Bus Open Data: A data revolution but an accessibility fail

Ministers are completing the legal groundwork for the Bus Open Data Service (BODS), paving the way for new powers by the end of the year to ensure operators disclose data on fares, timetables and locations. Lord Holmes objects to the fact that accessibility data will not also be included.

The regulations would provide new legislation to require bus operators of local bus services across England, but outside London, to openly publish data electronically about their services through legally mandated data standards.

The move is designed to boost passenger numbers and support travel app development and follows Transport for London’s successful open data strategy and Transport for the West Midlands’s investment in providing a single data source for apps and journey planners across the region.

In London it is estimated that Citymapper and the Bus Times app had together delivered economic benefits of between £90m and £130m a year from travel time savings.

It has been over a year since the Bus Services Act was in the Lords at which time Lord Holmes raised the fact that there was no requirement for operators to provide accessibility data for vehicles or bus stops with ministers.

Despite these concerns, the Department for Transport failed to make such provision in the regulations and has even refused to provide a timeline for the when operators might be obliged to provide this data. Lord Holmes said:

‘It’s an extraordinary position that we find ourselves in. Over a year after we were told it’s not the right time to do this, again we see accessibility treated as a nice-to-have option or even an irritant rather than an essential element and an economic driver.

‘Everyone benefits from this having this. It is not an inordinate cost and burden. It’s not seen as an imperative for all concerned.

‘This information has significant economic and psychological benefits, it will help with rebuilding the economy and rebuilding communities by helping social ills such as isolation. There is nothing that is not positive and inclusive in this.’

 

The DfT has always maintained that requiring the disability data was too much of a burden for operators. However, this argument was dismissed by Lord Holmes.

‘This is just a deeply disappointing and avoidable mistake. This is not the hard stuff. The data is known. The specification for every vehicle on the road is known and it can be applied to the routes. It should have been seen as a positive step for all concerned.’

Bus Open Data: A data revolution but an accessibility fail, Transport Network, 8 July 2020

Bus accessibility fail is open to legal challenge, peer warns, Transport Network, 27 July 2020

Disability taxi access to Bank Junction is not a luxury but a necessity, Taxi Point, 3 July

 

Business and Planning Bill must include small breweries.

Today (13th July 2020) speaking in the Business and Planning Bill Lord Holmes warned that, if changes were not made to the legislation, hundreds of small business’ in the brewing trade may needlessly go out of business.

The relaxation of licensing laws for breweries, pubs and the wider hospitality sector to automatically extend premises licences to allow sales of alcohol off the premises, with social distancing and inclusive design,  is welcome.

However, hundreds of small breweries find themselves completely locked out, unable to serve their product to the public, successful business’ facing bankruptcy for want of small, doable, legislative changes.

Lord Holmes said:

“The situation, for hundreds of small breweries is, currently, precarious.”

“These breweries are facing a bleak, if not no,  future for want of simple changes to the legislation which would enable them to share in the unlock and have a successful summer.”

The current difficulties are caused by the fact that:

  • Some breweries do not have a premises licence and cannot offer takeaway and delivery directly to the public. This Bill will not help them during the Covid-19 crisis.
  • 1 in 4 breweries (around 500 of the 2000 breweries in the UK) do not currently have any way to sell directly to the public.
  • Small breweries have seen their sales reduced 65-82% because of Covid-19 and have not received the same level of financial support as pubs and the hospitality sector, such as the Business Rate holiday or £25,000 grant.

Lord Holmes said:

“65% of small breweries have been mothballed during Covid-19. Trade during the summer months will be vital for their survival.  We have the opportunity to make small changes to this legislation,  enabling them to trade successfully going forward.”

“We could do such a service for small breweries, if we legislated for an extension to the licencing relaxation to allow small independent breweries who currently cannot sell directly to the public to be able to do so on a temporary basis.”

“The innovation, ingenuity and hard work we have seen from the small brewers, over the past decade has been impressive.  New brands, flavours and concepts have brought new generations and sectors of society into, not only the product, but the methods of production and community centred approach that many of these business’ have taken since they were established.”

“Small legislative changes will make a big difference to our breweries, we owe it to them to bring them into the Bill.”

