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Calling in the experts: our roundtable on smartphone lifetimes

We've got some ideas to extend smartphone lifetimes and we invited some experts to put them under the microscope.

Ideas love company, and there comes a point in developing policy recommendations when a discussion with experts will turn good proposals into excellent ones. NGI Forward is exploring ways to extend the useful life of smartphones to reduce their environmental impact and last week we held a roundtable discussion on extending smartphone lifetimes. This is a complex issue with lots of moving parts, which is why we invited experts in a range of fields. We were joined by an impressive array of experts in repair, cybersecurity, software development, sustainability and European policy. Representatives of device makers, mobile networks, security analysts, advocacy groups and the European Commission pulled our suggestions apart and helped us put them back together.

Our focus on smartphones came from our work last year on the environmental impact of the internet as a whole, which culminated in our report: Internet of Waste. The internet and its underlying infrastructure use a significant portion of earth’s resources, consuming 5-9 per cent of global energy supply and creating around 2 per cent of global emissions. And the little black rectangles we carry around in our pockets and bags? They’re some of the biggest contributors. Europeans replace their smartphone on average every two years, and 72 per cent of their lifetime emissions are created before they hit the shelves. As a result, extending the average lifespan of smartphones from two to four years would reduce emissions by 44 per cent. More than half of Europeans expect their smartphone to last for four or more years, so it’s clear there is a market for devices that last longer.

We’d like to see smartphone lifetimes extended to five years by 2030 and our roundtable discussion focused on two areas that could help to contribute.

Short-lived software support

The software on a device needs to be updated regularly to keep it secure and running smoothly. When software updates stop, a device can become unreliable or vulnerable to data breaches. As a result, the lifetime of smartphones can be artificially shortened if a manufacturer stops providing updates before the hardware breaks. Despite the importance of software updates, most smartphones receive them for only two or three years. A 2020 Eurobarometer survey found that 30 per cent of users replaced a smartphone because the performance of the old device had significantly deteriorated, and 19 per cent replaced it because certain applications or software stopped working on the old device, so the influence on device lifetime is clear. 

In our roundtable discussion, we suggested that smartphone makers should be required to provide at least seven years’ software update support. We thought that setting an ambitious target would push manufacturers to think differently about the way they provide software updates, and also drastically reduce the likelihood of artificially shortening device lifetimes. We also suggested that device makers allow users to install alternative operating systems, preferably open source ones, at the end of official support. This would allow the open-source community to create software that runs easily on older devices and receives regular updates indefinitely.

Davide Polverini of the European Commission described the work going into developing legislation for extending smartphone lifetimes, which focuses on the Ecodesign Directive. The Commission is developing vertical regulations that will apply to smartphones and tablets, as well as reviewing the Directive itself to explore how it can be adapted to cover electronics and internet technology. Ugo Vallauri from the Restart Project and Right to Repair Europe pushed for the Commission to be ambitious and agreed that software updates should be provided for far longer than they are currently. Ugo also explained that the practice of serialisation, where manufacturers prevent repair by tying specific parts to a device’s software, is becoming more common.

Our other experts were broadly in support of extending software update periods, especially since analysis by the Fraunhofer Institute shows that the cost of extending updates from two to five years is around €2 per device. However, participants raised concerns that the cost would be greater for smaller device manufacturers, which could further concentrate the market in the larger manufacturers. Device makers are not the only ones that would be affected, since several chips within smartphones need their own software. Any legislation should take this complexity into account, especially in tackling the dominance of Apple and Google, which together control the vast majority of smartphone software. We also discussed the possibility that manufacturers would create a loophole by providing a basic operating system which would be cheap to support for several years, and offer an alternative with more features that could be abandoned sooner.

We discussed the importance of updates being maintained for each component of the device, including those made by other companies, and whether it is possible to separate software and security updates (we decided possibly not). Our experts emphasised the importance of processes being as easy as possible, and the likelihood that users will be reluctant to start over with a new operating system when theirs is no longer supported. We also heard about the idea of code escrows, in which software is released if a company ceases to exist.

