The TRUMP BUTTON. Governance for social media platforms!

A proposal to enable citizens to exert governance over those that abuse the social media platforms.  

For the past few decades we have all been part of an enormous, worldwide sociology experiment. And the results are not good. Outside the technology sector many products are subject to regulatory control, primarily for public safety considerations. Think of pharmaceuticals, automotive, medical devices, food products and many more. Similarly, in the high-tech business sector many standards have been developed by collaborations between leading tech firms who have supported the creation of standards organizations such as the OMG, DTMF, W3C, The Open Group and many more. Without these our modern tech-enabled world would simply not work! In contrast the social media tech sector has been like the wild west. While there has been considerable attention to data security and privacy, there has been literally no consideration of the effects of universal availability and abuse of social media on our society.

It was thirty-five years ago when I first observed the syndrome of the keyboard warrior in the business environment. It was quite a shock, when seemingly reliable, intelligent, often senior individuals sent vitriolic or abusive mail messages over the early Internet that were completely out of character. Often the message was an impulsive, angry response to a previous message that frequently resulted in further angry exchanges and face to face arguments. In business environments today keyboard warriors are quite rare. But in the social media environment in general there is much less self-control. Further the perceived anonymity of social media has encouraged widespread distancing from the truth. Many people feel unencumbered by societal norms of truthfulness and over time social media practice has merged with reality.

Over the past few years, we have observed high profile public figures who display utter contempt for truth. As discussed in my last post, no lesser figure than the US President is now a case study for this convention breaking behaviour. And while Donald Trump didn’t invent this behavioural pattern, he has certainly demonstrated a talent for not only using it but encouraging huge numbers of people to believe the unbelievable and for many, many others to follow suit. As I said in my last post, we must now recognize that technology has facilitated this problem and it’s time to fix it.

Inevitably the leading platforms come in for considerable criticism from all sides because of the divisive nature of US politics at present. Facebook and Twitter have implemented some levels of governance themselves, and while most of their efforts have been focused on those publishing abusive images, Twitter to their credit have flagged numerous Trump tweets that are barefaced lies. But this is woefully inadequate.

As discussed the tech companies have been leaders in developing standards. As new technologies mature there is often the pressing need for common approaches. Frequently standards bodies are formed by the tech companies themselves, and often the standards are evolved from existing practices and technologies that have proven effective. And in this area of “truth governance” it would seem that Facebook and Twitter in particular might cooperate to everyone’s advantage.

My proposal is very simple. Every tweet or post should have an additional button labelled TRUE/FALSE. This would be similar to LIKE. Supporting the TRUE/FALSE button an artificial intelligence (AI) engine should monitor, not whether something is true or false, that would be too difficult at this stage, rather monitor the individuals who register the truth status and detect probability on the basis of individuals prior assessments and swarm behavior. This last type of analysis would aim to detect when there were deliberate efforts to coordinate and or misrepresent genuine assessments. On the basis of collective assessments, the platforms should implement a common penalty system along the lines of sports penalties. Yellow card for early warning; red card for serious breach. Behind the scenes a standards body funded by the tech companies should develop the AI truth engine and employ mediators, similar to Wiki Administrators – trusted users with access to certain functions not available to other users, for example the ability to delete pages and block posts and users.

We mustn’t expect all social media platforms to comply with the standards. There are platforms such as Parler that allows users to “speak freely and express yourself openly, without fear of being ‘deplatformed’ for your views”. While we might expect certain users to gravitate over time to lower or ungoverned platforms, the advocates of “free speech” and conspiracy theories will continue to undermine the leading, governed platforms. As AI based governance engines become more sophisticated there will be some migration to ungoverned platforms. We can only hope these will become very niche over time.

During the past over four years we have all become accustomed to lies and fake news from the Trump campaign. Perhaps even Trump himself believed he could manufacture a fantastical conspiracy theory underpinning massive electoral fraud, and use it to annul the election. Yet, apart from the most hypnotized followers in his base, the majority of people will now see Trump as liar in chief. We might play Trump at his own game and colloquially label the TRUE/FALSE button as the “Trump” button, and use the verb “to Trump”. It’s only fitting that we remember him in the right context.
The entire social media environment has become like the wild west. Anyone can say anything and see wild ideas and fantastical theories become instantly circulated and believed. And while the US presidential election looks likely to be resolved, there must be widespread disillusionment with democracy. Perhaps the time has come when, after the world has seen to its horror how things can go so wrong, that there’s some willingness to walk back from the cliff edge.

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Truth will ultimately prevail . . . !

“Truth will ultimately prevail where pains is taken to bring it to light.” George Washington’s letter to Charles Mynn Thruston | Sunday, August 10, 1794

Washington is replying to Frederick County, Va., delegate Charles Mynn Thruston’s 21 June 1794 letter in which Thruston warned Washington of “a powerful faction” in Kentucky that wanted to separate from the United States and join Britain. Washington’s response blamed groups who were concealing or misrepresenting facts and “spreading mischief far & wide either from real ignorance of the measures pursuing by the government, or from a wish to bring it, as much as they are able, into discredit.” Washington believed that when the people of Kentucky learned the truth they would discredit the faction.

Liar in Chief

Speaking to members of the military during his surprise trip overseas in 2018, President Donald Trump spoke about the pay raises they received. “You haven’t gotten one in more than 10 years – more than 10 years,” he said. “And we got you a big one. I got you a big one. I got you a big one. “I got you a big one. I got you a big one.” He continued, “They said: ‘You know, we could make it smaller. We could make it 3 per cent. We could make it 2 per cent. We could make it 4 per cent.’ I said: ‘No. Make it 10 per cent. Make it more than 10 per cent’.” In fact, the future pay rise was actually 2.6 per cent. And the troops had received a pay raise every year for decades.

