Will there be a TechCity South, East or West?

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Two weeks ago a TechNorth programme which aims to connect six digital clusters in the north was launched by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg.

The cluster aims to connect Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield, Liverpool, Hull and the North-East (Newcastle, Sunderland and the Tees Valley) in a bid to create a technology hub similar to that of Tech City in East London.

But what about the rest of the UK, asked Bonnie Dean, chief executive of Bristol & Bath Science Park? She fired this question at the minister of state for universities, science and cities, Greg Clark MP who took up this new role after the last Cabinet reshuffle.

Speaking at Innovate UK's conference in London today, Clark dodged the outright question by saying he had a funding pot of £12bn over the next six years called Growth Deal. The idea behind Growth Deal is clusters can pitch for this funding which comes directly out of central government thinking along the lines of 'if you had control over this money - rather than central government - what would you do with it?'

Clark told delegates how he'd just completed the first Growth Deal in Exeter, for a £97m super computer project which is also funded by the university and local businesses. The super computer will be used by the Met Office due to its data handling excellence, but what Clark called the world's best super computer will also be located on the Exeter Science Park.

"This is a good example of a national investment, combined with a devolution of local funding which can produce something that can be excellent," said Clark.

So maybe we won't be seeing a number of Tech Cities popping up all over the country, but Clark encouraged Dean's Bristol and Bath Science park to make a pitch to government for a share of £12bn in the second round of funding which is about to begin.

Marketing and IT: One sure way to annoy IT people

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This week I learnt an important lesson. Apparently one way to stir up a room full of IT people is to say that traditionally IT has been a blocker to innovation. To be honest, I'm a little surprised I got out of that room unscathed.

While at Oracle Openworld in San Francisco this week, I attended a retail breakout session where three retailers from three different continents discussed a wide range of challenges they are currently facing.

Craig Demerit the COO and CIO, of the US fashion retailer Tillys said his company had merged its e-commerce team with marketing in order to focus on the customer.

I find this topic very interesting - and you can read my news story here - so when it came to the Q&A, being a cynical Brit I put up my hand to ask a follow up question and I led with "It was interesting to hear what you're doing, because it has been common for IT to be a blocker rather than an enabler..." Queue frosty laughter from a couple of people in the room and stares from the rest.

But Demerit agreed with me, saying the company works faster by being sat side by side, and the company no longer has nine months of bureaucracy talking about whether it should develop something.

After the session ended, a gentleman in the audience turned to me with a smile and said: "So do you not like IT people?" Awkward - I work for Computer Weekly!

When he found out I was a journalist he understood my risqué question a little more and we started talking. I said I thought aligning the marketing and IT department seemed like a good answer to the disconnect between the two, where IT often says "no" because marketing has no idea of the ramifications of what they're asking for.

This IT guy then said he would hate to work with marketing people - so maybe it's not a trend we're going to see widespread then?

But what we did agree on is that retail IT is one of the most innovative industries out there, comparing to markets like financials services or public sector which are bogged down under regulations, retailers are freer to enthusiastically say "yes" to a lot more. And looking at companies like Tillys, and our side of the pond, Marks and Spencer or John Lewis, these companies are definitely transforming their marketplace and the act of shopping from the ground up. 

Government needs to play the Game of Thrones

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Game of Thrones (soundtrack)

Game of Thrones (soundtrack) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Government is dependent on the big IT players, but they need to stand up for their share of power.

Speaking to Duncan Jones principal analyst serving sourcing and vendor management professionals at Forrester, he believes Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude is wrong in his approach to getting rid of the oligopoly of IT giants that currently supply to government.

"We are dependent on them," he said. "Oracle, SAP, Microsoft - they make great products. They're spending the most money and using the brightest people. You hurt yourself by not using them."

Talking about the recent news that the government confirmed plans to standardise document formats across the public sector, by rejecting Microsoft's lobby to be the preferred standard, Jones said he didn't think this was the right thing to do.

But he said that government needs to change its relationship with the big suppliers so they don't act up and end up mistreating the customer.

He used Game of Thrones and The Wall as an analogy of the predicament government is in at the moment, saying that government can stay south of The Wall where it is "sunny, but they have no power." Or they go North of The Wall towards the territory of startups and the "practioners of dark arts of open sourcery."

Like with all unknown ventures, it can be dangerous to venture North of The Wall.

Jones said that government must straddle The Wall and do a bit of both.

It then needs to take a high level holistic approach to developing the relationship. He said there is no point arguing with a big supplier over a small price raise, "You're always going to lose that argument," he said.

It's not a price war, but a long-term relationship and Jones said threatening to migrate to another platform may escalate the issue.

"Software companies want quarterly figures, but they need long term customers," added Jones.

 


Information sharing in government - stop scaremongering and let it happen

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The Telegraph has reported that the government is considering implementing an information sharing system across Whitehall.

An information system similar to customer databases used by Amazon and Tesco would share citizen details across departments and the wider public sector, in hopes for government to become more agile and intelligent.

Details could include: driving licenses, criminal records, university details, social information and energy consumption.

