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“We need to talk more about digitalisation”

Digitalisation will change our lives in a vast array of different ways, and the technologies themselves cannot have sole right to conduct the conversations about this, believes Professor Leir Skiftenes Flak at the Centre for Digital Transformation.

Washing mashine, photo
In a few years’ time our homes will be filled with smart products. But who owns the data, and how should they be used? This is just one of the challenges of digitalisation, says Professor Leif Skiftenes Flak.

What is digitalisation, really?

Leif Skiftenes Flak, foto

Professor Leif Skiftenes Flak at the Department of Information Systems.

“It is easy to think that it is something technical, that digitalisation is just attaching electricity to a box, or a process which already exists. But really, it is about fundamentally changing the way we work. It reaches extensively into the workplace, our private lives and our society. Let us take the health sector as an example. The elder boom means that we will not be able to continue solving tasks in the same way that we do today. If we use technology to automate a number of routine tasks, we free up our time so that health workers can focus on more demanding and necessary things”.

What about other elements of society?

“Look, for example, at how the music branch has changed during the last few decades. Previously, we were dependent on local music shops in order to get hold of music, but now all we need are the various streaming services in existence. We still listen to music, but the local shop is gone. There are many similar examples. We still need shoes, but an increasing number of them come from an online shop in Germany. We still like to travel away on holiday, but we don’t any longer need the local travel agency since we have the internet. Most of us are still dependent on having a bank, but we don’t need to actually go to the bank to take care of things any more. All of these things affect our society in different ways.

What about the dangers of digitalisastion? What do we need to watch out for?

“Facebook is, in many ways, a success story which brings the whole world together. But on the other hand, we can be dubious about the power to influence over 2.3 billion people existing in one company which, to only a limited extent, is subject to democratic control. A few companies are acquiring a great deal of power, and there are very few regulations in this area as of today – even though the EU has begun to get involved now. If – or when – companies like this decide to use their power to influence democratic processes or misuse the knowledge they have about a great number of us, then the situation will be really serious.

Digitalisation is something that everybody is talking about now – everything from public services to teaching in schools and industry and commerce are to be digitalised. Is everybody talking about the same thing?

“Everybody has a different understanding of what digitalisation is, and what they emphasise within it. For some it is still about accessing a website or online shop. For others it can be about exploiting technology such as artificial intelligence, blockchain and the Internet of Things in order to do things in new ways – or to do things that have never been done before. There is a lot of talk about what we can use data for”.

Yes, regarding data; It has been suggested that strong privacy protection rules are causing Norway to lag behind, for example in relation to China. How can we bring ourselves up to speed in terms of digitalisation if we meet challenges like this?

“Here, there is disagreement amongst researchers. Some have pointed out that privacy protection is a barrier, whilst others believe that our somewhat limited access to data forces us to develop better algorithms than those who have an abundance of data. This is simply because algorithms which are developed with small datasets have to be smarter than algorithms which are developed with large datasets in order to provide the same level of precision. I do believe, nevertheless, that researchers should have access to a greater number of datasets than they do today. In a number of cases, it will be possible to use synthetic data – in other words data which represent real data but which cannot be traced back to individuals. Work is being done to establish such anonymised data from large Norwegian registers which can be used for research. Whether or not this will help everyone who needs large datasets is uncertain, be we should be careful sacrificing privacy protection just because we have a problem we want to solve. In which case, we solve one problem but create another.”

Shouldn’t we be able to trust that researchers take good care of our data?

“Yes, we should really. But there is a question as to how far trust should go, and the potential height of the fall if that trust is misused. When information about 50 million Facebook users went astray through what we know as the Cambridge Analytica scandal, this all originated with one Cambridge professor taking a by-job for Cambridge Analytica’s holding company”.

What will the most important challenge be for digitalisation in the future?

“Privacy protection and data security will be important elements. There will be a range of challenges connected to the regulation of data, for example touching upon the Internet of Things. Who owns the data when we put sensors in everything from fridges to toilets, how should these data be exchanged, and what rules apply for their use? What laws apply on the internet? Big companies like Google and Apple sell us costly products which send them data about when we turn off the light at night and how we move. What will this be used for – and do we want this?

The Norwegian Data Protection Authority warns in steadily stronger terms about this, but few seem to care. The EU has taken initiative to the privacy protection legislation GDPR and a new copyright law. This has created an international storm, but I hope we will see more supranational guidelines in the time to come”.

Norway has a digitalisation minister now – was that necessary?

“Yes, it is important to direct political focus onto one of the more significant tendencies in our society, and give digitalisation something along the lines of the attention it deserves. But I don’t think it will be enough”.

Why not?

“Firstly, because the ministerial position will be under the auspices of the Ministry of Local Government and Modernisation. Public digitalisation must occur across ministry lines if citizens are to have seamless services in the future. In this respect, the digitalisation minister must be able to influence how the other ministries prioritise. In Denmark, modernisation and digitalisation have been placed under the Ministry of Finance, a ministry with a much larger budget and ability to follow through. I believe that, in Norway too, we must equip ourselves with more powerful tools for the work with digitalisation”.

What will the minister’s most important task be?

“Many people do not understand the full scope of digitalisation, so the minister must create a sense of understanding both within the public administration and in society as a whole. But he must also think himself. There are many forces pressing for an increase in the speed of digital development. It is important to take a step back and to think about the consequences. What will all of these changes in public services and in the workplace do to our society and the rights of the individual?”

You are the director of the Centre for Digital Transformation (CeDiT). What do you do

“We have just recently been established, and we will be working to understand the social consequences of digitalisation. There are 28 researchers in the group, and we have five PhD candidates with five more on their way in. Our projects will, for example, be about smart cities, education, the various consequences of social media, and administration at national and international levels”.

Is there still need for expertise within digitalisation?

“Yes, both in the development of technologies and how these can be used in the best way possible. There will also be a significant need for expertise within information security and what you can term “digital competence” – expertise regarding how the technologies of today and tomorrow can work together with people in new ways in order provide the business sector with competitive power, and justifiable innovation in the public sphere. But other subjects must also enter into the equation in order to discuss digitalisation. The digital shift will have such wide-ranging consequences that it deserves to take up a larger position in the public debate”.

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