The Washington Post’s Fact Checker estimates that during two years of his presidency, Trump told some 7,600 lies. Yet despite that over 73 million people voted for Trump in the recent presidential election. And since the election Trump has been in complete denial over the outcome and has maintained a constant stream of accusations of fraud, in contrast to officials and independent observers who maintain “there is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised.”

From the FT: We all lie, but we don’t lie like President Trump. He is the most extravagant, reckless, inexhaustible fibber of our era — the panjandrum of porky pies. Because we all lie, we may be tempted to think we understand why Donald Trump does, or even that he lies for the same reasons we do. He doesn’t. Most of us lie to avoid causing painful feelings in others, and ourselves. Sometimes we lie to protect some sense of self. Trump’s lying is different. It’s not just a departure from the norms of the presidency — it’s a departure from the norm . . . . his greatest ambitions are neither financial nor political — they’re psychological. Trump abuses the truth so we take notice of him!
From the Guardian: Donald Trump lies like he tweets: erratically, at all hours, sometimes in malice and sometimes in self-contradiction, and sometimes without any apparent purpose at all. The Guardian has catalogued more than 100 falsehoods made by the Republican nominee over the last 150 days and sorted them according to theme.

In Trump’s world, crime is always rising (the national rate fell for decades), and African Americans are “living in hell” (they are not). Migrants are flooding in (more Mexicans are leaving than arriving), and they bring violence (there is no evidence that they do). Civilian and military leaders are always clueless (Trump received five deferments from Vietnam), except when they love him. We have no idea who refugees or undocumented migrants are, and they take our jobs (we know very well who they are; they include his wife).

Trump’s vision of the US has been, for decades, one of dystopia – he even described the 1990s as a crisis worse than the Great Depression. But amid all this desolation Trump gains three things. He fuels doubt and fear, leaving people vulnerable; he denigrates his opposition en masse, blaming the world on them; and he raises himself up above the non-existent wreckage.

His aim is to degrade others and destroy them.

Whenever in doubt, Trump attacks what he calls “the dishonest media”, accusing reporters (without evidence) of bias, inaccuracy and a failure to show the size of his rallies. He ignores that reporters quote him extensively, call his campaign for comment, interview his supporters, his rival’s campaign and independent voters and experts. He often cites news stories about Clinton, and even praised fact-checkers in a presidential debate for catching her in a falsehood.

Trump’s scorched earth insults, like his attacks on other institutions, try to delegitimize authority and leave only himself in its place.

Initially most Americans still respected institutions that Trump demeaned. But the press was vulnerable after decades of cable news punditry had diminished opinion of the press, and the internet has sapped major newspapers of their powers to compete with openly partisan sites, fake news and social media networks. Trump tried to fill the vacuum. But more recently Trump has been attacking institutions and their leaders such as Chris Krebs, the director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, and Anthony S. Fauci at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Think about what is happening here. Lies – easily discredited are made, with complete shamelessness, about people and institutions most of us would regard as highly professional and competent, by a man that is patently uninformed and ignorant. At the same time Trump is continually reinforcing the lie that there was “widespread nationwide voter fraud” especially in “big cities controlled by Democrats. And the more this is repeated the more he is reinforcing the idea that Democrats have won the election fraudulently and at best he is dividing the country and undermining the integrity of the election and at worst setting the stage for his next act – either some form of coup or a media led takeover of the Republican party.

A worldwide problem

The problem is that the prime casualty from the last four years is the truth. Most of us don’t tell lies, not big ones anyway, and think we know when someone is lying. But Trump has clearly found ways to command unquestioning support from a significant proportion of the population even while he has tenuous links with truth or reality. The same syndrome has happened elsewhere. In the UK the electorate were led to believe that Brexit would be easy and a huge benefit to the country. Four years on from the vote to leave the EU, it’s clear that even though the truth has been exposed, a significant minority still believe the lies. Further until very recently, the Conservative government has been effectively captured by the fundamentally anarchist Vote Leave group. We can see parallels between the US and the UK where truth becomes the casualty of aggressive, conflict led campaigns.
In these and other countries it’s clear that these influences have coarsened the public space, encouraged division, reduced respect for government, media, institutions and experts.

As I write this post, I read that Trump is using the weight of his office to attempt to persuade election workers and officials to subvert the will of the electorate. And this is happening because Trump has created the ability to distort the truth, to persuade ordinary people that black is white and that the office of the presidency is omnipotent.

The role of technology

Much of this has been facilitated by technology. Twitter alone enabled Trump to be in peoples’ heads all the time. That was the way he did business. He grasped the fact that he could control the agenda. He realised that he could create events on a literally continuous basis where he controlled the agenda. When he said an individual was a terrible person huge numbers of people believed him. Sadly, he politicised the Coronavirus pandemic and encouraged 50% of the US population to reject mask wearing, even though experts have said masks are actually more effective than a vaccine, and they are already here and available. As a direct result hundreds of thousands have died and many, many more will follow.

In today’s world we have just a very few giant tech companies that have extraordinary and ungoverned influence on how we live. Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Alphabet (Google), Facebook, Alibaba and Tencent. Over the past 30 years we have seen waves of technology affecting how we live, communicate, transact, and crucially how we manage data. While there have been relatively small actions by governments to influence the tech giants, mostly in the areas of data and security, there has been no effort whatsoever to exert meaningful governance to protect society. The ability of a national leader or political campaign to use platforms to abuse, bully, lie and also commercially prosper has been demonstrated beyond doubt. The key question for civilization now is how do we bring the tech companies and their users under some level of practical governance.

