up trust in the internet so that Europeans do more business online just victim-blamed people whose personal data was accessed and spread without authorisation," she wrote.
"By picking this example to make that point despite lacking an understanding of the facts, by making a mockery of what he should recognise as a serious problem and by doing it in this aloof and insulting tone, Oettinger is seriously calling into question whether he is qualified for the job of shaping our digital society for the next five years."
The BBC reported that a spokesperson for Oettinger said he was trying to make a point about cloud security, although he denied the chance to apologise for the remark.
"Everybody has a right to privacy. The EU Commission wants to make cloud computing safer." A noble aim, sir. But perhaps we may be so bold as to suggest that starting this mission by siding with the victims of a theft rather than blaming them tends to help.
One thing is for sure, Neelie Kroes would never have said any of this.