Aggregating and mining citizen data would allow the government to better monitor economic growth and population movements, identify troubled families and elderly people in need of support, and cut fraud, said the Telegraph.

But the following line in the story angered me:

"It will also trigger fears that data could be lost, in the wake of a notorious error in 2007 that saw CDs carrying the child benefit records of 25 million people go missing in the post."

I feel that this is just needless scaremongering.

Of course IT systems like this need to be secure, but in the cold light of day, digital technologies are far safer than sending a CD full of personal information in the post.

Why are we so focused on the "what if" hypothetical scenarios, rather than the "if we don't" consequences? For instance, across many NHS Trusts, health and social care systems are often not joined up. A child might be on a watch-list by social services because they think he/she may be subject to abuse, but if the child winds up in hospital or with the police covered in cuts and bruises, the two services can't identify this because the services are not joined up. Dare I say the words "Baby P"?

That is a very real, yet extreme example, so let's take it down a notch to the simple act of changing your address. Imagine a world where you fill in a single online form, and all government departments, local councils and associated organisations know you've moved house.

This is the world of joined-up IT services - making life simpler. So stop scaremongering and let it happen.

In the documents seen by the Telegraph, the government stated: "People tend to assume that Government can share data between departments to complete simple tasks, and are surprised to learn that it cannot."

Just please Whitehall, don't hide behind this assumption that people already think this is happening - make sure you are clear with citizens about your plans to avoid another Care.data debacle.

Think customer first, not technology first

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CIOs need to be thinking about the end customer and their experience of technology, not just technology for technology's sake, said Eamonn O'Hare, ex-CFO of Virgin Media and Tesco.

Talking to O'Hare this week, he said the top challenges of technology, media and telecoms (TMT) companies is that they're not well managed and often don't think of the customer first. The majority of companies are too engineer and product orientated and don't think very much about the customer - like BT, he said. But there are also the odd company like Sky who have got it right, and managed to package TMT products to customers in a user-friendly way.

You can take this analogy to board-level CIOs.  

At Computer Weekly I'm seeing a trend where IT execs are moving to board-level. Mike Sackman at Argos is a good example of this, he moved from Mitchells and Butlers to a board position at the retailer as CIO two years ago.

I get the feeling this is a positive step, as these companies are beginning to recognise the importance of IT and technology and are making sure it is represented from the top-down.

But O'Hare believes that most CIOs and CTOs in retail and TMT companies want to complicate life within organisations because they don't understand the business.

They can be intellectually arrogant, he tells me, and they want to hold onto power by using technical language and building up "impenetrable walls of IT." If these types of techies sit on the board, it can be difficult to think of the customer first.

"It won't be the classic IT person sitting on the board," he said.

He points to Laura Wade-Gery, poached from Tesco, she is now the board-level executive director, multi-channel at M&S. O'Hare said that you won't hear her use technical terminology - it's all about the "retail experience" or the "home retail experience."

"The last thing you need is someone talking about how the software doesn't speak to the hardware," said O'Hare - you need people who can harness the technology and use it to make the customer's life better. "It's not technology for technology's sake."

Another company which is great at thinking customer first is, of course, Apple. O'Hare said it has managed to get rid of any clumsy digital and techy words and made the customer's life simpler. As have The Tranline.com and eBay.

"Customers just want life to be simpler," said O'Hare. "Customer first, technology second."







Government drives away from Silicon Roundabout investment

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Back in 2012, the government announced to huge fanfare that it was putting aside £50m investment to regenerate Old Street's Silicon Roundabout (aka Tech City) in London.

The money was meant to be used to create facilities for startups and entrepreneurs by building incubator facilities in the East End.

But it has now been confirmed that the £50m earmarked for Tech City two years ago has not been used so it is going back into general expenditure.

City Hall and Number 10 gave Computer Weekly exactly the same response when asked why this money had been withdrawn:

"Given that a permanent solution for the roundabout will be technically difficult and some way off that money has gone back to general expenditure," said a City Hall/Number 10 spokesperson (delete as appropriate.

"It is normal practice for any money that hasn't been spent to return to the Treasury to help reduce the deficit," added Number 10.

Surely that money should be redistributed elsewhere?

According to the statement, the Mayor's team are now seeking alternative funding for a landmark proposal in Tech City and are collaborating on alternatives that might achieve the original objective over a shorter timeframe.

Meanwhile the statement was keen to point out that Transport for London is about to begin work on environmental improvements including landscaping of the Old St roundabout and improvements to the subway and station.

"These improvements form part of the wider work TfL is carrying out across London to deliver the recommendations of the Mayor's Roads Task Force to tackle the challenges facing London's streets and roads. This independent body brings together a wide range of interests and expertise, united in their commitment to major investment in street management and urban design."

So Old Street will have a tidier tube station and pretty flower beds adorning London's "rival" to The Valley?

But does the tech startup scene even need government's help anymore? Alastair Mitchell. CEO and co-founder of Huddle said Silicon Roundabout is currently regenerating just fine by itself. In fact Mitchell moved the Huddle team out of its Old Street offices because it was being knocked down to build bigger offices.

"I'm a big fan of market forces growing funds and investments," he said.