I will address this issue of governance in my next post.

Posted in Biden, Brexit, Coronavirus, Governance, Politics, Technology Platforms, Trump | 1 Comment

The Party’s Over. Time for Adults in the Room to Take Charge

In the 1990s I lived and worked in Dallas, Texas. I was product manager for the world leading software development tool for corporate systems and part of a large, high performing team. Looking back, it was clear most of the technical team members were college educated, highly experienced and white.  The average age of technical staff was probably 40 – 50. Of course, it was the era of the American engineer, professionals who led the world, not just in software and hardware, but also many other fields such as aeronautics, space, manufacturing etc.

In the 2010s I consulted to one of the world leading health corporations based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This was as different as you can imagine. Again, it was a large team, and most of the technical team members were very highly educated and widely experienced but with very diverse racial backgrounds, particularly Asian. This dramatic change in the makeup of leading-edge high-tech teams took place over a 25 year period. Corporations went to great lengths to acquire the highest skills, knowing full well that the difference between average and upper quartile skills sets was huge.

I spent a lot of time in Philadelphia and usually stayed in a smallish suite hotel for weeks at a time. I recall I got to know the night manager quite well. I would wander down to reception late at night, perhaps to drop off laundry or pick up coffee, and we would shoot the breeze. I guess he was late 20s, college educated, well informed and articulate.  It was early 2016 when we had the conversation about politics, and he admitted he would be voting for Donald Trump. He told me that this Night Manager job was all he could hope for. That many of his friends were in similar positions – competing with temporary or permanent immigrants who frankly had better education, better experience and were lower cost hires for corporations. He had low expectations of a stellar career. In his view Donald Trump was an implementation of chaos theory – an opportunity to overthrow the vested interests, to move the country out of the rut it was clearly in.

My night manager friend was clear, it was an incredible risk because by nature Trump is unpredictable. But he said that many, many people were so unhappy that any change had to be good. I argued that Trump is basically a member of the New York elite. He will look after large corporations. But the response was, there’s no alternative. He and his friends viewed Hilary Clinton as entirely corrupt and no different to the Republicans.

Fast forward five years and I would love to go back and have that conversation over again. But I think I know now what I would hear. Trump has clearly created this image where he exists in a reality TV world. If he says something it will happen. This was so clear today when he said, “stop counting the votes”, without any concept of how impossible this would be to effect. But he has created a movement that believes everything he says.  If he says, “I have created 2,000,000 new jobs, or I have brought back manufacturing or coal mining”, the members of his movement are so part of his reality TV world, they don’t push back. It’s analogous to religion where followers unquestioningly believe the message.

At the time of writing the election is looking set to go to Biden; there will be court challenges, but we can all see that Trump and his family are losing it. Will the Supreme Court come to the rescue – highly unlikely because there is no legal or constitutional issue that will materially affect the outcome. No one expects Trump to go quietly into the night, but hopefully he will recede into irrelevance as the GOP realise, he and his family are a monumental strategic mistake for the Republican Party. They don’t need to be part of anyone else’s soap opera!

We can only hope that the Democrats under Biden will be able to address some of the fundamental problems facing the USA. If I were advising I would suggest the top three priorities (after the Coronavirus) are education, education, education.  

Posted in Biden, Democracy, Education, Politics, Trump | 1 Comment

Pandemic Fatigue breaks out in Ireland. And it’s all the government’s fault!

It appears that much of Europe is struggling to contain the Coronavirus. Countries that did well in the Spring are heading back into lockdown. Last night here in Ireland we heard the official confirmation of what had been an open secret for days – we are heading into a 6 week lockdown. Whilst the schools will remain open, the restrictions are severe, perhaps only omitting a curfew.

The reaction last night and this morning from media and commentators was largely shock combined with aggressive attempts to lay the blame – primarily on the government. For example:

– If you had listened to the medical men perhaps we wouldn’t be in this mess.

– If you hadn’t listened to the medical men perhaps we wouldn’t be in this mess.

– If you had moved earlier the lockdown need only have been 4 weeks!

– If you had waited another few weeks perhaps the existing restrictions would have worked.

– If you had been clearer about the restrictions perhaps more people would have adhered to the rules.

– If you had developed a better test and contact tracing system, we would be in a much better state.

And so on . . . .

A common response to going back into lockdown is, “It’s like Groundhog Day; we have learnt nothing in the past 7 months and when we exit the lockdown, we assume we’ll be back to square one in just a few weeks!” An emerging question is how many lockdowns must we endure before the arrival of a vaccine?

Then we have the naysayers. A disparate group of medicine men (sic) are arguing forcefully that the current strategy will never work. Instead we should lock down the elderly and let the virus rip. Ignore the fact that the elderly need to interact with society through their carers, medical professionals, family etc. Ignore the fact that the theory of herd immunity is unproven and that evidence is emerging of people getting Covid19 for a second time. But none the less these ideas weaken the resolve of many.

Then we have the loonies. With increasing frequency hundreds or even thousands descend on cities  in flagrant breach of the guidelines to protest against mask wearing and the government’s attack on civil liberties. These groups attract conspiracy theorists, professional demonstrators, failed journalists and others yet also get huge press coverage and project the image that support for the mainstream government strategy is in reality very low.