Read the Business and Planning Bill and all documents here.

TRUST IS BUST, DEMOCRACY HANGS ON: JUST, WHO HAS SUSSED, WHO IS FUSSED?

Portrait of Chris Holmes and Guide Dog

Chris Holmes and guide dog

Thirteen months in the making, today (29th June 2020) we published “Digital Technologies and the Resurrection of Trust”. Our Lord’s select committee report into democracy and digital technologies and a committee on which I was honoured to serve.

Thousands of pages of written evidence, hundreds of hours of in person testimony and many more hours of analysis and discussion distilled into 45 recommendations. Each recommendation standing on its own merit but, taken as a whole, with the potential to positively impact our digital experience and democratic engagement very much for the better.

Chaired brilliantly by David Puttnam, our cross-party committee approved every detail of the report unanimously.  Lord Puttnam said, understandably, it was like making a movie.

It has all the elements of Hollywood blockbuster:  David’s data, purloined by Goliathian tech giants. Our love for democracy tested to its limits, light and dark, duplicity disguised as dream, a man, on an unshakeable mission, ‘to do no harm’.

But this movie is already rolling and has been for well over a decade; picking, pushing, click bait, click hate, the more extreme, the more cash they cream.  The business model is simple, the more extreme, shocking or divisive the content, the longer the user dwells and the more monetizable the whole thing. The ‘attention economy’. Oh yes, at the same time, your data is stored and sold to the highest bidder for whatever they choose – they own it.  The bucks have never stopped here.

And the point, for some, is not to manipulate the democratic process. It’s not about backing a winner or determining the loser, the greater prize, is to destroy trust in the very democratic process itself.

As Lord Puttnam perfectly puts it:

“It is easy to forget the fragile foundations upon which so many of our freedoms are built – until they become threatened.”

And threatened they most certainly are, right now, under a “pandemic of misinformation and disinformation”.  Fake news is nothing new particularly not in the political arena.  What is new is the volume and the velocity which distorts and drowns out facts.  Yes, those fusty things, facts, thoroughly and fundamentally done in.

Covid could hardly bring a clearer screen for this moving picture. Fake news now ramped up to killer status.  In the midst of the pandemic, the anti vaxers, conspiracy theorists and Covid cures taken despite their incredulity. It’s not just the proposed Dettol that stinks.

Just this last week or so, two separate events epitomising so much of what we speak of in our report.  First, the Trump Tulsa rally.  Putting aside the decision to hold a mass rally during the worst pandemic in a century, let’s consider the role of social media in this scene.  K-Pop loving Gen Z via TikTok got heavily involved, creating fake accounts and snapping up vast numbers of Tulsa tickets they had no intention of using.  As a result, just over six thousand Trump fans in a venue fitted for over nineteen thousand. Interestingly, the true success of the TikTok attack was probably not the, undoubtedly powerful and undermining, images of empty seats but the destruction of potentially lucrative data for the Trump campaign team come the November election,

So, objective achieved, Trump, successfully trolled.  Successful, in its own terms, certainly but what of the essence of it?  Is trolling Trump any more virtuous than Trump twittering?

And now Facebook faces an advertising boycott despite announcing plans to prohibit hate speech and better protect groups such as immigrants from attacks. Facebook’s plans have not gone far or fast enough to prevent dozens of brands including Unilever, Verizon and Coca-Cola cancelling advertising for between a month and six months causing shares to fall more than ten percent over the last week.

What about freedom of speech? I completely endorse this right as the bedrock of democracy.  But what about freedom of reach?  It is significant and brings us back to that issue of volume and velocity.  Say what you like, it may well leave a rancid taste but your right to say it, is right.  But, when such views, for want of the bucks, are promoted and recommended by the platforms, this is a distortion, not a right, and, as we state in the report, the platforms must have a clear responsibility for this.

Our 45 recommendations deal with this principle and, also cover, in detail, the regulation, regulators, sanctions and more:

Regulation of mis/disinformation

We recommend that the Online Harms Bill (OH Bill) should be introduced within a year of this report’s publication and should make it clear that mis and disinformation are in scope.