Making repair information public

Our second proposal is for manufacturers to publish repair manuals, device schematics and diagnostic tools so that anyone can use them. Pre-pandemic growth in repair cafes and parties demonstrates that consumers are keen to repair their gadgets and keep them going for longer. Despite this popularity, it remains difficult for end users to conduct their own smartphone repairs, so making repair information public could have a significant impact. The information would also be invaluable for research, since the repairability of products could be compared without having to tear each model apart. The French Repairability Index has also demonstrated the possibility of public availability, after Samsung published repair manuals for several of its devices online.

This is different from the Commission’s current approach for products such as electronic displays, which requires only that approved repair professionals can access this information. For TVs and other screens, repairers must either apply to be added to a national register (though no Member State has implemented one to date) or be approved by the manufacturer, which can implement any arduous contract requirements it so desires. Manufacturers can take five working days to approve a repairer and another working day to provide manuals for a specific model. We think these hurdles are likely to push more people to replace their smartphones rather than repairing them – when these devices are so important to our daily lives, each day they’re away for repair creates a serious disincentive.

Our experts debated the risks of this information being available to people that might use it to take advantage of security vulnerabilities. For several of our participants, Samsung’s recent publication of repair manuals for the French repairability index demonstrates that the right incentives can override worries about the information being misused. We also explored how likely consumers are to conduct repairs, what risks of injury they might face, and whether the availability and quality of spare parts was a greater concern. In the end, it appeared to be a chicken-and-egg issue. We can’t know if consumers will take matters into their own hands because the opportunity does not currently exist, and whatever downsides can clearly be overcome if the incentives are in the right place.

What next?

We are incredibly grateful to all our roundtable participants, who created a lively discussion and really got stuck in. Next, I’ll be incorporating their insights into a policy briefing aimed at the European Commission, to lay out the proposals and their potential impact. We’ll publish it on our website in the next few weeks, but feel free to contact me if you’d like to receive a copy of the final briefing.

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The NGI Policy-in-Practice Fund – announcing the grantees

We are very excited to announce the four projects receiving funding from the Next Generation Internet Policy-in-Practice Fund.

We are very excited to announce the four projects receiving funding from the Next Generation Internet Policy-in-Practice Fund

Policymakers and public institutions have more levers at their disposal to spur innovation in the internet space than often thought, and can play a powerful role in shaping new markets for ethical tools. We particularly believe that local experimentation and ecosystem building are vital if we want to make alternative models for the internet actually tangible and gain traction. But finding the funding and space to undertake this type of trial is not always easy – especially if outcomes are uncertain. Through the NGI Policy-in-Practice fund, it has been our aim not only to provide the means to organisations to undertake a number of these trials but also make the case for local trials more generally.

Over the past summer and autumn, we went through a highly competitive applications process, ultimately selecting four ambitious initiatives that embody this vision behind the NGI Policy-in-Practice fund. Each of the projects will receive funding of up to €25,000 to test out their idea on a local level and generate important insights that could help us build a more trustworthy, inclusive and democratic future internet.

In conjunction with this announcement, we have released an interview with each of our grantees, explaining their projects and the important issues they are seeking to address in more detail. You can also find a short summary of each project below. Make sure you register for our newsletter to stay up to date on the progress of each of our grantees, and our other work on the future of the internet.

Interoperability to challenge Big Tech power 

This project is run by a partnership of three organisations: Commons Network and Open Future, based in Amsterdam, Berlin and Warsaw.

This project explores whether the principle of interoperability, the idea that services should be able to work together, and data portability, which would allow users to carry their data with them to new services, can help decentralise power in the digital economy. Currently, we are, as users, often locked into a small number of large platforms. Smaller alternative solutions, particularly those that want to maximise public good rather than optimise for profit, find it hard to compete in this winner-takes-all economy. Can we use interoperability strategically and seize the clout of trusted institutions such as public broadcasters and civil society, to create an ecosystem of fully interoperable and responsible innovation in Europe and beyond?  

Through a series of co-creation workshops, the project will explore how this idea could work in practice, and the role trusted public institutions can play in bringing it to fruition. 

