To celebrate the launch of the Tech Nation Report 2019, a group of start-up founders plus one investor were brought together to discuss the state of the UK tech sector on the international stage. During the discussion, issues surrounding data, privacy, regulation and automation arose as well.
The Tech Nation Report takes the pulse of the nation in regard to companies in the tech sector, both in the early start-up stage and the later scale-up stage of rapid growth and expansion. To celebrate the launch, four such companies, as well as a representative of a venture capital fund were brought together to talk about the big tech companies and changing attitudes towards data use and collection.
Lucy Yu, director of public policy at FiveAI, an autonomous driving company, is optimistic about the future direction of technology in the UK in relation to governance. She said considerations for data products and data services will be debated in the future in the same way that cybersecurity is being debated currently. “Companies are thinking about it right from the get-go and at every stage of the development process. Data ethics will similarly be in that position in the future,” she said, adding that she sees this as an area of competitive advantage for the UK.
Some panellists pointed out actions by big tech companies that could be seen as less than ethical and borderline inexcusable. Laurence Kemball-Cook, CEO of Pavegen, a company that creates tiles that convert kinetic energy into power and data, said that we don’t know the half of the awful things big tech companies are doing behind the scenes. He slammed Google’s parent company Alphabet for its “arrogance” of installing Sidewalk Labs in Toronto, which opponents have described as a “sensor-laden neighbourhood.” Kemball-Cook said that instead, to make cities work, you have to make them about people.
Harry Briggs, managing partner at OMERS Ventures, also highlighted some nefarious behaviour. He said that for those people who have recently used Whatsapp and shared their location, they would have been strongly encouraged to share their live location. “That only is enabled if you basically give Facebook, Whatsapp, Instagram permission to track your location forever more. And they don’t really tell you that,” he explained. “That really angers me because it is taking advantage of ordinary people’s naivete about technology.”
The panellists were in agreement that there is a different approach to data collection in the UK compared to other technology hubs and that regulations in this country and in Europe are more on the side of the user and protecting their data.
Co-founder and CEO of energy company Bulb, Hayden Wood stated that his company collects and uses a lot of data. However, when asked if people are justified in pausing and thinking about whether they want their private information to be shared with a company and how that data is going to be used, he was in complete agreement. He conceded that his company collects data to find people who are interested in reducing their carbon emissions, and to understand their energy usage of its customers, but added that many UK start-ups are taking into consideration their customers and the society in which they operate, as well as the shareholders.
Tugce Bulut, CEO of consumer market research and data company Streetbees, is pleased to see that the success of her business signifies that people are starting to see the value of their data and release that value for their own benefit. Users or ‘bees’ are asked to do tasks such as giving their opinion of a mobile network or taking a photo at a supermarket, in exchange for cash. She went on to explain how that data can be used for the public good.
Bulut said: “One of the things we are working on right now is identifying the mood of the world. There are identifiable patterns in people’s happiness based on where they live, what they eat. Why wouldn’t we make this data publicly available to be able to help people identify what’s causing their anxiety or stress?” This, to Bulut, is an example of how technology can be harnessed to help deal with societal problems and not just make money for a lot of people.
Looking forward, when considering how artificial intelligence will affect our future, especially in relation to jobs and employment Yu had some salient advice. She said that there are two big issues. “One is about educating the public and being a bit more transparent, putting more information out there and secondly thinking about how we have some kind of skills strategy to make sure that people can transition to those new types of employment.”