Chi Onwurah: Government can do more for IoT, digital inclusion

    Labour minister unimpressed by UK government's IoT effort

    (Image credit: Chronicle Live)

    Labour shadow minister of state for culture and the digital economy says the government has some way to go if IoT is to truly transform businesses, industries and economies.

    Speaking exclusively to the Internet of Business earlier this month, Onwurah gave an enlightening view of the impact these technologies will have on society, the sectors they will come to play in, as well as touching on the challenges around data sharing, standards and security.

    Formerly an engineer, Onwurah has been extremely vocal on the potential of IoT, previously claiming it will be the biggest change since electricity.

    She continued in that vein when speaking to me earlier this month, saying that this technological concept will greatly improve our lives and businesses.

    “I really do believe that the IoT has the potential to change the way we live more than anything…it’s a platform for change and progress in every sector,” she told IoB.

    Indeed, she believes that the benefits of the Internet of Things can already be seen in the energy sector, and in transport and logistics.

    She cites the early examples of smart parking and smart cities, but ultimately believes that we could get to a time where your daily commute “works for you, rather than the other way around.”  As an example of this, she’s previously talked of a IoT-enabled public transport system where “buses that stop where you want them to, where you want them to, but don’t stop if you’re not there.”

    Such projections are grand indeed and I ask her is the IoT/M2M market is already at risk at being overhyped ahead of time, something I alluded to in our recent newsletter.

    Onwurah admits that hype can sometimes cause more harm than good but – citing the ever-growing cyber-security market – believes that it can be helpful for driving awareness.

    “It’s hard unless there is hype – people don’t take an interest in it, especially in the cyber security space, unless there is some hype.”

    You might like to read: ‘Internet of Things the biggest change to our lives since electricity

    What sectors lead the way?

    Chi’s Labour party, and the Conservative government, are well aware of the early traction in IoT with smart metering, but Onwurah admits that even this example shows some of the difficulties that lie ahead for all sectors with IoT deployments. It’s not a sprint, but rather, a marathon.

    “I guess smart metering is leading the way but it has still been a bumpy road.

    “The government could have taken great level with standardisation and set of directions so we go those benefits much more quickly,” she said, before adding that there’s still work to do on integrating newer technologies with smart grids.

    Nonetheless, the MP believes that benefits of IoT can be seen in transport but “there’s a long way to go”, especially around open data and designing truly useful applications. Healthcare, also, has huge potential but the Newcastle MP says that a “big barrier here is the data control, ownership and privacy.”

    Insurance, she says, is a whole another level with businesses not ready for the cultural and legacy changes, while issues remain over sharing and making sense of both real-time and historical data. For all this, insurers are emerging as an early-adopter of these technologies.

    Chi Onwurah is the opening keynote speaker at the Internet of Insurance, taking place at the M by Montcalm, London on the 13-14 June 2016. Click here to join her plus senior speakers and delegates from AXA, Allianz, Aviva, Co-operative Insurance, Google, Legal & General, Marsh, Munich Re, and more.

    Could the government be doing more?

    The British government hasn’t exactly been lagging as far as IoT development is concerned, with its raft of IoT-specific competitions and research institutes, as well as its extensive report by the government’s chief scientific advisor on the potential of the Internet of Things. This government has also been active through Innovate UK and – more latterly – IoTUK.

    Yet Onwurah believes that David Cameron’s party can still be doing more – and has voiced this on numerous occasions.

    In a TechUK blog post last year, she wrote: “We need a Government that understands the opportunities of the IoT and works with industry to mitigates the threats. Then we can look forward to not just the IoT but further innovation as well – things that have yet to be thought of.”

    Speaking to me, she said much the same: “We need a more active role from government in joining these challenges and setting a framework to help people and to make sure people are protected, which is the government’s first duty.”

    “I think there’s a long way to go and government must be proactive in setting the framework [around IoT].

    You might like to read: UK government announces £24 million Internet of Things research centre

    IoT data management

    The Internet of Things also represents a challenge for government internally too, not only on helping the private sector and start-ups to grow in the IoT area (resulting in benefits to the economy), but also around the sharing and management of data coming off these devices.

    Onwurah says that there are approximately 550 different ways the government shares data, something she claims means we now need “a new set of principles in how data is shared, to help encourage work with the private sector”.

    Cynics would of course argue that Labour would claim the government could be doing more, with the party habouring its own ambitions of power.

    Yet the party has been particularly active in this area, last year drafting the Digital Government Review document – a Utopian view of a digital government with digital infrastructure and skills.

    Onwurah claims, as it stands, that the UK is a long way off as far as digital infrastructure and digital inclusion are concerned.

    “Standards, data management but also infrastructure,” she cites as the roadblocks to a truly connected world, as well as a lack of software engineers and data analysts coming through.

    “We haven’t got the digital infrastructure we deserve. Whilst it’s a pain I can’t listen to Radio 4 on the train, or on the car down to Cumbria, if the security of my home or children depends on that, it must become another level of dependency and concern.”

    Open data and cyber security

    Information security is, as any reader of these pages will attest, one of the biggest barriers to IoT deployments.

    This is not solely fear spread by marketing departments at big security companies, but rather owing to hardware that is rushed to market, rarely (if ever) patched and often exploited by various software vulnerabilities. Adding thousands of devices into your workplace environment – and IT infrastructure – doesn’t currently seem such a wise idea.

    At the same time, IoT is being driven by open, sharable data and I put it to Chi if the two can co-exist. Can security be maintained in an increasingly open, interconnected world?

    “We mustn’t see security and openness as contradictory,” she said, adding that giving people more control and ownership can actually be a good thing, with people taking responsibility of their own information.

    Data management is, nonetheless, a pertinent issue with many firms looking to outsource to cloud providers or external off-premise data centres and warehouses.

    Onwurah argues that too many organisations continue to keep data “for bureaucracy, misplaced benefit of IP, or they’re just being risk adverse”.

    “People are not aware of the importance of the data for the Internet. The Internet of Things is a whole new level”.

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