Bridging the Digital Divide through Circular Public Procurement

This project will be run by eReuse, based in Barcelona, with support from the City of Barcelona, the Technical University of Barcelona (UPC) and the global Association for Progressive Communications.

During the pandemic, where homeschooling and remote working have become the norm overnight, bridging the digital divide has become more important than ever. This project is investigating how we can make it easier for public bodies and also the private sector to donate old digital devices, such as laptops and smartphones, to low-income families currently unable to access the internet. 

By extending the lifetime of a device in this way, we are also reducing the environmental footprint of our internet use. Laptops and phones now often end up being recycled, or, worse, binned, long before their actual “useful lifespan” is over, putting further strain on the system. Donating devices could be a simple but effective mechanism for ensuring the circular economy of devices is lengthened.  

The project sets out to do two things: first, it wants to try out this mechanism on a local level and measure its impact through tracking the refurbished devices over time. Second, it wants to make it easier to replicate this model in other places, by creating legal templates that can be inserted in public and private procurement procedures, making it easier for device purchasers to participate in this kind of scheme. The partnership also seeks to solidify the network of refurbishers and recyclers across Europe. The lessons learned from this project can serve as an incredibly useful example for other cities, regions and countries to follow. 

Bringing Human Values to Design Practice

This project will be run by the BBC with support from Designswarm, LSE and the University of Sussex

Many of the digital services we use today, from our favourite news outlet to social media networks, rely on maximising “engagement” as a profit model. A successful service or piece of content is one that generates many clicks, drives further traffic, or generates new paying users. But what if we optimised for human well-being and values instead? 

This project, led by the BBC, seeks to try out a more human-centric focused approach to measuring audience engagement by putting human values at its core. It will do so by putting into practice longer-standing research work on mapping the kinds of values and needs their users care about the most, and developing new design frameworks that would make it easier to actually track these kinds of alternative metrics in a transparent way. 

The project will run a number of design workshops and share its findings through a dedicated website and other outlets to involve the wider community. The learnings and design methodology that will emerge from this work will not just be trialled within the contexts of the project partners, but will also be easily replicable by others interested in taking a more value-led approach. 

Responsible data sharing for emergencies: citizens in control

This project will be run by the Dutch National Police, in partnership with the Dutch Emergency Services Control, the Amsterdam Safety Region and the City of Amsterdam.

In a data economy that is growing ever more complex, giving meaningful consent about what happens to our personal data remains one of the biggest unsolved puzzles. But new online identity models have shown to be a potentially very promising solution, empowering users to share only that information that they want to share with third parties, and sharing that data on their own terms. One way that would allow such a new approach to identity and data sharing to scale would be to bring in government and other trusted institutions to build their own services using these principles. That is exactly what this project seeks to do.  

The project has already laid out all the building blocks of their Data Trust Infrastructure but wants to take it one step further by actually putting this new framework into practice. The project brings together a consortium of Dutch institutional partners to experiment with one first use case, namely the sharing of vital personal data with emergency services in the case of, for example, a fire. The project will not just generate learnings about this specific trial, but will also contribute to the further finetuning of the design of the wider Data Trust Infrastructure, scope further use cases (of which there are many!), and bring on board more interested parties.

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Policy in Practice Fund: Reducing the digital divide by improving the circular economy for devices

Leandro Navarro from eReuse answers a few of our questions to give us some insight into the project and what it will achieve.

We’re introducing each of our four Policy-in-Practice Fund projects with an introductory blog post. Below, Leandro Navarro from eReuse answers a few of our burning questions to give us some insight into the project and what it will achieve. We’re really excited to be working with four groups of incredible innovators and you’ll be hearing a lot more about the projects as they progress. 

Your project is focusing on extending the lives of internet devices. Why is that an important issue to tackle?

The issue of climate change adaptation and mitigation is rapidly becoming more urgent. Digital technologies can help us fight climate change, environmental degradation and pollution. However, at the same time, they add to the problem of pollution and health impacts of the extraction of minerals for components, energy used in their manufacture, and the waste released resulting from improper disposal. A circular consumption model is key: manufacturing fewer devices by extending the lifespan of the existing through reuse ensuring final recycling.