"I think government has missed the trick," he added. "There are far greater ways to drive innovation, not just in Silicon Roundabout but other parts of London, Birmingham, Sheffield, Manchester and also Cambridge. Lots of companies flock to areas of regeneration because the office space is cheaper."

Mitchell said that the Tech City area of London has done a great job of attracting tech companies, incubators, networks and investment. He believes government needs to fix the fundamental problems first -which is  spending more with SMEs.

"They're failing woefully on their objective of 25% of spend going to SMEs - who often operate in areas of regeneration," said Mitchell. "They're not pumping money into the SME economy, which would be the single driver of regeneration."

So rather than one-off funding projects, if government spent money regularly with SMEs - as they have promised to do - there would be less of a need to pimp up the underground and plant daffodils in the middle of Old Street. 

e-Commerce tech provides online magazines with seamless retail channel

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Bauer Media has begun a partnership with Atosho to allow readers of their online magazines to purchase products without having to be redirected to the retailer's website.

Bauer's Mother & Baby website will be the first magazine to implement the distributed e-commerce service, which claims to be the only one available in Europe.

After visiting the website and giving the technology a whirl, it indeed seamlessly integrates the online content and online shopping without needing to leave the magazine to purchase a featured product. When hovering over an icon of a shopping basket, an iframe pops up which effectively gives you a browser within the browser, without opening up a new page.

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This means that publishers would not need to worry about the threat of readers leaving their site due to a product they have featured in the online mag.

"We are always looking for innovative ways to enhance our readers' experience and believe that providing them with the opportunity to buy the products they are reading about without interrupting their viewing journey offers real value and is a genuine step forward in joined up e-commerce," said Tracy Holcombe, e-commerce and new business development manager from Bauer Media

Free iBeacon tech for retailers - but do they even know what to do with it?

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A specialist company has announced its ambitious plan to kit out FMCG, alcohol and publishing retailers - big and small - with free iBeacon technology.

Set up in 2013, Appflare has said it will provide the hardware, installation and management of the Bluetooth beacons for free to qualifying retailers for three years, as well as providing a campaign platform to engage consumers, including an app if retailers don't already have one.

Apple's iBeacons technology connects with an application on a consumer's mobile device and can send data to the phone, in the form of marketing messages.

Owen Geddes, Founder and CEO of Appflare said: "Retailers want to get their iBeacon solutions installed by September in time for the Christmas lock-down. Offering the service for free eases the installation process, which is great news for brands that are currently preparing their festive campaigns."

According to Miya Knights, senior research analyst at IDC, the UK is leading the way in beacon technology because it has a high proportion of online consumers, combined with a high smartphone penetration.

Knights believes this free implementation could push forward the technology. "The problem with exploiting mobile in retail has been the total cost of ownership, acquiring, and managing the technology. It's the whole package that needs to go around that kit," she said.

But Knights said that this technology comes with the caveat that there's a lot of background integration to be done around privacy and data analytics.

"Retailers know they've got the technology but perhaps they're not quite sure what to do with it," she added. "They're then very cautious because of consumer sensitivity to privacy issues and they don't want to be seen to bombard them."

The way Appflare intend to benefit from this arrangement is by charging the retailer when a customer engages with a campaign, firstly when the customer receives the targeted message, and then when they make a purchase.

Appflare says that its charges will range depending on the service, from looking after the app location data, through to delivering content and a closed loop reception, the charge could range between 0.1p and 5p.

Stephen Millard, CEO at retail technology accelerator Eccomplished said that while Appflare are being ambitious and removing the barrier to adoption, the retailer will only pay if there is an incremental value to them and their customers.

"Does it help them reduce other costs? Unfortunately today most shoppers wouldn't know what to do or how to use this tech...and neither do most retailers," he said.

Why working out the cost of Scotland replicating Whitehall's IT systems is so difficult

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If Scots vote 'yes' in the Scottish referendum later this year, Computer Weekly has calculated that Scotland could spend over £1bn on replicating the necessary IT systems needed to run an independent state.

Professor Patrick Dunleavy at the London School of Economics stated that hundreds of millions of pounds would be needed to build the necessary government IT systems, but no one has drilled down a final figure.

Computer Weekly has calculated an estimate of how much it would cost Scotland to replicate Whitehall IT systems based on GOV.UK documents and statistics from intelligence company Porge.

But it wasn't easy to figure out. And here's why...

Total Whitehall spend

Firstly, there are still very few definitive figures available for government spending. Research from the Institute for Government revealed last week that HP alone earns more than £1.7bn a year from Whitehall, with its main spender being the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), and Capgemini also depends heavily on spend from Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (HMRC). But "significant discrepancies" were apparently flagged up by DWP, and there just isn't the data to go anywhere near finding out what government actually spends on SMEs.

Meanwhile, intelligence company, Porge, which analyses invoices to show what public sector bodies are spending their money on, managed to calculate that central government spent £6.2bn on IT and back office outsourcing between April 2012 and March 2013.

This figure is significantly lower than the total spend figure floating around the internet which varies but can be estimated as up to £16bn. However the figures from Porge are lower because it excludes functions such as IT costs from the police. Additionally, Porge tells us that central government departments generally only disclose invoices down to a value of £25K, so the data would exclude smaller invoices.