As part of the OH Bill, Ofcom should produce a code of practice on misinformation – if a piece or pattern of content is identified as misinformation by an accredited fact checker, it should be flagged as misinformation on all platforms. The content should then no longer be recommended to new audiences.

Fact checking

Ofcom should work with online platforms to agree a common means of accreditation, initially based on the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN), a system of funding that keeps fact checkers independent both from Govt. and from platforms and develop an open database of what has been fact checked across platforms and providers.

Content moderation

The Government should establish an independent ombudsman for content moderation to whom the public can appeal should they feel they have been let down by a platform’s decisions. The ombudsman’s decisions should be binding on the platforms and create clear standards to be expected for future decisions for UK users. These standards should be adjudicated by Ofcom. The ombudsman should not prevent platforms removing content which they have due cause to remove.

A joint committee of Parliament would oversee the work of the proposed ombudsman, including setting the budget and having the power of veto over the chief exec’s appointment.

Political advertising

We recommend that relevant experts in the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA), Electoral Commission, Ofcom and UKSA should co-operate through a regulatory committee on political advertising. Political parties should work with these regulators to develop a code of practice for political advertising, along with appropriate sanctions, that restricts fundamentally inaccurate advertising during a parliamentary or mayoral election, or referendum. This regulatory committee should adjudicate breaches of this code.

Imprints

The Government should legislate immediately to introduce imprints on online political material. This could be done through secondary legislation.

Advert libraries

Ofcom should issue a code of practice for online advertising setting out that in order for platforms to meet their obligations under the ‘duty of care’ they must provide a comprehensive, real time and publicly accessible database of all adverts on their platform. This code of practice should make use of existing work on best practice.

Personal data in political campaigns

The Government should legislate to put the Information Commissioner Office’s (ICO) draft code on political campaigners’ use of personal data onto a statutory footing.

Algorithmic recommendation

For harmful but legal content, Ofcom’s codes of practice should focus on the principle that platforms should be liable for the content they rank, recommend or target to users.

Ofcom should issue a code of practice on algorithmic recommending. This should require platforms to conduct audits on all substantial changes to their algorithmic recommending facilities for their effects on users with characteristics protected under the Equality Act 2010. Ofcom should work with platforms to establish audits on relevant and appropriate characteristics.

Ofcom should be given the powers and be properly resourced in order to undertake periodic audits of the algorithmic recommending systems used by technology platforms, including accessing the training data used to train the systems and comprehensive information from the platforms on what content is being recommended.

Platforms v publishers

The report uses the term ‘platforms’ but holds them to a responsibility for a duty of care, responsible for the content that they promote to large audiences, rather than content they host. Ofcom should have the power to sanction platforms that fail to comply with their duty of care in the OH Bill. These sanctions should include up to 4% of global turnover, and powers to enforce Internet Service Providers blocking of serially non-compliant platforms.

Regulatory capacity

The Government should introduce legislation to enact the ICO’s proposal for a committee of regulators that would allow for joint investigations between regulators. This committee should also act as a forum to encourage the sharing of best practice between regulators and support horizon scanning activity.

The Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation should conduct a review of regulatory digital capacity across the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), ICO, Electoral Commission, ASA and Ofcom to determine their levels of digital expertise. This review should be completed with urgency, to inform the OH Bill before it becomes law.

Freedom of expression

We protect free expression online by focusing on what platforms algorithmically promote rather than what they host. This means that platforms would not be encouraged to remove harmful but legal content. They would be required to not promote it through their algorithms or recommend it to users. This gives people the freedom to express themselves online but stops it from reaching large audiences.

We also support free expression by improving platform’s content moderation decisions. We do this by requiring greater transparency of what content they take down so that the rules that govern online debate are clearer and by establishing an online ombudsman who will be empowered to act for users online.

Anonymity online

Ofcom should work with platforms and the Government’s Verify service, or its replacement, to enable platforms to allow users to verify their identities in a way that protects their privacy. Ofcom should encourage platforms to empower users with tools to remove unverified users from their conversations and more easily identify genuine users.

Online voting

We received a small amount of evidence that was in favour of online voting. In the round, however, opinion was overwhelmingly against introducing voting online. We heard that online voting might cause people to question the trustworthiness of election results and create fertile ground for conspiracy theories.