Extending the life of a computer directly benefits its users, the health of people and the planet. It roughly translates into savings of about 30 Kg of greenhouse gasses per year of reuse and a 40-60 per cent reduction in total environmental impact due to extended use. The amount of mining exceeds the weight of the material used in a new smartphone by 260 times: 34 kg of rock is mined for each 129g smartphone. At the same time, by collecting and refurbishing decommissioned computers for second-hand use and ensuring final recycling, we are contributing to a local economy for refurbishment and remanufacturing companies. At the social level, we are bringing computer access to more people and reducing inequality. Public and community reuse programmes save money: in cities like Barcelona, we have seen savings by public administrations beyond €500 per donated and reused device by social organizations supporting homeschooling students without computers during COVID-19 confinement. 

Over 70% of European consumers would like to buy more durable and repairable devices, but this is not reflected in the products available to us. When you buy a lamp you get thousands of hours guaranteed. Why not for digital devices? 

Over the last 3 years, eReuse has collected durability as an open dataset for above 10,000 devices. We have created local ecosystems, that we call circuits, in cities like Barcelona and Madrid with diverse stakeholders, that cooperate to capture, remanufacture and recirculate electronic devices and fight the digital divide. We have helped to improve the procurement of 3,000 devices, with 1,100 recirculated into a second life. During COVID-19, these circuits have proven to be a resilient and effective solution to vulnerable sectors in the access, use and appropriation of digital goods and services. 

What is your ideal vision for how we buy and use internet devices?

With more mobile devices than people on earth and powerful companies keen for us to keep purchasing, the successful implementation of the 3Rs (Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle) for electronic devices becomes vitally important. Today, most laptops, desktops and mobile phones are prematurely recycled when they become obsolete or depreciated by companies and public administrations. 

When we recycle a device that could be reused we lose computer use-value, we preserve the linear consumption model, which is not only damaging to the planet but also excludes those that cannot afford to always buy the latest products. 

Limiting premature recycling and promoting reuse is not the final solution to our sustainability problem but it is a way forward. Things improve with less device obsolescence and more cradle-to-cradle.

What do you hope to learn from the project, and how would that be useful for policymakers across Europe and beyond?

During the last three years, we have been working together with the Barcelona City Council to develop policies and practices in compliance with legal and operational standard procedures (secure data wipe, remanufacturing and other needs of the reverse supply chain). We have built a circuit based on the cooperation of several actors within an economic compensation system, and together we have traced thousands of computers from the Barcelona city council. We have been inspired by these principles: 

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Don’t recycle prematurely

Explore potential alternative users to give devices a new life

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Organise circular use up front

Plan for a device’s entire lifetime during procurement, including its second life

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Reduce overall consumption

Buy durable, repairable and reusable equipment and consider refurbished

We would like this project to help us to consolidate all the knowledge into agile policy templates, based on existing experiences, to help other policymakers provide value, and to support local initiatives of reuse centres and second use markets, with special attention in supplying devices to the disconnected groups.

How will this project get us one step closer to a fully circular economy for digital devices?

This project will make it easier for public and private organisations to maximise the lifespan of the devices they procure (circular procurement), reuse internally, and finally donate for further social reuse in their community, ensuring final recycling. Extended usage reduces total environmental footprint, that can be assessed through traceability data, and supports people without access to new computers and the internet. To facilitate regional replication we are creating clauses for public procurement contracts, focused on municipalities, to embed reuse in the acquisition, legal templates for computer donation to local social refurbishers and agreements between recipients and refurbishers to commit to accountable reuse and final recycling (e.g. commodate).

How can people get involved and find out more?

Look for and get involved in local initiatives about repair, collect and reuse computer devices no longer used (see repair.eu). Other people can use them, so we extend their lifespan and reduce the market pressure for new devices to be manufactured. Follow our work on eReuse.org and @eReuseOrg. If you are a public or private organisation, get involved in circular public procurement and circular policies, be an active part of nurturing a healthy second-hand market that serves everyone in your community with digital services at the lowest social, economic and environmental cost.

Icons: Pixel perfect and Flat Icons from www.flaticon.com

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Policy in Practice Fund: An internet optimised for human values

Lianne Kerlin from the BBC answers a few of our eager questions to give us some insight into the project and what it will achieve.