So how can we figure out how much money an independent Scottish state may have to spend on replicating Whitehall IT, when we can't get a definitive answer on what Whitehall is spending at the moment?

We still gave it a go...

How much would Scotland spend?

There are still a lot of figures in various government documents, but some quote start-up costs of an independent Scottish state, while others cite annual operating costs, and it's rather difficult to directly compare the two.

Computer Weekly has extrapolated data to deduce it is likely the cost of setting up all the necessary new IT systems for an independent Scotland starting completely from scratch would be £1.6bn.

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But Scotland already looks after a number of devolved institutions including police, health, courts and education, yet the country still depends on Whitehall for critical functions such as defence, social security and financial matters.

An independent Scotland would not be able to exist without two of the basic functions of benefits and tax, provided by the DWP and HMRC respectively, so we stuck with those departments and drilled down the figures.

DWP set-up costs

DWP - surprisingly - was easy. The deparment has estimated a one-off cost to build a new social security system could be up to £400m (on top of annual operating costs of around £720m).

HMRC set-up costs

Sadly, DWP was the only department to be transparent with their Scotland set-up estimates. For HMRC a little further digging was needed.

According to a document from the Department of Business Innovation and Skills, Scotland would need to pay around £562m to create a whole new tax regime, but it did not provide a breakdown of IT set-up costs.

According to the same document entitled Scotland Analysis: Business and Microeconomic Framework - in 2011 HMRC's tax collection running costs were £3.6bn.

And according to data from Porge between 2012-2013 HMRC spent around £900m on IT which is 25% of the total £3.6bn figure stated by the Treasury.

Let's assume the running costs for 2012-2013 were similar. And from that we can deduce the annual IT spend for an equivalent Scottish HMRC would be 25% of the £562m total set-up costs, equating to £140m.

And according to The Scottish Government analysis of the cost of introducing and administrating their replacements for UK Stamp Duty Land Tax (SDLT) and Landfill Tax suggests that initial set-up costs equate to around 90% of annual running costs. If the same proportion was applied to the maths above, the total set up costs for a tax IT system for an independent Scotland would be £126m.

DWP and HMRC

For both DWP and HMRC the total one-off IT startup costs equates to £526m. But other institutions would also need to be replicated.

According to Porge, DWP and HMRC roughly came to a third of total annual Whitehall IT spending in 2012-2013.

But Scotland already have a number of devolved functions. It would not be unreasonable to assume Scotland's devolved functions including police, health, courts and education would take up a second third of public sector spending. Leaving one third which would include the remaining institutions Scotland would need to replicate from Whitehall.

Therefore the bill an independent Scotland would face for replicating the two thirds of Whitehall IT systems would come to £1.1bn.

A chance to build something better?

Some estimates over costs by various bodies have been worked out using the number of citizens - the UK has 60 million people, while Scotland has 5.3 million people. But if you are setting up a system from scratch the number of people doesn't matter. But the difference comes when scaling up the size of the system. I'd hope, if Scotland was to gain independence, they would take advantage of cloud software which is much better designed to scale in a cost efficient manner, over the mainframe systems DWP and HMRC are still running on today.

Take a look at Computer Weekly's analysis on the costs and challenges of setting up IT for an independent Scotland.


The challenges around PSN are still apparent as director leaves

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The challenges around the public services network (PSN) still remain two months after the project has moved into the hands of the Government Digital Service (GDS), as sources tell me senior people are unhappy with the project and are calling for change.

And now it has been revealed that director of the project Mark Pope left the project last week - and sources suggest this was because of "strategic differences".

Pope was due to speak at a PSN Summit event in London next week, and has now been replaced by Andy Beale director of common technology services at GDS, and there have been some whispers that he could also be Pope's replacement as PSN director.

Computer Weekly spoke to Beale this morning ahead of the event, and he said there would be an announcement shortly about who would takeover.

Beale said: "The initial intention was that Mark and I were going to do that [take charge] together, as PSN transitioned into GDS Mark decided he wanted to go and do something else so I have said I will carry on doing it on my own."

But there are still a number of issues around security and encryption. Sources say the encryption guidelines are not clear over which services need to be encrypted and which don't, not to forget regarding the encryption gateways between the PSN suppliers, some of which are not in place yet.

After reading the PSN Programme Directors Update from February 2013, the document stated that the Inter-Provider Encryption Domain (IPED) technical standards had been published and approved, which enables public sector staff to share information at the then higher IL3 security level over the PSN.

The document stated that IL3 service providers were moving towards IPED implementation, which would need to be "materially complete by summer 2013 to match Public Sector plans."     

It wasn't until a year later, that the Government announced that PSN was encrypted for higher security levels, explaining that IPED would comprise of services from at least six PSN-compliant service providers, the first of which include BT and Vodafone.

Yet, in the next annual PSN Programme Directors Update from the same month (Feb 2014), it stated that IPED operational readiness testing had only been completed between BT and Vodafone, with the two suppliers having returned signed IPED agreements. And no word from the other suppliers.