Then we have the media. The Irish media are of course sharp and critical. And of course, in this day and age everyone is at least a scientist, probably an epidemiologist, or even a specialist in infectious diseases as well as an expert in medical data analysis. One good example is Fergal Bowers, medical correspondent for the national broadcaster (RTE). Today following the lockdown announcement he published an opinion piece that instead of communicating the guidelines and analysing the potential medical impact of the lockdown, is making a call for transparency including such gems as:

– It would be highly valuable to have a reasoning of how we can escape this lockdown, so that people can judge progress, week by week.

– To coincide with the latest decisions, it would have been helpful to have a detailed statistical examination of why we are where we are and the expected impact, day by day, week by week, of cases, deaths, hospital admissions for the next six weeks?

– The basis for Level 5 decisions should be laid out, on paper, in high statistical detail, with all the background data, with weekly projections for the next six weeks, so that there can be full buy-in about a return to some normality.

Against this chaotic background very few commentators are actually adding value to what should be a clarion call for a national effort. However, there is just one Irish commentator who stands out above the crowd. Fergus Finlay, one time Chief Executive of Bernardos Ireland writes under the heading –  “The only ones who can beat the virus are us.” Here’s a couple of extracts:

– and in our heart of hearts, we all know that we haven’t applied enough cop-on to the challenge we have

But if we were really copped-on, like we think we are, we’d have beaten the virus by now. By doing the simple things copped-on people do. Washing our hands constantly. Protecting our neighbours by keeping a safe distance. Protecting our friends — and strangers — by wearing our masks.

We haven’t been doing it enough. The numbers tell you that. When the public health experts use a phrase like “community transmission” they mean us. We’re the community that is transmitting the virus, one to the other. There is no-one else to blame. Just us.

So can we do this? Can we just decide, for the sake of every stranger we meet, that we’ll never be caught with the virus on our hands if we can help it? That we’ll never endanger anyone — friend or stranger, by crowding them or coughing at them? That we’ll follow the rules absolutely rigorously to the best of our ability, even if we find them unpleasant? Because the truth is we’re never going to find the rules impossible.

I suspect this story isn’t unique to Ireland. I would be pleased to hear other reports from around the world and happy to publicise through my small blog.

Posted in Coronavirus, Covid19, Democracy, lockdown, Pandemic, Politics, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Strange Tale of the Jacket and the Car Keys

This week Marie and I managed to fit in a road trip to West Cork just before the seemingly inevitable second Covid19 lockdown. On Wednesday we met up with our friend Ann in Quills car park and drove in convoy to the beautiful Glengarriff Woods. On the way we were stopped by two gardai, who were more interested in our new EV than our reason for crossing the county line and must have kept us talking for at least 10 minutes, forming a real queue of traffic behind us. Anyway, we eventually reached the second carpark and headed up the perimeter route taking in the Eskamucky, Woodland and Lea Meadows trails. The Eskamucky trail heads steeply up to a succession of lookouts that showcase the entirety of the ancient oak forest with the sparkling Kenmare Bay and brooding Sugar Loaf in the background.

We stopped at the second lookout and then headed on to the waterfalls at Pooleen for lunch. As we dug out our sandwiches Ann said, “Oh no, I’ve left my jacket back at the lookout”. Evidently it had been in a front pocket of her rucksack and must have fallen out. We discussed what to do and decided retracing our steps would take us almost back to the start of the walk, so we decided our best option was to complete the circuit and then go back up to the lookout. And so, we continued around the well-trodden route eventually descending through the Lea Meadows and along beside the Kerry River to the car park and the cars. At which point Ann said, “Oh no! My keys were in my jacket”. She had completely forgotten she had put the keys in the jacket pocket for safe keeping. This put a whole new complexion on the problem. She couldn’t drive home without the keys, and the keyring held all her various keys. So, Ann and I hightailed it back up the trail to the lookout as fast as we could. When we arrived, we found the key ring was on the wooden bench but there was no sign of the jacket. We were relieved at finding the keys, but we felt it was very strange. We figured a reasonable response from anyone finding the jacket would have been to take the jacket including the keys and hand them over to the gardai just outside the forest gate. But no, someone had found the jacket and realised it contained keys and decided to help themselves to the jacket and just leave the keys. Now Ann did say, the jacket was a very good one – a reasonably new blue Berghaus walking jacket and well known to be top quality and expensive. So, we were disappointed that any walkers would have made this choice.

Anyway, we walked back down and met Marie who had driven to the start of the trail and we all drove back to the main car park. As we got out of the car right next to Ann’s car, we immediately noticed a note on her driver’s window. It was written in quite neat handwriting on brown paper that was obviously a sandwich wrapper. It said, “Hi, If you have lost your Car Keys they are on the bench at the lookout with the big rock. Big bunch of keys with red key ring”. We were quiet for a moment and all at the same time we came to a common conclusion. The writer must have been the person that took the jacket and must have been parked or standing near to us at the time we first returned to our cars in order to hear Ann say, “Oh no! My keys were in my jacket”, because he or she couldn’t have known which parked car belonged to the owner of the jacket. This left us completely spooked.

So why had the person written the note at all? They would have heard us say we were going back up the hill to search for the keys and jacket. Was it a case that they realised they hadn’t just picked up a discarded jacket, rather they had stolen it? And now they could see their victim?   Or that they wanted to in some way mitigate their offense by saying they didn’t steal the keys? Of course, we’ll never know.

But for us it didn’t spoil our day; nothing could do that. We had done a great 4 hour walk in beautiful weather and were exhilarated at the end of it. However, it left a really bad taste if you know the expression. Someone had done something completely out of order – they had stolen an obviously expensive jacket and had no intention of trying to return it to its owner. Further they had left keys in the wild and not made any attempt to safeguard them and again return them to their owner. In the end our faith in human nature was severely dented that day.    

