Paul Wallbank

Paul Wallbank is a speaker and writer charting how technology is changing society and business. Paul has four regular technology advice radio programs on ABC, a weekly column on the smartcompany.com.au website and has published seven books.

Jan 182017
 
social media is about connecting with friends

As the UK government ties itself in knots over what Brexit means, the French administration has announced a new set of skilled and tech visas, reports Tech Crunch.

While the French tech sector is nowhere near the size or diversity of the British ecosystem, it has been growing rapidly and various European centres are jostling to take London’s position as the continent’s leading IT city as Britain seems determined to squander its position.

Like many of these national initiatives the question will the French government have a long term commitment to this program? There is a strong possibility that the next administration in Paris may be as hostile as the British towards foreigners or, once the elections are out of the way, the momentum is lost.

It would be a shame if the French commitment turns out to be fleeting. With France’s economy stagnant, like most of the EU, new industries and talent are essential to triggering growth.

Over the next few years the forces of protectionism and xenophobia are going to cripple many of the world’s economies and societies. Where these visas are in a year’s time will tell us whether France will be one of those nations that’s turned its back on the 21st Century.

Jan 172017
 
Is Yahoo! recovering under new CEO Marissa Mayer

Slowly it’s dawning on government agencies how serious online data breaches can be. That can only be a good thing.

With a billion account details exposed the Yahoo! data breach announced last year was the greatest internet security failure to date.

Now Australian government agencies are worried about the scope of the breach and the number of politicians and officeholders whose credentials may have been affected.

Other government officials compromised include those carrying out sensitive roles such as high-ranking AFP officers, AusTrac money laundering analysts, judges and magistrates, political advisors, and even an employee of the Australian Privacy Commissioner.

The ramifications of this breach are far broader than just a few malcontents grabbing the contents of disused Yahoo! mail accounts or being able to hack Flickr profiles, many of the passwords will have been used on other services, compromised profiles linked to other platforms and the possible for identity fraud is immense.

With social media and cloud computing services coupled to these accounts, it’s quite possible for someone’s entire life to be hijacked thanks to one insecure service as Wired’s Matt Horan discovered a few years ago.

Just like individuals and businesses, the ramifications of careless organisations allowing private information to be stolen can be severe for governments. It’s right that Australian agencies are concerned about where this data has gone.

The official response to continued data breaches has been weak at best so it is good that suddenly agencies are having to face the consequences of the biggest one.

A widespread scare about insecure data may be what’s required to see governments start taking data security and citizen privacy seriously. That may be the positive side of the Yahoo! breach.

Jan 162017
 

Should a business spend a lot of time on its digital strategy? A recent article in the Harvard Business Review suggests many businesses, and consultants, are focusing too much on the technology.

Freek Vermeulen, an Associate Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at the London Business School, describes how strategists may be making a mistake in responding to digital disruption. He argues many industries are learning the wrong lessons from disruptors like Amazon, Uber and Google.

In Vermeulan’s view, the world is not a globalised as we’d like to think and the network effects that work so well in internet based industries don’t necessarily translate to other sectors.

As a consequence, businesses that work on the assumption their industries will be affect the same way as, say, the taxi industry with Uber or newspapers by Google and Facebook may well be making their own strategic mistakes.

Digital is changing the nature of competitive advantage in many businesses – just like major technological developments have done before. However, the change will not be uniform across all industries. Digital technology is affecting and will affect different businesses in different ways. Miss these nuances and your strategic decisions could lead you seriously astray.

That’s certainly true and how technology or a rapidly changing economy affects each industry, or business, is far from uniform.

One of the case studies Vermeulan uses is that of a consulting firm that has largely eschewed digital platforms and focused on its human assets – primarily the skills and connections of its associates and staff.

While that’s undoubtedly true of all consulting businesses to some degree, the use of digital tools and marketing is changing that industry dramatically as well.

Vermeulan is right in that some industries may want to respond more slowly than others to digital or economic changes, however a business that disregards them or reacts too slowly may not know what hit it.

Jan 122017
 
how are we using data in our business

Last August the centrepiece of the Australian government’s digital dream came to an end. The Canberra Times this week described how “the Turnbull government has quietly killed off one of its biggest plans for ‘digital transformation’; the hugely ambitious gov.au website project”.

The abandonment of the project was an ignominious end of the plans for a Prime Minister who had promised so much at the time of his appointment, and that a cabinet submission would be pulled minutes before it was due to be tabled indicates the convoluted politics behind it.

Bizarrely, that story ran the same day the Federal Treasurer revealed the government would be running a ‘pilot project’ to put more services online as part of their attempts to harness the digital economy.

That the Australian Federal government is looking to run some pilot projects this year is remarkable given twenty years ago, in 1997, the then Prime Minister John Howard announced all appropriate government services would be online by 2001.

Australian taxpayers would be well justified asking what has happened over the last twenty years.

It could be argued that Australian governments are not particularly good at technology projects given ongoing disasters like the current Centrelink debacle, the failure of the 2016 Census and the collapse of the Tax Office’s portal shortly before Christmas.

Probably the main reason for Australian governments’ technology failures is the lack of focus, as shown by the Digital Transformation Office barely surviving one year.

That lack of focus is even more problematic as digital transformation projects are more about changing cultures than revamping technology, often making them a decades-long process.

Without a long term commitment to projects and policies, initiatives such as the Howard government’s 1997 Investing for Growth or Turnbull’s 2015 Innovation Agenda are doomed to failure. Until Australian governments commit to longer term visions, it’s unlikely any of their digital dreams will be achieved.

 

Jan 112017
 

Last year the Australian Federal government had a smart idea. To fix its chronic budget deficit, it would use data matching to claw back an estimated three billion dollars in social security overspending.

