What should the government do with blockchain?

Today I’ll be asking the government what they have learnt from an ongoing trial in which benefits are paid to people via a system using blockchain (or distributed ledger) technology. A blockchain is an asset database that can be shared across several networks, and the trial – run by fintech company GovCoin and researchers at University College London – pays participants through an app on their smart phone which connects them to various services.

I passionately believe in the potential for technology to transform our lives for the better and think it essential that both government and society start from the point of a considered can, rather than a fearful can’t. I hope that learning more about the Govcoin trial will help us all understand, and be part of, the changes that are coming. I also believe the government needs to look wider than the Department for Work and Pensions for applications of this technology; across Whitehall and the whole public sector and also seriously consider the move from proof of concept to pilot to scale.

Advances in technology can absolutely be about empowering, enabling and creating closer more effective relationships. Distributed ledger techonology, if applied properly by seriously addressing issues of privacy, security, identity and trust, can offer incredible benefits to us all, including, but not limited to, reduced costs for government (and taxpayer) and better services for individuals.

As a member of the Lords Committee on Financial Exclusion our report, published this weekend, found that more than 1.7m people in the UK do not have a bank account, further estimates suggest at least 600,000 older people are financially excluded. A combination of  distributed ledger technology and developments such as the Payment Services Directive 2 (PSD2) could lead to greater financial inclusion of people currently on the fringes of the financial system. These are serious and tangible benefits.

Another significant area of potential is the transformation of the relationship between government agencies and citizens. Greater transparency and trust should lead to a more equal, connected and far closer relationship. But this will not happen as a matter of course and there needs to be a principles-based, appropriate framework that is underpinned by an understanding of the philosophical, psychological and legal issues at play.

The best way for the government to move ahead with the work is to adopt clear, honest communication with the public. There must be clarity about what the government is trying to do and how to get there – and crucially how it’s a joint endeavour. This means a further shift towards user-centric service design and co-production that sees people as active parties, rather than passive recipients. People must understand the value of their data and have ownership of it. The Digital Economy Bill, currently making its way through parliament, offers a start in dealing with some of these questions and considerations but lacks ambition and has provoked understandable concerns regarding privacy and data sharing powers.

Digital Skills Select Committee Report Published

Chris on screen, Sky Digital View

The report, entitled “Make or Break: The UK’s Digital Future”, urges the incoming Government to seize the opportunity to secure the UK’s place as a global digital leader and makes some significant recommendations. Key recommendations are: treating the internet as a utility and prioritising and regulating it in the same way as other essential utilities, making digital literacy a core subject, as important as English and Maths and putting a single “Digital Agenda” at the heart of Government with a Cabinet Minister responsible for it. Chris feels strongly about the need to set more ambitious goals and urges the next Government to adopt the Committee’s recommendations.

Full report

Media reports

Incredible new 3D audio technology

 

Chris sitting on BBC Breakfast sofa to discuss new technologu to help visually impaired people

Chris being interviewed about new technology to help visually impaired people.

Chris took part in a trial of an amazing new device, currently at prototype stage, that equips blind people with extra tools and information when navigating city centres, including accessing public transport.

Speaking on Radio 5 live Chris described the headset as “your navigator, personal guide, transport information, local historian, all the (information about) shopping stuff… It’s absolutely incredible. And it’s the confidence it gives you. It was the first time I had done that route and it just felt so comfortable.”

The technology – developed by Microsoft, Guide Dogs and the UK government’s Future Cities Catapult – takes the form of a smart headset paired with a Windows Phone app, which has been designed for people with sight loss.

The headset is a modified pair of headphones, which hooks over the wearer’s ears and rests on their jaw bone, transmitting sound to their inner ear using vibrations. This means that the wearer can hear sound from the headphones and from their environment simultaneously.

Microsoft has added a small 3D-printed box on the back of the headset containing an accelerometer, a gyroscope and a compass, as well as a GPS chip, so that the user’s position can be tracked.

Click here for further media coverage of the device…