This past week I had the pleasure to attend the Digital Assembly 2017 (1). The event co-organized by the European Commission and the Maltese Presidency of the Council of the European Union gathered around 4000 digital experts. It took place back-to-back with the Semantic Interoperability Community (SEMIC) Conference and the Electronic Components and Systems for European Leadership Joint Undertaking (ECSEL JU) Symposium. It was also the occasion to celebrate the end of roaming charges for Europeans travelling within the EU countries. Here are my three personal highlights from this thought-provoking week:
1 – The importance of science-based strategies – ECSEL JU Symposium
The first ECSEL JU Symposium gathered around 300 representatives of the electronics community. World class scientists presented the main technological achievements of ECSEL funded projects in various industries. They took the opportunity to debug several myths in health, mobility, and production. By doing so, they reminded us of the need to ground digital strategy and policy on facts rather than hypes.
In most industries, technology makes things better and cheaper. Yet several experts fear that innovation increases the cost of health care (2). The myth of fundamentally expensive medical technology is widely prevalent among those who consider the political and economic aspects of health care (3). Hospitals spend lots of money using somewhat outdated technology (4). According to Casper Garos, Head of PPPs at Philips, the problem is that surgical operations are often not well supported by IT. Too many independent systems are trying to communicate with each other. Most doctors do not have access to modern IT solutions such as AI decision-support systems (5).
In this context, Philips is developing a new generation of affordable medical solutions that improve the quality and efficiency of healthcare. One result is an imaging and intervention software that enable easy interoperability, require minimal operations, foster user interaction, and support automation, leading to a marked improvement in quality and speed of treatment in operating theatres (6). Other examples of medical technology includes the use of mainstream technology such as the Xbox Kinects to assess the health of patients with respiratory conditions (7).
Debates on transport and mobility focus on the rise auto-pilot technology. Yet, drivers are still very much needed behind the wheel, according to Werner Ritter, Manager Vision Enhancement Technology at Daimler. Even when they don’t drive the so-called self-driving cars, drivers must better be alert to the surroundings (8). Although car makers have made great progress in the past few years with semi-autonomous driving, numerous restrictions remain. For instance, driver assistance systems stop working outside well maintained infrastructures and in case of harsh weather (9). The technology is currently better at assisting the drivers than taking full control of the cars. The most advanced self-driving system in the market today are still somewhere between Level 2 and Level 3 of the six levels defined by the Society of Automotive Engineers (10).
2 – The shift toward user-centric data management – SEMIC 2017 Conference
The 7th edition of SEMIC conference was the most successful one so far with 220 participants on-site and a further 800+ online. The keynote speaker was Janek Rozov, head of the Department of Information Society Services Development within the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications (11). His department has taken the lead in rethinking the delivery of public services from an end user point of view. Most countries do not have clear idea of how many services are provided by authorities. However, understanding the end user experience is critical to improve to the overall quality of public services (12).
Rozov believes that there are almost no differences in the management of public and private sectors: “in both cases, you have to understand the end-users needs and provide them with services to fit these needs”(13). His mantra is “think big do small”. Anything that his team want to implement is first tested in ‘pilot project’ mode to see what works and what doesn’t. This lead to better collaboration and trust between his team and people from different authorities. Then the different projects are linked together to support Estonia’s digital strategy. The three main benefits of this decentralized approach of public services are the strengthened level of data security, the improved transformation of the public sector and the increased satisfaction of citizens (14).
Over the last 5 years Rozov’s team assisted public sector organizations in measurement and improvement of service quality. It helped to develop customer centric physical and virtual environments based on available IT solutions. It also improved awareness about how personal data are entered, used, and forwarded by various public institutions. Now, every Estonian citizen can check in one single place what personal data is kept by the authorities, how it is used (e.g. when and by whom) or shared between institutions. This strong focus on transparency seems to reduce fears regarding data protection and privacy (15).
3 – The challenges of the digital single market – Digital Assembly
Addressing the Digital Assembly 2017 in Malta hours after the EU abolished roaming fees, Andrus Ansip, European Commissioner for the Digital Single Market, praised the progress made on the digital forefront. “The Digital Single Market is Europe’s main asset in the international digital economy and society,” he said, adding: “It reflects the growing importance of the digital economy for growth and jobs, for society, for business and consumers” (16).
The Digital Single Market strategy aims to open up digital opportunities for people and business and enhance Europe’s position as a world leader in the digital economy. It is built on three pillars: first, a better access for consumers and businesses to digital goods and services across Europe; second, a level playing field for digital networks and innovative services to flourish; third, an intensification of the growth potential of the digital economy (17).
The strategy includes numerous initiatives, actions and legislative proposals that the Commission intends to deliver by the by 2020. For instance, the Commission carries on a strategic initiative to meet the challenge of making 5G a reality for all citizens and businesses by the end of this decade. It will make proposals to end unjustified geo-blocking i.e. the denial of access to websites in other states. It also considers some necessary steps to ensure the free flow of data by tackling data location restrictions (18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23).
Although signs of the data economy are everywhere, its only starting to take shape now. For instance, the directive setting out new rules for business-to-consumer contracts for the supply of digital services introduces the entirely new concept of paying with personal data instead of money (24, 25). This move gave rise to controversial debate. Many experts believe that data are neither a commodity nor a currency (26). Each stream of information is different, in terms of content, timeliness, and completeness. This lack of interchangeability makes it difficult to trade (27). The data economy requires the development of new economic theories and pricing methodologies (e.g. data assets markets, infonomics).
In conclusion, the Digital assembly really lived up to its reputation of being the biggest event to debate, take stock and look ahead at how Europe is preparing for its digital transformation. For one week, we learned from the world’s most exciting leaders, experts and scientists on all aspects of digital technology. The next Digital Assembly will take place in June 2018 in Bulgaria.