In response to encryption problems Beale said that PSN was "ambitious."

"If you look at this in terms of what it has achieved over five years, a very successful technical programme, but it is very ambitious and has a lot of different facets. One of the things that we want to do is, as I said, help articulate what it is trying to do and how it is trying to do it, and meet the needs of the user community better than it has before. So where there are questions coming such as that we want to be quickly in a position where we have a better product sell in terms of people understanding - so as a general point we'll try to make sure people understand what PSN is and how it works."

We asked the Cabinet Office for details of Pope's departure and this is what they said:

"Cabinet Office spokesperson said: "The PSN team moved to GDS from 6 April 2014, becoming part of Common Technology Services within the Office of the Chief Technology Officer (OCTO). Mark Pope joined the PSN programme in December 2013 to support its transition into GDS. With this phase now complete he is leaving GDS to pursue other challenges. Mark has helped build a strong foundation for the rest of the business to build on."

"We will be announcing the new organisational arrangements shortly."






A private GDS for local government?

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Could local government be revolutionised by a private Government Digital Service (GDS) - type organisation who could swoop in (at a cost) and make local government more digital savvy?

That's what Dominic Campbell, founder of FutureGov believes, he wants local government to become more digital. And so he should because that is the model of his business.

Campbell, who was one of Computer Weekly's top Rising Stars of 2013, said one of the big issues preventing local government from becoming more innovative with IT is the lack of people in senior positions who are tech-savvy.

"We find the problem is there isn't a senior person who understands technology, let alone digital in councils," Campbell told me over a coffee this week.

He said that he often sees the head of IT reporting to the director of resources, who then reports to the chief executive.

"These are the people who look after the servers - they're often not part of the organisational vision."

Campbell believes that technology and digital is still an afterthought among local government, compared to central government who with the backing of Minister for the Cabinet Office Francis Maude is now half way through its 'digital by default' transformation programme. The programme has seen GDS help central government to digitise 25 of its most used public services, with registering to vote becoming the latest transaction to go live.

"But only a third of council websites are mobile ready," Campbell said. "That's how councils view digital, is through their website, and they're not even doing that properly."

He also said that while his opinion of local government using G-Cloud is improving, the majority don't understand how to use it and won't use it.

"It's moving in the right direction, but it's a huge frustration."

Additionally, as a supplier on the framework, FutureGov has challenges with G-Cloud over its lack of flexibility and no easy control over cataloguing. "But generally it's great the way it's moving because people are starting to use it."

But some councils across the UK are innovating at a high pace, Surrey in particular has its own innovation space called Shift Surrey which has been running for 18 months. Surrey have also invested in FutureGov along with Nesta in January, and the Surrey director now sits on the FutureGov board.

Surrey is now able to use its Shift Surrey centre as a testbed for new technologies which could benefit the council. "They wanted Surrey to be the home of innovation for local government," explained Campbell.

FutureGov has created a health and social care solution called Patchwork, which Surrey, along with Staffordshire, Brighton, Wigan and even half of Victoria in Australia are rolling out.

Campbell said the idea for Patchwork came four years ago after the Baby P tragedy. He understood the challenges health and social care had for joining up information and wanted to solve it.

"I knew more about what my mate in Australia had for dinner via Facebook than a policeman knew about the life of a child they were working with. How do you join up the services and overcome the classic information sharing problem?"

"Practioners on the front line only wanted to know who else was involved and their contact details, so they could get in touch with the people working with the child," he added.

Instead of a multi-million pound NHS project, Campbell and his team created a way to share the simplest forms of data that the health workers needed. 

The consumerisation of IT could empower and divide citizens over healthcare

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Over the last couple of years a tidal wave of wearable technologies has entered the marketplace, which has changed the perception of fitness. Now at lunchtime, rather than going for the obligatory pint at the pub on a Friday, people are checking their fitness apps and Nike Fuel Band to see if they've done enough exercise in the day to deserve it. If anything, these devices encourage people to be more aware of their food intake, exercise and overall health and wellbeing.

This morning I woke up to the news that a US electronic medical record company has created the first ""wearable health record" app for Google Glass. With patients' permission doctors can record consultations using the device.

And last week Apple revealed its new app for tracking fitness and wellbeing. Healthkit will aggregate information from various other health apps including Nike Fuelband

But can this technology improve our medical care and even the NHS? Can the health industry take on some of these technologies to improve the lives of citizens?

These ideas were addressed at a discussion on the role of technology in public health at a TechUK event in London this week.

The discussion was held under Chatham House Rules which means I can't reveal who said what, but the overall consensus was that while technology could potentially revolutionise the health industry, we need to be ever-so-careful not to let that technology build up a wall between the digital savvy and the 11 million people in the UK who struggle to connect to internet.

One attendee told the story about a 90-year old woman who had caught the Apple-bug and used her iPad for everything. But she was becoming really frustrated that she couldn't email her doctor her observations on a weekly basis rather than trekking down to the surgery.

But another attendee said that while a heart rate or blood pressure internet-abled device could save an elderly person the weekly journey, they argued that person may also like the excuse to go down to the doctors or Post Office in order to get out of the house to combat loneliness.