We’re introducing each of our four Policy-in-Practice Fund projects with an introductory blog post. Below, Lianne Kerlin from the BBC answers a few of our burning questions to give us some insight into the project and what it will achieve. We’re really excited to be working with four groups of incredible innovators and you’ll be hearing a lot more about the projects as they progress. 

At the BBC, we believe that embedding human values into the heart of design practice is fundamental to building a more inclusive, democratic, resilient, trustworthy and sustainable future internet. We are pleased to have received a grant from the NGI Forward’s Policy-in-Practice fund to integrate our innovative work on human values with existing design frameworks so that it can be used by a wider range of practitioners.

What are human values and how do they relate to technology?

The Human Values Framework is based on the needs of users in today’s technology-driven world. It is the result of a research project that examined the link between people’s values, behaviours and needs through a series of workshops, interviews and surveys.

Our work found fourteen indicators of well-being that express fundamental needs. We have constructed a design framework that puts these needs at the centre of innovation and decision making so that products and services can support people in their lives. Values are judgements about what people deem to be necessary, but also represent underlying needs and motivations that drive and shape everyday behaviour, and include elements such as achieving goals, being inspired, pursuing pleasure, and being safe and well.

Some of the human values identified

So what’s the problem with our current approach to tech? 

As well as offering guidance to designers, the framework addresses a fundamental issue with our current approach to measuring the effectiveness of products and services, which is that they are largely concerned with attention metrics such as the number of users or the number of minutes consumed. As a result, any deeper questions of the impact on audience well-being or happiness are not just left unanswered – they are unaskable. 

This approach has serious implications across the online sphere. It means companies compete solely for consumer attention, creating pressure within organisations to increase consumption and adopt attention-grabbing designs that can lead to addictive user behaviour.

How do you see this approach changing in the future, if we get things right?

The framework offers an alternative perspective, one that asks designers to consider the impact of their product on the end-user. In re-framing success, decision-makers can move away from an end goal of consumption into thinking about their intended impact on the people behind the numbers. Using the framework they can consider how to help people live more fulfilled lives, rather than simply gaining their attention.

The framework also recognises the limitations of the current measurement approach and reframes success as the fulfilment of audience values. The framework is about considering what is fundamentally good for people and designing and measuring how they can enable people to explore, to grow or to understand themselves. We believe that having an alternative way to describe success will result in healthy and more sustainable practices.

What do you hope to learn from this project, and how might those learnings be used by others?

Our goal with this project is to take the insights we have developed into design practice and integrate them into existing approaches, specifically the well-known ‘double diamond’ process model, first outlined by the UK Design Council in 2005 and current work connecting user-centered design and agile development. We hope to make measuring the impact on quality of life and wellness part of the normal design cycle for every organisation.

This collaboration is an exciting opportunity to explore how the human values framework can integrate within existing frameworks and practices in all types of industries. We will work with industry experts to learn as many current processes of decision making in order to understand where the human values framework can best align. Our goal is to produce a set of tools, processes and best practice guidelines for embedding the human values framework into existing frameworks.

How can people get involved and find out more?

We will be posting regular updates on our website at www.humanvalues.io which will launch early in 2021 – it currently points to our main page on the BBC R&D website where you can find out about the human values framework. You can also listen to our podcast series.

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Making sense of the COVID-19 information maze with text-mining

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought with it an ‘infodemic’, flooding society with myriads of conflicting ideas and opinions. To help cut through the noise, we applied some of our data tools to map recent developments and understand how technology is being used and discussed during the crisis.

Register to attend our webinar to discuss this research, Wednesday 3rd June 2020 at 5 PM CEST

We want these insights to be as useful as possible and are keen to adapt and analyse the data in different ways to answer your burning questions. We invite you to join us in a webinar to discuss our methods and results, and exchange ideas about the most pressing tech challenges.

You can also view our full analysis at https://covid.delabapps.eu

Trending terms in news articles from our analysis.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought with it an ‘infodemic’, flooding society with myriads of conflicting ideas and opinions. To help cut through the noise, we applied some of our data tools to map recent developments and understand how technology is being used and discussed during the crisis.