Posted in lockdown, Travel, Trust, Uncategorized, Walking | Leave a comment

The Next Phase of Covid19 – Technology Innovation

Podcast here

It’s becoming clear that a Covid19 vaccine is not going to be the silver bullet as widely advertised. I have been asking for months, why would we expect a vaccine to be 100% effective? Flu and other vaccines are well understood as being less than 100%. On Wednesday Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said during his testimony before a Senate subcommittee that wearing face masks may be more effective at protecting against COVID-19 than a vaccine.  

I note the WHO recommends that successful vaccines should show an estimated risk reduction of at least one-half, with sufficient precision to conclude that the true vaccine efficacy is greater than 30%. This means that the 95% Confidence Interval for the trial result should exclude efficacy less than 30%. This is a minimum baseline. They go on to say a vaccine that has 50% efficacy could appreciably reduce incidence of COVID-19 in vaccinated individuals, and might provide useful herd immunity. Hence, although efficacy far greater than 50% would be better, efficacy of about 50% would represent substantial progress.

We can observe that right across Europe countries are struggling to contain the virus. While deaths and hospitalizations are thankfully lower, due to better treatments and understanding of the condition, case numbers everywhere are once again on an upward, exponential curve. And countries are trying to introduce a complexity of restrictions, often varying by geography to a public that are weary and angry. It looks like a slippery slope with a bad ending to me.

I also note that in the UK Daniel Lawson, senior lecturer in statistical sciences at Bristol University, said there was clear evidence that the surge was being “driven by infection in people aged 17 to 34”. The threat posed by young people failing to distance was spotted early by public health officials, with Preston city council the first to launch a “don’t kill Granny” campaign more than a month ago. However, the message appears not to have got through. Many of the infected young are asymptomatic and are increasingly passing the virus to elderly and vulnerable relatives. Some people have clearly become tired of following the rules. Here in Ireland we can see the same trend, just today I see the median age of cases in the past 14 days is 33 with 20% of cases between the ages of 15 and 24.

Here’s just two stories that summarize the problem. The other day as I walked from the car park in to the village at lunchtime, I could see clearly into the pub back yard. There were some 6 guys, not youngsters, all drinking beer, laughing and joshing. No distancing, no masks. Another guy joins them and they all hi five each other and bunch up close to let the newcomer in. The same day I walked down the road just as the schoolchildren were returning after lunch. There were many hundreds of youngsters, often five abreast, causing other pedestrians to scatter. No sense of social distancing, and not one mask to be seen anywhere. Speaking to a teacher later she said, it’s all nonsense. We enforce social distancing and mask wearing in school, but in the playground or outside the school there’s no compliance at all.

All this makes me ponder on Robert Redfield’s comment on the importance of masks. That they are more important than getting a vaccine, and bearing in mind the limited efficacy of vaccines we will be living with the virus for years. So why don’t we trigger some real innovation in masks and other protective devices. Why doesn’t the BT Young Scientist or a similar organizations hold competitions for innovative ideas in this area. Particularly those that will be attractive to younger people. Why not connect masks to mobile devices to allow dynamic messaging on the front of the mask. Or in-mask microphone allowing hands free speech, or amplification of the voice through the device. Could we see such amplification enabling singing while wearing a mask? Or allowing drinking through a straw. But why stay with the centuries old mask. Consider variants such as wrap around visors with heads up displays, wraparound sound, in-visor (replaceable) air filtering for both viruses and pollution, in-mask or visor language translation. Oh, and also make them comfortable to wear for protracted periods. I could go on.

I have said before, we should never let a crisis go to waste. We should expect high levels of innovation during crisis periods. Clearly there has been and is ongoing massive innovation in the medical and public health spaces. But now we know Covid19 is not going away for probably years, it’s time to innovate in the personal technology space to both protect ourselves but also allow us to live our lives to the full.


Posted in Coronavirus, Covid19, Personal Technology, Technology Platforms | Leave a comment

Ireland’s Covid19 Tracker Works – Everyone Needs to Download.

Abstract: Ireland’s Covid19 Tracker is widely regarded as a success in an application space littered with failures. Initial uptake has also surpassed other countries efforts, however in Ireland there has been considerable negative commentary regarding accuracy and privacy. As a result, uptake has been slower than it might have been. This non-technical opinion piece summarises the arguments around the contact tracing app and explains why everyone should be part of this vital national effort now. 

The concept of contact tracing is new to us all. In the early stages of the Coronavirus pandemic the idea of an app that everyone could use was a silver bullet. A way we could all demonstrate national solidarity in this time of crisis. But reality is inevitably more complex and even in a crisis takes a little more time. Many countries around the world have tried to develop and deliver contact tracing apps with little success and some high-profile failures. In Ireland the HSE launched the Irish COVID Tracker in July, in the face of significant public debate and some negativity triggered by overseas experiences, various public interest groups and a relatively critical media. It was therefore gratifying to see the tech savvy Irish public get behind the launch with some 1.5 million downloads in the first weeks, followed by steady growth thereafter. However, this user base is still way too low. While the world applauds Ireland’s efforts, as way better than almost any other country, we urgently need to extend its reach.

We now understand the contact tracing app is not a silver bullet, rather it’s a vital part of the national contact tracing system. It can speed up and enhance the contact identification process and add critical extra intelligence on the state of the virus to the public health system. But to “control” the virus and allow us all to return to some semblance of normality, we need to more than double the number of users really soon.

There are two areas that have come in for critical comment – accuracy, and privacy, autonomy and security. Let’s start with accuracy because that’s at the core of whether the app is effective.