The panel agreed that we can't assume on behalf of those suffering from the digital divide what might be best for them.

Speaking to Computer Weekly after the event, Luciana Berger, MP, shadow public health minister of the Labour Party said: "We need to focus on making sure we're not in any way widening health inequalities by putting forward technology solutions."

"We need to empower people and give them the choices to do what they want to do," she said. "But how can we make sure everyone has access to that information?"

While she is concerned about the digital divide, she is excited by solutions such as Apple's recent Healthkit. "How many million users have an iPhone in the UK?" she said.

She also said that the NHS is one of the top three priorities to UK voters, and Labour is well aware of how important it is. In that case perhaps we will see some technology-related health issues raised in their election campaign over the next year? 

Is the connected fitting room the future of retail?

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While eCommerce is increasing year on year, footfall into brick and mortar shops is falling, as customers are seeing online as an easier and cheaper challenge to buy their goods.

So what is the future of the high street? More closing down sales and boarded up shops as retailers fail to keep up with online competition?

I'm not so sure; I think there will always be some kind of demand for some physical retail stores, especially in the fashion industry. For instance, this weekend was a particularly sunny weekend for us Londoners, and after a leisurely brunch, my friend and I decided to head to the park. But she had made the big mistake of wearing jeans, and with temperatures peaking at 24 degrees, she popped into a shop to buy a skirt on the way to the park.

So whether you're picking up an impulse buy £7 skirt in H&M or your spending thousands on an Oscar de la Renta ball gown, there are some occasions when visiting a shop is necessary and even pleasurable.

And some retailers are lucky enough to have a steady flow of customers strolling through their doors to feel the fabric of a dress and brave the ill-lit changing rooms. But shops such as John Lewis and M&S aren't sitting back and hoping this will continue, they're actively looking at ways to make the in-store shopping experience better using technology.

From kiosks, iBeacons, internet of things (IoT) and augmented reality (AR) mirrors, the retailers have been at the forefront of in-store technology innovation. But it's not always paid off - John Lewis experimented with AR mirrors, and quickly dropped the project as part of its 'fail fast at innovation' strategy.

But now another technology offering for the fashion industry is on the horizon - a connected fitting room.

Avanade and Accenture's Connected Fitting Room is less gimmicky than an AR mirror and may stand a chance to make it into some of the UK's changing rooms.

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Already being piloted by Kohl's in the US, this 'intelligent system' uses a combination of digital, mobile, cloud and analytics to enhance the customer's in-store experience.

RFID tags allow the fitting room to identify clothes when a shopper hangs them up as they enter the fitting room. Their items then pop up on a touchscreen in the cubicle and offer a number of services.

The shopper can see different sizes, styles and colours available in-store which can be requested from the touchscreen and an assistant on the shop floor will receive an alert to their smartphone.

The Windows technology - which is the same tech which runs ATMs and kiosks - could also offer special offers and promotions or allow the shopper to login to their online profile and purchase the item online if it isn't in stock.

Danielle Lara, retail lead of business development at Avanade puts in plainly: "Retailers have been investing heavily both in the front of store and online, but changing rooms remain largely the same as they were five or ten years ago. Digital technology today, offers retailers a huge opportunity to innovate in the changing room and further improve the customer experience."

And the retailer also gains insight from this area of the customer journey. Real time metrics show retailers which items of clothing have been tried on, and perhaps send an alert if customers are tending to request an item in a larger size which could determine a bad fit.

And Kohl's seem to like it. It's been live in a small number of US stores since January, but the retailer has just agreed to expand the pilot to other stores to understand potential ROI before committing to the technology.

Now the tech just needs a retailer like John Lewis or M&S to trial it in the UK so it gets in-front of a significant amount of consumers. Will it be a 'fast fail' or an innovative success?

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What is the value of IT supplier events?

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Customer events hosted by IT companies are always interesting to the external observer - I mean, to someone who is not the buyer nor the seller. I am now attending the Orange Business Live customer conference in Rome - a large, two-day event attended by several hundred IT leaders worldwide. 

Every time I attend this sort of event, I keep on wondering what might be going through the minds of the CIOs that have taken the time off their day jobs to come and hear more about their partner - or possible partner. 

What is the value of coming to an event like this, rather than connecting to other customers of that same vendor through tools like LinkedIn, or even asking an analyst? How does the supplier present their competence in a compelling way without patronising potential and current customers? 

Talking to a few people at the conference, the general feeling is that IT bosses still feel that there is a lot of value in face-to-face networking, particularly if you are about to start a relationship with the supplier or review your contract - whether the idea is to scale up or down.

The CIO at a large European retail chain told me that he sees these events as an opportunity to see what his key partners are up to, both from a financial and strategic standpoint.

"I don't have time to attend all the customer conferences I get invited to. It really does depend on how  valuable - in financial terms - and critical the supplier to my operation. [These events] also work as a sanity check, I get to ask other people in totally different businesses about how they work with the same supplier," the CIO said. 