As part of NGI Forward’s work to create data-driven insights on social and regulatory challenges related to emerging technologies, we have developed various data-science tools to analyse trends in the evolution of Internet technology. In our previous studies, we focused on such areas as the content crisis in social media, regulating tech giants or cybersecurity.

Now we have opened our toolbox and mapped recent developments in the fight against COVID-19, to bring some clarity to how the crisis is evolving. We concentrated on four major areas:

  • Online tech news
  • Open-source projects at Github
  • Discussions on Reddit
  • Scientific papers

Mixed feelings on COVID tech in the news

First, we examined trends in 11 respected online news sources, such as the Guardian, Reuters or Politico. Based on the changes in the frequency of terms, we identified trending keywords related to COVID-19 and the world of technology. This enabled us to focus on key issues such as contact-tracing, unemployment or misinformation in the following sections of the analysis.

Next, we analysed terms that are frequently used together, or co-occurring, (e.g. “contact-tracing” and “central server”) to see how technology was associated with different aspects of the crisis.  We also measured the sentiment of the paragraphs containing these word pairs to understand whether coverage of COVID technology issues is positive, negative or neutral. As an example, we identified the key actors, initiatives and challenges related to contact-tracing, focusing on EU-wide projects such as PEPP-PT. 

The table below shows terms co-occurring with ‘contact-tracing’, ranked based on sentiment scores. DP-3T and TraceTogether are more associated with positive sentiments, while discussion of privacy and mission creep show that there are  concerns about the implementation of these systems.

Mapping the COVID tech ecosystem

Alongside this specific analysis, we have also mapped articles based on their vocabulary and topic. You can explore the main areas of technology news with characteristic words in these interactive visualisations.

The map below shows the clusters of news articles covering specific technologies and tech companies.

Throughout the crisis, numerous programmers have devoted their time to developing open-source tools to support the fight against COVID-19. We collected COVID-19-focused projects from Github, the software platform where much of this development is taking place, to examine various trends about location, aim and technology. You can find an overview of the top 50 most influential repositories on our analysis page. Perhaps you will be inspired to get involved!

The map below shows the number of Github projects related to COVID-19 in the week commencing 20th April 2020.

Tracking changes in social media

Looking next to social media, we examined activity on Reddit to uncover relevant changes. By analysing the text of posts and comments, we discovered a surge in discussions related to the job market, mental health and remote work. Our analysis also provides insight into the changing perception of lockdown measures and growing lockdown fatigue.

The graph below shows a sharp increase in Reddit discussions about unemployment in the latter half of March 2020.

Social science counts the consequences

Finally, we also examined trends in scientific journal articles related to COVID-19. Analysing articles from the social sciences gives us a broader picture than news articles, and we found increasing discussion of the immediate consequences of the pandemic and lockdown. The trending words range from health-related (pneumonia, infectious, epidemiology) ones to more common for social sciences: economic recession, policy or GDP. 

The word cloud below shows some of the most common terms in social science articles relating to COVID-19.

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€100,000 fund to trial experimental policy ideas and tools to build a more resilient internet

NGI Forward is offering grants of up to €25,000 to ideas that could help empower governments to build a more resilient internet and tackle today's major challenges

We are excited to announce that NGI Forward is launching the Policy-in-Practice fund, offering grants of up to €25,000 to ideas for an experimental policy intervention or practical tool that could help empower governments to build a better internet. The fund will support projects to trial bold new solutions at a local level.

Find out more and apply here.

A note on COVID-19

The internet has proven to be an invaluable resource for many communities, including the most vulnerable, during COVID-19. Therefore NGI Forward feels an even greater responsibility to progress its efforts to build a more inclusive and trustworthy internet that works for everyone. In light of this, Nesta and NGI Forward have decided to go ahead with launching this fund as previously planned. Though trials do not need to solve a problem related to COVID-19 directly, ideas that actively engage with the new reality each of us is operating in will be looked on favourably.