Accuracy of Close Contact Identification

As discussed, the app is a key part of the much wider contact tracing system. It supports the exposure notification process by exchanging Bluetooth signals with other devices that are detected in range, and registering the “contact” in an anonymous way on the local device if the signal strength is interpreted as a “close contact” and in range for some time period. Early on there were reports that Bluetooth is very imprecise; that signal strength could be highly variable depending on the environment, where the smartphone is placed, whether there are bodies or other physical obstructions between the devices. Buses and trains were also highlighted as particular problem areas because of high levels of metal surfaces.

Various commentators and campaigners have therefore concluded that the app doesn’t work and will never work. They say that there is scant proof that it will work given the proven awkwardness of Bluetooth. That using Bluetooth you can at best obtain a distance resolution of few metres, but you can’t calculate the direction, not even roughly.

The problem is that if the signal strength is misinterpreted it could lead to false positives – contacts that are highly unlikely to cause virus transmission, or false negatives – contacts that might be likely to cause transmission but have not been recorded.

Clearly the requirement for accuracy is very important because false positives might cause individuals to self-isolate unnecessarily, or false negatives might lose opportunities to track the virus spread.

However, the HSE team report that in public health the concept of accuracy is highly variable – that the widely publicised definition of close contact, “closer than 2 metres for 15 minutes” is applied more flexibly with greater weighting on > 15 minutes.  It isn’t necessary therefore to be 100% accurate to chase the virus down and the rules governing the close contact definition can be dynamic and in context with the environment. Whilst the exposure notification app currently uses 2 metres for 15 minutes, the team fully anticipate that the rules will evolve as parameters that can be flexed based on the need to test more or less people; or varied depending on the inferred pattern of contact, such as extended duration without movement etc.

Not surprisingly there is extensive research happening in this area of determining contacts. Scenarios such as on bus or trains are being examined and tested. And many more. We can expect considerable additional sophistication to be incorporated into the close contact algorithms in the very near future.

Research is also taking place in many countries into risk modelling, machine-based learning and sensors to determine the orientation of the devices and the attitude of the Bluetooth antenna. We may also expect to see a range of signal patterns used to derive better results including multiple and two-way signals to allow refinement of results. Also new protocols such as Ultra-wideband that enables precise indoor positioning which then allow dynamic selection of the best protocol to use in a given context. We can also expect new dongles or other devices to emerge very soon which will potentially provide better accuracy, possibly avoiding the need to upgrade smartphones and also offering support to users who may not have smart phones including the elderly and children[i].

At the time of writing the Irish app has been in use for just one month. So, it’s too soon to assess the effectiveness of the app. However early data indicates that at least 416 notifications to close contacts of positive cases have been processed since launch. And the real figure for notifications is probably substantially higher as 20-25 per cent of the 1.5 million people who have downloaded the app have opted out of metrics for personal privacy reasons.

We are all aware of the huge advances being made in the medical world, particularly with vaccines and treatments. What’s perhaps less well known is that the pandemic is also driving huge advances in contact tracing applications and technologies.  Does this mean you should delay a technology adoption because it’s too immature or undergoing great change? Not at all! We have a base level of maturity already and for end users of all ages embracing the core technology immediately is important to keep up with change and being able to quickly adopt new innovations which will in all probability be essential to allow us to live more normal lives.

Privacy, Autonomy and Security

There are also multiple privacy challenges made by media and privacy campaigners. The challenges that potential users may be concerned about include:

The role of Google and Apple in the core code.
The privacy of personal data and IP addresses (personal device location address)
Security against outsider attacks.

Apple and Google took the initiative to develop the Exposure Notification System (ENS) framework and specification and to incorporate it into their operating systems. In normal times we might expect that such an important framework would be managed by a standards organization. However, anyone familiar with standards development will be aware that standards processes are rarely completed rapidly because of the necessary cross industry consultation and participation. In fact, many standards emerge based on successful early efforts typically by major technology companies. In this case the framework has emerged in just a few months. We can already see Google is committed to transparency of the ENS code[ii] and upgrade contents.  We can expect this Google Apple API will become the industry standard in due course. In addition, in April, the EU started the process of assessing the proposed system for compatibility with privacy and data protection laws, including GDPR. Also, in April, the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office, published an opinion stating that the systems are aligned with the principles of data protection as mandated by the GDPR.

There has been considerable adverse comment on data protection, specifically in the Google ecosystem. It has been reported widely that because the Google ENS framework uses Google Play Services that are part of the operating system, that personal data is automatically transferred to Google Servers. However, critics should be aware that while this is not a new problem – on Android devices it has been in place for many years that Google shares personal user data[iii] together with fine-grained data on the apps running on the phone, Google is very clear there is no personal data sharing. The reason the ENS module ships in Google Play services is because it’s an updatable layer on Google Android devices, thereby enabling the ENS to be available on all devices quickly. Asked about personal data protection in contact tracing Google commented, “In keeping with our privacy commitments for the Exposure Notification API, Apple and Google do not receive information about the end user, location data, or information about any other devices the user has been in proximity of”.

In April the Electronic Frontier Foundation[iv] reported concerns the protocol was vulnerable to “linkage attacks”, where third parties may be able to turn contact information into tracking information for users who have disclosed their COVID-19 status. This tracking information could be used to track individuals’ movements, or to establish replay attacks to simulate coronavirus outbreaks, although in the latter case the purpose of this other than simply mindless vandalism is unclear. It seems this threat is certainly not unique to the Covid19 tracker application and, given the significant effort involved to effect, seems to be low risk.