It was interesting to see a roundtable chaired by an OBS executive, with three of the company's key partners for the delivery of services: Cisco, Polycom and Riverbed. With complaints from CIOs about the lack of imagination and transparency on the vendor side - "their presentations and sales pitches always look the same," an IT director recently told me - still echoing in my head, I was prepared for the the same old.

Indeed, there was room for improvement in areas such as explaining how users can mitigate performance issues with cloud computing, how to deal with the complexity of hybrid environments, or even issues are not often mentioned, such as the cost of migration or complexities around quality of data ahead of migration to the cloud. But conference presentations always need to balance detail with keeping the audience engaged. 

Fortunately, there were some interesting and very valuable takeaways. Cisco, for example, seems to have 70% of its staff working remotely at least once a week, with yearly productivity gains of about $300m. The competing companies also said that progress has been made towards more interoperability though the Open Visual Communications Consortium (OVCC), which is chaired by OBS. This suggests that some suppliers really are "eating their own dog food" more often than they used to - or at least they are learning to present a more credible story in plenary.
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The myths of innovation

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This is a guest post by James Gardner, an innovation author and chief strategy officer at crowd innovation company Spigit.


In the last decade, Microsoft has spent between four to five times as much every year on research and development as Apple. Yet, their stock price has been flat, whilst Apple's has soared out of all proportion. If the conventional wisdom about innovation and R&D was correct, then surely the opposite should have been true.

It is an outcome which challenges one of the greatest corporate myths of our time: if you invest to create something genuinely new, something that's a breakthrough, you have a better than average chance of windfall returns.

When I was head of innovation at a major European bank, I believed my job was to create the next breakthrough that would change the business. I wasn't successful.

In my next role, as the chief technology officer of the biggest public sector organization in the UK, my challenge was again to create the next wave of innovation that would change everything.

Change happened, but none of it was of the breakthrough kind that reshaped the world. Instead, we made lots of little things happen, and they all added up to a respectable number over time.

The story of Apple and Microsoft, any my own personal experiences led me to research "Sidestep and Twist", a book which explores these issues.

It turns out there are important lessons about innovation that leaders - especially technology leaders - can learn once you take away the myths.

For example, there hasn't really been a genuine breakthrough that led to actual profits in the last couple of decades. All the "hit" products have been incremental improvements on something else. 

Another is this: patents, trade secrets, and copyrights seem to be less a driver of value than they ever have been. Those businesses that are relying on them are protecting yesterday's innovation: newer kinds of businesses aren't bothering.

And most importantly of all: competitive advantage is now less about features than building products that get better the more they're used. 

What are your innovation efforts concentrated on? If, like most organisations you're concentrating on genuinely new stuff, you might like to think again. History gives us a long history of failure for breakthroughs.

James Gardner's book "Sidestep and Twist" is available on Amazon


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Do you care about green IT?

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Last week, it was announced that Facebook has agreed to work with Greenpeace to promote clean energy, and encourage major utilities to develop renewable energy generation. So the goal is to run on clean, renewable energy rather than using traditional sources, thus saving money and becoming - at the risk of sounding extremely cliché - more environmentally friendly. 

The NGO is now trying to get other IT giants like Apple, Microsoft and Twitter to follow Facebook's lead and move towards clean energy. According to Greenpeace, the amount of electricity used by major IT companies to power their energy-hungry data centres is set to triple by 2020. 

Whenever I ask an IT exec whether they know the carbon footprint of the technology running in their organisations, the answer is invariably no. Or "we are working on it," but they rarely ever have real results to show in that respect. 

But some organisations have made progress. At Computer Weekly's UKtech50 event earlier this month, the technology director at Guardian News & Media Andy Beale was talking about the concept of digital sustainability, whereby companies would be able to measure the carbon emissions of a single click. More information about their work can be found here and here.

I found Andy's talk fascinating, but you could tell by the expressions on some of the attendees' faces that this is an extremely novel concept. How many organisations can say they are genuinely using technology in a sustainable manner AND using IT to reduce their employer's impact on the environment?

I would be very interested in hearing from any IT chief who is actively working on such initiatives.

Sure, the industry needs better and clearer guidelines on how to do this effectively, but those in charge of technology must be better informed and more proactive when it comes to green IT. If you are not working on it because you don't know where to start, then ask for advice. If you are doing this already, then share best practices openly. 

Given the CIO's powerful position to drive change when it comes to running a corporate environment in a more sustainable manner, rolling eyes and/or not doing anything about is not only irresponsible. It is simply not an option.
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How do you get 'the business' to 'get IT'?

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One of the ever-present themes in IT management is how on earth a CIO gets his/her counterparts in other parts of the business to "understand" what information technology can do for them. But how do they do that?

What I have noticed in all the years I have been covering IT and the management aspects of it, I have met countless "techies", the guys and ladies that actually like to get involved in the actual technology nuts and bolts and get very excited about things like the latest in PHP programming. Don't get me wrong, that can be exciting for some, but one of the things that I also have noticed is that, in recent years, the CIO has become a much more social kind of animal.

Because end users and managers in other parts of the business are much more familiar and knowledgeable about technology, CIOs have had to raise their game and use other weapons to not only secure their jobs, but also explain what is reasonable and what is not to colleagues who may think that rolling out an ERP platform is just as simple as buying an iPhone app.