Exercising your democratic vote is an important act that should have some ceremony about it; visiting a polling station, for those for whom this is possible, is an important part of this. We should not seek to substitute or undermine this significant and important act with an online process.

Journalism in a digital world

We recommend that the CMA should conduct a full market investigation into online platforms’ control over digital advertising.

The Government should work urgently to implement those recommendations of the Cairncross Review that it accepts, as well as providing support for news organisations in dealing with the impact of COVID-19.

Education/digital literacy

Ofsted, in partnership with the Department for Education, Ofcom, the ICO and subject associations, should commission a large-scale programme of evaluation of digital media literacy initiatives.

The Department for Education should review the school curriculum to ensure that pupils are equipped with all the skills needed in a modern digital world. Critical digital media literacy should be embedded across the wider curriculum based on the lessons learned from the review of initiatives recommended above. All teachers will need support through Continuous Professional Development to achieve this.

 

Currently, we have a sub optimal online world that is contributing to the erosion of trust in our democratic institutions and processes.  We hope that our report and the 45 recommendations within demonstrate that there is nothing inevitable about this and, velocity aside, not that much which is new.

It’s in our hands, our (well washed) hands and as we type, tap, and share, we must take more care.  What kind of conversations and discussions do we want to be part of and on what kind of social media? Do we want rigorous respectful debates that are open, transparent, accountable and trustworthy?

If not, why not pack away the public square, put away the polling stations, and with muffled cry, let our democracy die.

It’s no one else’s democracy, save ours.

AI, A Public Good?

The Covid pandemic is providing ample opportunities to consider the potential of technology for public good, indeed, what area of public good is more important than public health? One example, the NHSX tracing app promised significant benefits although, unfortunately, these seem far from being realised. It does, however, give us an opportunity to look at where it has worked and consider the risks.

A recent report from Stanford shows how Taiwan managed to avoid the extreme lock down measures seen here and around the world yet still successfully limited and contained the spread of the virus. How? The report shows five interconnected factors: pandemic readiness, national electronic health records database, wide scale testing, big data analytics and the use of mobile technology to track movements of individuals who tested positive for Covid-19.

The benefits of a functioning mobile app are clear but the use of this technology has raised concerns around transparency, trust  and data privacy rights.  This is an important issue for public discussion. I am passionate about the potential of technology for the public good and believe there is no better part of society than the public sector to lead the charge in the UK’s role as a global leader in responsible AI innovation. Our Civil Service colleagues will be able to do a tremendous amount of social good if they approach the design and implementation of AI systems by making the realisation of ethical purpose and the pursuit of responsible practices of discovery a first priority.

Last year the govt published a guide to using artificial intelligence in the public sector.  The guidance consists of three sections: understanding AI; assessing, planning and managing AI and most importantly using AI ethically and safely. The guidance focuses heavily on the need for a human-centric approach to AI systems which aligns with positions of other forums including our work on the Lords AI select committee. The Guidance also stresses the importance of building a culture of responsible innovation, and recommends that the governance architecture of AI systems should consist of a framework of ethical values; a set of actionable principles; and a process-based governance framework.

I have asked the government what plans they have to put this guidance on a statutory footing.

I hope they will think carefully about the statutory and non statutory mechanisms to ensure the safe and ethical use of AI and data technologies. The government has also promised that a national data strategy will be published this year. It is absolutely essential that we get this right. If we make sure we are regulating in such a way that supports the design implementation of ethical, fair and safe AI systems then that really would be ‘world beating’.

 

End Disability Discrimination in Air Travel

Disabled people continue to face appalling discrimination when travelling by air. This is a question of equality and fairness and has been going on far too long. Things must change. I’m aware that these are incredibly challenging times for the aviation industry but if human rights matter at all then they continue to matter through difficult times and COVID-19 must not be an excuse not to act on such an important issue.

I’m grateful to my colleagues Lord Blencathra and Lord Blunkett for raising the issue in a debate in the Lords this week. Lord Blencathra, who is clearly a well-travelled man, reminded us he is unable to insure his battery-operated wheelchairs for air travel, meaning that when the “Miami baggage handlers dropped my lightweight aluminium wheelchair costing £2,500, the most I would get—after enormous hassle—would be $300.”