Aim of this fund

The internet can be a force for positive change in the world. But not enough is being done to tap into the great, ever-expanding potential of connected technologies. From the internet’s underlying infrastructure to the gatekeepers that decide what content is shared, power over the internet is increasingly centralised. A small number of players, representing a fraction of the world’s population and diversity, are incentivised to protect their position through behaviour that has a long-term negative impact on social trust and cohesion, competition and innovation. This means that fewer and fewer people are able to reap the full benefits of the digital economy. Fewer still believe that it works in their interest.

There is consensus that a serious and co-ordinated response is needed to remedy the internet’s many problems, yet the tools to take effective action are not yet available. Some of these challenges require top-down interventions on the global or national level. But to make the NGI Forward a success, more action at the local level and the mobilisation of the whole innovation ecosystem is needed.

One of the key goals of the NGI Forward project is therefore to provide a platform for policymakers, innovators and civil society to join forces and collaborate on key digital issues through collective action, knowledge-sharing and joint investment in new solutions.

This fund intends to contribute to doing exactly that.

What are we looking for?

The NGI Policy-in-Practice initiative is looking to fund a minimum of four trials that put into practice a vision for a more inclusive, resilient, democratic, sustainable and trustworthy future internet. This will be achieved by experimenting with concrete solutions in local communities, and ensuring that insights from these trials can be shared or scaled across the NGI network.

What will we offer?

Recipients of the grants can also benefit from additional support from Nesta including guidance on effective project design, pathways to impact and communication of final results, as well as the sharing of findings among the wider NGI community.

If you’re interested in learning more or applying, click here.



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Exploring an NGI Trustmark

Trustmarks are a well-established mechanism which help consumers make more informed decisions about the goods and services they buy. We all know the fairtrade stamp on our bananas, trust environmental certifications, and value Better Business Bureau stickers. Where we haven’t seen the trustmark used much yet, or at least not very effectively, is within the […]

Trustmarks are a well-established mechanism which help consumers make more informed decisions about the goods and services they buy. We all know the fairtrade stamp on our bananas, trust environmental certifications, and value Better Business Bureau stickers. Where we haven’t seen the trustmark used much yet, or at least not very effectively, is within the space of responsible technology and software. 

After a series of highly public scandals which have put in question the trustworthiness of the technology and tools we rely on (from privacy violations and data misuse to large data breaches), there is a rising demand among the general public for ethical, responsible alternatives. It is however not always easy for consumers to find these alternatives, partially due to a lack of easy-to-understand and -find information (among a deluge of apps, how do we know which ones are most careful with handling our data, for example?), but also because of the lack of maturity of the marketplace for these types of tools to begin with (few have been able to gain real traction).

Trustmarks could help solve these issues. A stamp of quality for products that, for example, follow high security standards, do not track and sell the data of their users or use ethical production processes, could make it easier for consumers to pick out these tools in a crowded marketplace, and simultaneously raise awareness about how some of these values are not embodied by many of today’s most popular tools. Furthermore, a trustmark could support the creation of an ecosystem and market around ethical tools, which can struggle as being “responsible” often means compromising on user friendliness, effective marketing and above all profitability. 

Exploring the Trustmark idea in the digital space

On September 25 2019, the NGI Forward held a short workshop on trustmarks as part of the NGI Forum, the Next Generation Internet’s flagship community event. This document outlines the key messages and take-aways from this workshop. 

In this small workshop we brought 16 participants together to explore trustmarks in more depth, and examine their potential value and how they could be practically employed. Before trustmarks can be put to the test, there are a lot of open questions left to be answered. In this workshop, we surfaced many of the key issues that still need to be resolved and different potential solutions. 

Many of the participants in the workshop reported already being involved in the development of some sort of digital trustmark. There are a number of trustmark type initiatives emerging in areas such as the responsible use of data, Internet of Things (IoT) and cyber security. For example the Trustable Technology Mark (https://trustabletech.org/) developed for IoT devices or Sitra’s work on the concept of a ‘Fair data label’ to inform consumers about services’ compliance with basic principles and standards of data protection and reuse. Many of these initiatives are asking the same kinds of questions the workshop set out to explore, how could a trustmark for internet related products or services provide value, what factors make a trustmark a success and which areas should a trustmark cover? Many of these projects have already faced some key challenges, which are explored more below. 