But that requires some degree of emotional intelligence, or social ability, especially if the CIO in question has that much-coveted seat of the board. So IT decision-makers are having to distance themselves from the old geeky stereotype and become much better at human interaction, finding allies in other parts of the business, having drinks with people outside IT after work more often, investing more time in getting to know people on the ground who make the business "tick".

Of course, this is always easier said than done. The technical concerns are still there: the issue of legacy (you may be still trying to clean up the mess of your predecessor),complexity of the IT set-up and many others. But what the business wants is faster time-to-market and increasing demands for product/service innovation at a lower cost.

It is true that, in this day an age, most people will agree that IT is essential for any business to function, and yet IT bosses continue to complain that IT is still considered as a service and end up jumping ship, for many reasons including reduced budgets and "airtime". This is despite herculean efforts by CIOs to position themselves as a business partner.

The question that lingers is: how can you ensure that IT is positioned as an essential factor for business success? I will discuss the methods CIOs have been employing to try and make that happen in my next post. 

The value of IT trade bodies

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I was having a chat recently with a CIO at a large multinational who worked in several countries worldwide, including Brazil and the UK, about trade bodies and their function.

In Brazil, there is a myriad of trade bodies supposedly focused on helping the local IT industry to develop, export and so on. There are so many associations that the CIO in question didn't even know about those who are supposed to be more prominent.

"The IT sector is quite competitive, so there is a proliferation of trade bodies as a result. I have seen it happening in other countries as well," the IT executive said.

"I was never really clear about the benefits of joining these associations and the value that I would get by attending their functions or supporting projects that never deliver any concrete results - it seems to be always work in progress with these guys."

In many countries, the world of IT trade associations is seen as old-fashioned and not very efficient. I would be interested in hearing the views from people who take part in these trade bodies and also those who don't.

Is there any value in being a part of these clubs other than having something else to add as a current role on LinkedIn? What value did you/do you get out of being a member?

Clinging on to the past

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If you attend IT management-focused events and communities, then you have probably come across former CIOs. After stepping down from their last senior IT job, they decided to take a sabbatical to write a book, rethink their career, study their options, become an interim/advisor/board member somewhere, form a consultancy, become a visiting professor...

While the strategies people adopt after leaving a job vary, one thing I have noticed is that many of these professionals seem to use their old jobs as some sort of walking stick: it is not about their ideas, what they are able to do, their current projects, or future vision: it is all about the past. And at times, they boast about roles where they were not even all that successful.

You also see many senior IT folk clinging on to their old job titles for as long as they can, both online and offline. Perhaps to make as many connections as possible on LinkedIn since they are out of a job? But isn't that cheating a bit?

I have seen an IT executive speaking at a conference in London last year under the title of "former CIO at XYZ Industries". Sure, it's all fine to talk about a specific theme based on practical experience, but answer audience questions about what might happen in terms of the company's current strategy? The person in question was doing just that - not cool at all.

While it is perfectly normal to use your reputation to build connections and raise your profile, there seems to be a fine line between those who behave as experienced professionals who are respected by their peers and those who are perceived in the market as just another "has-been". 

Reports from on the water: more from the ITDF

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Following my last entry about the social media interaction (or the lack of it) at the IT Directors Forum, which took place last week, the following post is a summary of the event, by Comic Relief head of future media and technology, Marcus East.

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I have just returned from the fascinating and enjoyable IT Directors' Forum 2011 (ITDF11), a major technology conference, organised by Richmond Events and held aboard the luxurious P&O Aurora cruise ship.

At first, I was worried that being stuck on a ship with dozens of suppliers and potential suppliers would be less than enjoyable, but I need not have worried because it was an excellent experience, and one that I highly recommend.
 
The standard of the event was very high - from the initial cocktail reception, through the excellent keynote presentations and all the way on to the well- organised supplier presentations, it was obvious that the team behind it really understand how to put on a show that is relevant for the audience - and that delivers real value.
 
Specifically, when compared to other events, several things stood out at ITDF11.
 
First, the calibre of the attendees was very high, with CIOs and IT directors from hundreds of major organisations across a range of industry sectors, creating great opportunities to talk about the issues facing technology leaders, and the chance to share experiences with peers.
 
The quality of the event organisation and management was superb; the whole thing ran like clockwork from start to finish and the organisers must be commended on pulling off such a logistical feat whilst making it fun for the attendees.
 
Last but not least on the list must be the quality of the speakers and facilitators - they were outstanding and the sessions that I attended had the right level of research, insight and thought leadership; I have already started using some of the models that I picked-up at the event, and discussing projects and challenges with some of the great contacts that I made.
 
Not surprisingly, one of the main topics of discussion over the three days was the cloud, with many delegates talking about their plans to adopt cloud computing, despite the uncertainty that some still have.
 
Skills management for talented IT professionals was also high on the list, with many technology leaders thinking about how best to keep their most valuable team members as we come out of recession and economic growth returns.
 
All in all an incredibly stimulating event, and one that I look forward to attending again in the future.

 

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