In 2014, as Disability Commissioner at the EHRC we supported Mr Stott in taking legal action against Thomas Cook.  Mr Stott is a permanent wheelchair user. When he booked his flight, he requested a seat next to his wife, who he relies on to assist with his toilet needs, eating and changing his sitting position. Despite requests at booking and check in Mr Stott was not seated with his wife who was then unable to attend his needs.

In 2016 we supported Athena Stevens when she sought legal action against BA and London City Airport for compensation following damage to her wheelchair. She lost the use of her wheelchair, and her independence for 8 months.  On both occasions the air carriers denied responsibility, hiding behind the Montreal convention, a series of rules for international air carriers, that limits the amount of compensation for anything that happens on board an aircraft to specific amounts and only for death, injury and lost baggage.

It is ridiculous to consider a wheelchair as baggage. We’re not talking about a suitcase or a set of golf clubs – this is a person’s mobility and independence.  Covid has helped us all understand a little more about the value of independence and freedom – but this unfair policy is trapping disabled people in a cycle of disadvantage. The UK govt and British air carriers have the moral responsibility to adjust the law and their policies – as other countries and airlines have – and welcome disabled customers back to their airlines.

Our Future State

Last week, (Mon 8th June) Chris gave the opening keynote at the Digital Leaders 15th National Digital Conference ND2020. The conference theme, the importance of resilience in an unsteady state, sums up so much of what we are all feeling and experiencing right now.

Over the course of the week the conference considered, innovating in an unsteady state, public services, work and skills, data and on Friday ‘smarter places’.

  1. Monday 8th June – Innovating in an unsteady state;
  2. Tuesday 9th June – Transforming public services;
  3. Wednesday 10th June – The future of work and skills;
  4. Thursday 11th June – Data in a new reality;
  5. Friday 12th June – Smarter Places

In his keynote Chris addressed how we have all found ourselves in this unsteady state and asked what kind of state we want, need and have the potential to bring about, as a consequence of this current crisis.

Chris highlighted that the mantra goes that “we are all in this together” whilst suggesting that although, clearly, we are all in this, but we are not together in many, fundamental, ways.

Chris suggests that what we need is a state built upon the common good, optimised through human led inclusive innovation.  Energised through a new smart social contract. His key point is that we can transition to this new state if we get the combination right of talent and technology, inclusion and innovation.  Every touch point, every decision, every intervention human led, technology augmented, the relationship between the two, optimised.

To explore what the re-conceived, ‘smart’ social contract could look like it is possible to examine almost any area of policy. Take state finance as one example.  A matter of months ago no one could have imagined billions being brought to bear to keep the economy and the country going.  The Government has, understandably, gone “tried and tested” but there are a plethora of existing and yet to be conceived means of approaching such a crisis.

We need to consider every element of the state; it’s structures, relationships, approaches.  We have the opportunity, we have the need to do things radically different for the benefit of all concerned and beyond.

Over the coming weeks Chris will lay out some thoughts on the opportunity in front of us and how we may choose to take it.  He will consider the stuff which, at first, might not exactly get the pulse racing but which can enable the most transformational possibilities to become real.  The areas to be considered: payments infrastructure, procurement, investment, sovereign wealth funds, Central Bank Digital Currencies and more.

Chris argues that it is entirely possible for us to have the state we want and need. A state that can efficiently and effectively interact, provide, enable, empower, unleash individual, organisational and national potential and play such a positive part for a new global relationship.   

It is not a matter of technology, that is subsequent. Technology is putting some phenomenal tools in our well washed hands but success will come down to leadership. The basis for a truly successful contract between state and citizen will come down to values, behaviours and real, respectful relationships, it will come down to trust.  We owe it to all those who have been cruelly taken from us before their time, to our front line workers who have selflessly put themselves in harm’s way and to the generations yet to come.

Chris summed up with a passionate call to action.

“It’s a Herculean mission, it’s the mission for our time, it’s my mission, if we are to get after covid and other future pandemics, climate change, mobility, resource optimisation, it must be all our missions, the journey to an inclusive digital state, enabled, energised through a new smart social contract, let’s get on it.”

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