Some Conclusions

It’s important that we understand the context in which the Contact Tracing app is being delivered. We are in the middle a global crisis, which will probably persist for another year.  Our primary aim is to shift the balance away from “responding and reacting” to the virus to “controlling” it. If we can control the virus it is possible that we can recover some semblance of economic and social stability as soon as possible. Speed is of the essence.

The HSE has delivered the contact tracing app using Agile methods that “deliver useful functionality early, and continuously evolve on the basis of practical experience”. The entire contact tracing system and the underlying technology is therefore evolving at great speed to meet this urgent need to control the virus. But the app together with the national contact tracing system will only deliver the control over the virus if a significant proportion of the population download and use the system. From the foregoing it is clear the accuracy and privacy concerns are over-stated or out of date because the functionality is moving so fast. Any issues over accuracy will be resolved very rapidly. There will be glitches and unforeseen events. This is inevitable and there will be issues that need to be resolved. But this app is mission critical to the national contact tracing effort and part of that picture is a comprehensive user base. There is no reason for delaying download and usage. The system is effective and secure in its current state and will only improve. There is good accuracy, privacy, security and governance right now and the more citizens that use the app, the sooner we achieve greater control over our lives.

David Sprott, August 2020

Bio: For 50 years David Sprott was at the forefront of application development technology. As researcher, author, consultant and educator, he advised government agencies and commercial enterprises worldwide, and led industry efforts in the areas of software componentization, service specification and automation. He is now retired, living in Cork and provides voluntary tech support to non-profit

[i] Coronavirus: Why Singapore turned to wearable contact-tracing tech

[ii] Google Code Transparency

Open sourced EN implementation code

Documented the (narrow) EN telemetry design

Added note in EN documentation on general Android platform telemetry

Published release notes for each EN version

Risks and mitigations for the EN protocol.

[iii] Google Shared user data – IP address, international mobile equipment identity (IMEA), hardware serial number, SIM serial number, handset phone number and user email address

[iv] Apple and Google’s COVID-19 Exposure Notification API: Questions and Answers

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Education in the Covid19 World – Problem or Opportunity

Many important innovations have occurred in times of crisis. Natural disasters, pandemics or wars have all triggered and or accelerated huge change. The 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic led to a wave of public health efforts, a huge focus in epidemiology and the creation of the World Health Organization (WHO). The second world war saw an amazing amount of innovation including radar, code breaking, nuclear fission and women participating strongly in the workplace. During times of stability the impetus for change is clearly lower. In times of crisis we can observe huge change can happen extraordinarily rapidly.

All around the world the teaching profession and its administrators are searching for solutions that allow teaching in a world where Covid19 is an ever-present threat. In most cases the attention is on social distance which brings intractable problems of classroom and class size. Remote teaching is also seen as problematic because not all pupils have adequate network access to support modern technology-based teaching. What we are not hearing is how dealing with the Covid19 situation might represent an opportunity to address some of the really important issues that the education profession will need to address over the coming decades. If we are searching for solutions on how to return to the status quo, it’s likely to involve very difficult and very expensive solutions. So why not start from a different place and consider how should we be educating young people for tomorrow’s world?

In tomorrow’s world individuals will need to be prepared to take responsibility for lifelong learning. And as life expectancy increases facts are less important than high levels of adaptability supporting excellence in thinking, researching and communicating skills. Also, sooner than we think, machines will undertake up to 80% of today’s jobs. The routine and or knowledge intensive activities that can be automated. But machines will never take over our human capabilities so we should be educating young people in essentially human skills such as systems analysis, data analysis, statistical analysis, policy development, governance practices, education, as well as all the humanities and arts that will never be automated. Further we should be educating young people to work individually and in teams, to collaborate on problem solving and solution delivery.

We actually have a model for this form of education in the essential principles of the Montessori Method, which teaches child centered education with children of different ages working independently and collaboratively on projects with teachers, that encourage these behaviors and work with all of the children on an individual as well as collective or team basis. This model does not require set class sizes. Rather it is ideal for numerous bubbles or teams of differing sizes. This model can leverage multiple teachers with different skills that are needed across the bubbles.

But let’s go further and consider why we organize classes around subjects. If we use a project-based approach to learning, then each project and team might need several teachers involved at different times. Consider a project where five children are working on developing their own environmental model – this might involve teaching support for english, science, economics, maths, geography, business  and conceivably history (for comparisons).  Of course, we know there are concerns about needing lots of additional teachers if class sizes are smaller; but if teaching is more consultative this makes it easier – simply allowing children to take the lead in requesting support. And of course, the support could easily be remote. The remote support could also facilitate the involvement of retired teachers on a voluntary basis. And why wouldn’t we also consider involving subject matter experts who volunteer their support. This would be an amazing way of giving young people insight into the real world.

Similarly, we could consider organizing projects in which teams collaborate with children from other countries, developing language skills. So using the example of the personal environmental model, to develop country comparisons. We could also envisage that a school might set up pairing arrangements with a similar school in a developing country, allowing children to become familiar with a whole range of situations.  And if project work becomes the norm, why not encourage more work experience from an earlier age to allow children to undertake a whole range of activity with guidance and support from teachers and other subject matter experts.

We hear that there are real limitations on broadband availability, particularly in rural areas that would prevent this form of remote/onsite model. In business as a matter of good practice, we solve and optimize the mainstream processes and work on exceptions which generally are multivarious  and require diverse solutions. And are also hopefully transient. In many geographies it’s likely over 80% of students would be able to participate remotely. Maybe with assistance with technology equipment. The other 20% might need to travel to a hub or friendly neighbour, but over time then exceptions would diminish as broadband coverage is extended.  

