Computer Weekly spoke to Parliamentary ICT director Joan Miller, to ask her thoughts on how Parliament should be using technology today, as well as the challenges of digital in an evolving world.
Miller says she is excited about the prospect of a commission: “Technology has become so much a part of how people work these days, not just an IT issue, it’s a business issue.”
She says the commission will allow MPs to think through the impact of current technology practices and future trends.
“I think the commission is an opportunity to look at the challenges,” she says. “The challenges are in an evolving world – are we ready for that evolving world?”
She believes there are many issues for Parliament to debate, including the use of technology and how that will change the way Parliamentarians works.
Her job role is to manage the internal technology in Parliament, providing all the applications, systems and devices used by the House of Commons and House of Lords.
She says we are living in a world overloaded with information from modern technology. Parliamentarians need to consider big data, how they select the information they need, which is useful, and how they will engage this information with the public.
“I think the mechanisms for accessing information has become easier, but the information has become more dense,” she says.
The digital divide
One concern the commission is determined to address is that of the digital divide. Society is divided by those who are connected to the internet and use it regularly, and those who do not use the internet and social networks. The government is aware of the problem, and is working through the commission and the Government Digital Service to solve it.
“Many MPs are using social networks and connecting directly with many members of the public,” says Miller. “That also has the opportunity to exclude people who are not involved with technology as much. What do we do with about the population who do or can’t have access to it?”
But Miller - who is hoping to provide evidence to the speaker’s commission - says the digital divide is not a new problem and has always been a challenge.
In the 1990s, Miller worked in local government at a time when there was talk about changing services in line with the development of the internet. “I was working in social services and providing services for older people,” she says. “It was quite difficult to see where the internet could help older people who didn’t have a computer.”
Announcing the commission in November 2013, Bercow said it may explore the possibility of voting for elections online.
The idea of being able to vote online at home has been around for many years, but it has been thwarted by authentication problems.
Miller says there were a number of experiments in the 2000s in voting using mobile phones in local elections, and this created quite a deal of interest from citizens.
“But I think the difficulty is being absolutely sure that the right people are voting. If you can be sure the right people are voting, then it’s possible and probably more engaging than having to go to a polling station.”
She says authentication is a general issue, not just a technical issue.
“If you walk into a polling station you say who you are, but the people behind the desk won’t know your face, you just say where you live,” she says.
“Authentication is a problem and has always been a problem. I think technological authentication is a bigger problem, as you can scale up the activity using the electronic fraud than if you were walking into a polling station.”
But she says there must be some solution for all citizens to vote online, as there are authentication methods used regularly such as completing a tax return online.
“I don’t think online voting is a long way off, there’s quite a lot of authentication we could trust and go with. People usually trust their electronic authentication when they’re logging into banks, so there are answers – we’ve just got to be smart about the technology that will give us those answers.”
Miller hopes the commission will pick up on the ethical issue of the development of smart machines and the internet of things.
She believes the ability of inanimate objects to make and run activities will have an impact on the role of the population.
3D printing, for instance, is still in an early adoption phase, but she says there have already been experiments with printing from organic materials, as well as spare parts for other machines. “There’s an ethical dimension to that. It would be a subject for Parliamentarians to think about the legislation required to manage that,” she says.
Along with providing the IT applications used by MPs, Miller’s team also provides electronic products to reduce the need for paper.
Miller has issued tablet devices to the 23 committees who have gone paperless. They receive papers for committee meetings electronically and use the tablet device to read the papers.
“When it comes to very complex discussions – like finalising a report and being able to look at all the details – they might use paper. But for the large part they’ve been using electronic papers.”
Parliament has been experimenting with iPads since 2010. “IPads were the only product on the market in 2010,” she says.
“We have a security wrap around the iPads we provide but also, looking at other products, we’re not tied to any particular product, so far we haven’t found a better product.”
Miller also issues desktops and laptops to MPs, and she says MPs are adopting a lot of bring your own device (BYOD) platforms in smartphone and tablet devices. She says IT provides a security wrapper around the devices being used in a BYOD programme, but says she is unable to talk in depths about Parliament security strategies.
Parliament plumps for Microsoft
Parliament is mainly a Microsoft house, and is currently in the middle of an Office 365 pilot, which Miller says is going very well.
“We’ve been working on this project for two years – it’s a long feasibility study. We looked at different products and we’re now focused on the 365 product and we are aiming to roll out live service sometime in the New Year,” she says.
Miller says Parliament is looking at cloud services for mobility. “We have very mobile users, and the opportunity of 365 allows to them to access information wherever they roam.”
She also says it is cheaper to use services provided by a big supplier and Microsoft is convenient for Parliamentary use at the moment.
But Parliament – similarly to government – is looking to create a more open source environment with its IT infrastructure. The biggest area of effort lies in creating publications from open data resources, that can be used internally and externally, so citizens can use the information as they see fit.
One way Miller is hoping to create more of an open source environment is by including smaller SMEs as well as the big suppliers.
She says Parliament has a very wide range of suppliers including SMEs, who are just as important as larger suppliers like Microsoft.
A few weeks ago, Parliament and the Rewired State Organisation organised a hackathon to encourage developers to code applications using Parliamentary data.
“The developers spent 48 hours hacking away and came up with 18 products, some of which were extremely exciting – I think we’re already looking at some of those products.”
While some applications were gaming products, others were even more interesting to Miller as they used Parliamentary data and managed to join up some of the information for its electronic business papers, these include chamber papers, Hansard, electronic petitions, Parliamentary questions and early-day motions.
“That would be extremely interesting, not just for the public, but also for our members and more professional users of parliamentary data.”
Miller says one of the developers managed to take the huge amounts of text from a whole paper and automated the text into a context of a particular topic that a member of the public may be interested in.
“So yes, new technology can create real focused information out of a huge amount of text – most of which is not relevant, so it allows people to read about an expert opinion and parliamentary opinion in the manner that is focused on the subject that they’re interested in.”
Miller notes that the digital world is completely unpredictable. “There’s such a wide view, but I don’t know anybody who can see more than 2/3 years into the future,” she says.
“The only predication is that something will happen and it will be big. And if you look at the internet of things, there’s so much that could happen, it’s impossible to judge how people will adapt to and adopt those opportunities.”