Unfortunately for tens of thousands of Australians the reality has turned out to very different with the system mistakenly flagging thousands of former claimants as being debtors.

How the Australian government messed up its welfare debt recovery is a cautionary tale of misusing data.

Data mis-match

At its core, the problem is due to the bureaucrats mismatching information.

Australia’s social security system requires unemployment or sickness benefit claimants file a fortnightly income statement with Centrelink, the agency that administers the system, and their payments are adjusted accordingly.

Most of those on benefits only spend a short time on them. According to the Department of Social Services, two thirds of recipients are off welfare within twelve months of starting.

Flawed numbers

Despite knowing this, the bureaucrats decided to take annual tax returns, average the individual’s income across the year and match the result against the fortnightly payment.

That obviously flawed and dishonest method has meant hundreds of former welfare recipients have been falsely accused of receiving overpayments.

Compounding the problem, the system frequently mis-identifies income because it fails to recognise employers may use different legal names, leading to people having their wages double counted and being accused of not reporting work.

Shock and awe

Under pressure from their political masters, the aggressive tactics of Centrelink and its debt collectors have left many of those accused shocked and distressed.

I can barely breathe when I think about this. My time period to pay is up tomorrow. I asked them for proof before I pay and I have heard horror stories of debt collection agencies, people being asked to pay so much, people being told there will be a black mark on their credit. I am so terrified. It’s so stupid for me to be terrified but I can’t help it. I am a student, I can’t afford anything!

Reading the minister’s response to criticisms, it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that intimidation was a key objective.

The numbers of people involved are staggering. The department of Social Services reported 732,100 Australians received the Newstart unemployment allowance in 2015-16. Should 66% of those have moved off the benefit during the tax year then up to 488,000 people will receive ‘please explain’ notices.

Nearly half a million people being falsely accused of welfare fraud is bad enough, but that is only last year’s figures – due to a  law change by the previous Labor government, there is no limit to how far back Centrelink can go to recover alleged debts.

The System is working

Claiming the Centrelink debacle is a failure of Big Data and IT systems is wrong – the system is working as designed. The false positives are the result of a deliberate decision by agency bosses and their ministers to feed flawed data into the system.

How this will work out for the Australian government as tens of thousands more people receive unreasonable demands remains to be seen. Recent comments from the minister indicate they are hoping their ‘tough on welfare cheats’ line will resonate with the electorate.

Regardless of how well  it turns out for the Australian government, the misuse of data by its agencies is a worrying example of how governments can use the information they collect to harass citizens for short term political advantage.

Beyond welfare

While many Australians can dismiss the travails of Centrelink ‘clients’ as not concerning them, the same data matching techniques have long been used by other agencies – not least the Australian Taxation Office.

With the Federal Treasurer threatening a campaign against corporate tax dodging and the failure of the welfare crackdown to deliver the promised funds, it’s not hard to see small and medium businesses being caught in a similar campaign using inappropriate data.

More importantly, the Australian Public Service’s senior management’s incompetence, lack of ethics and proven inability to manage data systems is something that should deeply concern the nation’s taxpayers.

In a connected age, where masses of information is being collected on all of us, this is something every citizen should be objecting to.

Jan 102017
 

And so Yahoo!’s journey comes to an end with the company being renamed Altba and most of its operating assets given over to Verizon.

With the changes both CEO Marissa Mayer and original co-founder David Filo will leave Altba’s slimmed down board.

Mayer’s failure is a lesson that being an early employee at a successful, fast growth tech startup isn’t a measure of leadership. It may even be a hindrance given companies like Google were inventing new industries during her tenure there which develops different management skills to what a business like Yahoo! needs.

The biggest lesson of Yahoo!’s demise is how even the most powerful online brands isn’t immune from disruption itself, with what was once the internet’s most popular website being eclipsed by Google and Facebook.

Interestingly, as Quartz reports, Yahoo! is still one of the US’s most popular sites and only slightly behind Google and Facebook in unique monthly views.

Despite this, Yahoo! has struggled to grow for 15 years and has struggle to make money although it remains a four billion dollar a year business.

Which shows eyeballs aren’t enough for a mature web business, at some stage it has to show a return to justify its valuations.

Among Yahoo!’s many properties remain some gems like Flickr and it will be interesting to watch what Verizon does with them. Sadly any successes will be tiny compared to what the company once promised.

Jan 092017
 

For most of its existence, Uber hasn’t been shy about claiming to be at the forefront of the future of transport which fits into yesterday’s announcement of Uber Movement which promises to provide aggregated and anonymised trip data to give communities and businesses an overview of road usage in their districts.

Jordan Gilbertson,  one of the company’s Product Managers, and Andrew Salzberg, Head of Transportation Policy, described how Uber intends to make transit time data available.

Uber trips occur all over cities, so by analyzing a lot of trips over time, we can reliably estimate how long it takes to get from one area to another. Since Uber is available 24/7, we can compare travel conditions across different times of day, days of the week, or months of the year—and how travel times are impacted by big events, road closures or other things happening in a city.

As the Washington Post reports, transport agencies do already have a lot of data on some aspects of commuter behaviour – particularly public transport usage – and the Uber information fills as ‘missing part of the puzzle’.

Taxis and buses are also increasing equipped with real time tracking equipment that also gives this data while traffic services like Wayze have been collecting this information for a decade.

So agencies aren’t short of this data and the concentration of Uber’s customer base in more affluent areas means their information may be skewed away from poorer areas. Recently a Sydney taxi driver mentioned to me how he’d stopped driving for Uber because most of the city’s sprawling Western Suburbs where he tended to drive didn’t use the service.

Uber’s offer is another piece in their data strategy that sees the company being a data hub for the logistics industry. It also helps if you’ve co-opted governments into your scheme.