The Covid19 threat may be with us for a considerable period. If we look on this as a problem, we will solve it some way that will always be incredibly expensive yet suboptimal. We might expect that the teaching profession and unions will be hugely protective of their current practices. But change is coming and starting down a new path is perhaps easier in a time of crisis. If we manage the current crisis as an opportunity, we will put ourselves on a path to addressing core issues that need to be solved. And in the process, we will recognize children are at the heart of our future and we will have shown them we trust them to take responsibility as citizens of the future.  

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New Models for the Post Covid19 World

There’s great talk in the media about how after Covid19 nothing will be the same – that we will have the opportunity to rethink our world. This is of course absolute nonsense. The commercial rush to return to normality is already in progress. Airlines are running 40% of their normal schedule and encouraging everyone to go on overseas holidays as soon as possible. Tourism related businesses are eagerly awaiting the rush of tourists to hospitality businesses, pubs and restaurants etc. Cruise ships are announcing new schedules! I admit in the past I would never have stepped foot on a cruise ship even if you paid me, but now . . . give me a word stronger than never!

There’s an interesting model going the rounds – the Doughnut Economic Model. This is an interesting idea – providing a template for a new economic model that rejects the idea of GDP as the basis for financial planning and introduces ideas of a model that melds climate actions and social justice.  Evidently the city of Amsterdam is piloting the ideas. The problem with models of this sort are that they are impossible to implement. Idealistic concepts never survive the light of day in the real world in which vested interests, politics and powerful players have the real say in most countries.

It occurs to me that a working model needs to be practical, implementable and saleable to ordinary people. Forget the fancy diagrams, show me the benefits to me and my family or my business.

I suggest that what’s needed is a Transformational Model that is focused tightly on policies that underpin implementation and governance. Take a look at the following list:

– Employee Reps on Company Boards with majority power over director and management remuneration.

-Citizen’s Assemblies that (don’t just provide ideas but) have approval over legislative programme.

-Citizen’s Reps that provide governance over platform providers (Google, Facebook, Twitter etc)

-Mandatory contracts of Employment that eliminate gig economy.

-4 day week.

-Basic Living Wage.

-Unemployed people of all ages do mandatory community work (or Youth Corp, Civil Defense etc)

-Climate Metrics for companies determine their corporation tax rate.

-Climate Metrics for home owners determines their property tax rate.

-Measured outcomes of twinning of businesses or towns with developing world determines tax liability.

-Civil servants have mandatory job rotation with private sector.

-And so on . . . . .

You get the idea. This is just a starter for 10.

In the same way that turkeys never vote for Christmas, politicians would NEVER implement many policies like these. But if the populace saw here policies that would enable real change they would potentially become vote winners and have profound change over how the basic economic model works.   

Reference – Doughnut Economic Model

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How Ireland Can Return to Post Covid19 Normality

Listening to Michael McGrath (FF Finance) this morning he was asked whether his party, if in government, would make face masks mandatory in enclosed spaces such as transport and shops. His answer was interesting. He said that his thinking is that if the key influencers including medical experts, government and media got behind the idea, then just as the public has overwhelmingly supported and complied with the Covid19 restrictions, mask wearing would quickly become the norm.

McGrath made the point that, there will always be a small number of people that simply cannot wear masks for a variety of reasons including their age or specific medical conditions. And we should avoid stigmatising individuals. In this short conversation McGrath summarised the differences and opportunity for Ireland – that without talking about green jerseys as a nation we have proven we can collectively act in the national interest. There will always be a small minority who don’t, but the experience of the past two months is that the overwhelming majority can act in the national interest.

It is perhaps easy to look at New Zealand and observe that they do the same. An island state with similar size of population they have, through national unity of purpose, effectively killed the virus and are on a course to establish a bubble comprising New Zealand and Australia. Unfortunately, Ireland can never copy New Zealand. Our island has a porous international border and will never be able to close that, or establish a virtual bubble with the North because they are governed by a different national entity.  There is also a very high level of dependency upon international tourism and trade and keeping borders open is going to be an economic necessity.

The answer for the Republic of Ireland to achieve something like normality is almost certainly to establish an effective automated contact tracing system. If the tracing system is working well and is downloaded and used by a high proportion of the population, any outbreak of the virus would be rapidly identified and managed. Ireland has made some good decisions in this area, choosing to implement the Apple/Google API which is a distributed architecture that protects individual privacy. Unfortunately, there are various actors who are already briefing against the app, even though they clearly don’t understand the architecture. I note today that Iceland, another small country like us, who have moved rapidly to implement an app, report they only have 40% of the population using the app and have pretty much discounted it as a potential game changer. For Ireland, because of our open borders, the app must be the game changer. It is the only way that we will achieve anything like normality in the next few months and through 2021 as we wait for a possible vaccine.

Returning to Michael McGrath’s comments, we need to see the use of the app in a similar way to the use of masks in enclosed public spaces. We need to see at least 80% uptake not just of the app but also in individuals self-isolating when they have been in close proximity to a confirmed case for 15 minutes. This will require a concerted effort by the key influencers to explain why this is another area where we need a huge effort and compliance by the entire population. Perhaps we should start by explaining that the contact tracing app is actually just one key component in our virus suppression system. The system is so much more than the technology, it’s the buy-in of the entire population in the process that starts when an individual believes and reports that they have symptoms through to managing the isolation of their contacts and the prevention of outbreaks.

This will need, just like over the last two months, everyone to put their shoulders to the wheel. But the prize is a return to normality.  

Posted in Coronavirus, Covid19, Digital Transformation, lockdown, Pandemic | 2 Comments