How could a trustmark be useful? 

The main benefit of the trustmark model is the opportunity to empower consumers to make informed decisions about the product or services they are using and it also helps companies to prove their products or services are ‘trustworthy’. It is clear that consumers increasingly have trust issues around the digital products and services that they use, whether those be privacy concerns or potential harms emerging from automated algorithm- based decision making (such as targeted ads or curated social media news streams). Trustmarks may also be able to add additional value, not just for consumers but also for companies and the EU’s drive to make the next generation internet (NGI) more ‘human-centric’.

Trustmarks could help create a market for responsibly created, trustworthy products. This could help encourage the creation of more products and services that compete with existing business models that are largely based on data exploitation and monetisation, and offer a ‘responsible’ alternative. Trustmarks could also help further raise awareness among consumers of the many issues digital products and services can create.  At the same time a new market for responsible, trustworthy products, services and business models may help embed ‘human-centric’ values into the next generation of innovations. Introducing greater transparency around products, services or business models is one of the central ways trustmarks could help facilitate this change. Trustmarks could also improve trust in the digital economy, a critical step in making the most of the digital economy and providing improved private and public services.  

Challenges:

Scope

Successful existing trustmarks cover a wide range of things, from adherence to health and safety standards to ethical business practices. They often focus on one area rather than covering every element that may benefit from indicating ‘trustworthiness’.  A narrower focus can help with consumer engagement as it is easier to convey a single idea over several different metrics outlining many different aspects of what a ‘good’ product is. However, too narrow a focus may not cover all necessary issues, thereby giving consumers a false impression of trustworthiness of the overall solution. This difficult balancing act around getting the scope and remit of a trustmarks right, is particularly challenging for digital and internet products as the issues we have seen emerge around them are so multifaceted. Data collection and use, cybersecurity, accessibility, physical elements of a product, hardware and software etc. Could a useful comprehensive NGI trustmark be created that covers anything from a social media picture app, an IoT sensor to AI algorithms? 

To identify some of the important areas an NGI trustmark could cover, workshop participants focused on individual high-level issues, such as sustainability or responsible data use, rather than attempting to construct a comprehensive trustmark, which the group both agreed would not be particularly useful, nor viable to debate in the short time available for the workshop. 

However even focusing on narrower areas identified many different open questions and concerns that merit further exploration. Participants found there were differing needs, risks and norms across sectors and verticals, for example retail and health, which meant that standards for “good” would likely differ significantly across solutions and applications. 

Metrics and evaluation

For trustmarks to work, we require reliable and easily transferable ways to measure and evaluate how well a product, service or business model meets the relevant requirements. For some areas discussed during the workshop, for example CO2 consumption or energy use as part of sustainability, it would be fairly easy to develop appropriate metrics (particularly as there are already other product trustmarks that do this), but for other, perhaps more subjective, areas like data handling, bias and discrimination, or ethical practice developing such metrics is much more difficult and fuzzy. 

Assessment may also be hampered by two additional factors;

  1. Software is continuously being updated and changed. How can we make sure that after repeated tweaks, products or services still meet the trustmark’s basic requirements? Is it viable for any governance system to oversee such a vast, rapidly changing landscape? 
  2. ‘Black box’ systems, which generally refer to complex AI algorithms in this context, limit the ability to be open and transparent. We may not know what the system is doing or how it achieves the outputs it creates. Alternative metrics may be required in these instances (for example focusing on data handling or data sources), or the trustmark could focus only on explainable systems. 

Another related question around how the trustmark works is whether it is used to define a set of minimum requirements or it is used to identify ‘best practice’. Minimum standards make it easier for more companies or products to acquire a trustmark, but also mean that the solutions championed do not necessarily push the bar for good behaviour. Minimum standards might even reward bad behaviour in some cases, where companies are encouraged to only do the bare minimum. 

Governance model

How to govern trustmarks is one of the biggest challenges in making them a success. Building trust in a trustmark requires the involvement of well-respected institutions, and, as many participants noted, can be very expensive. Especially the auditing and review of solutions, is an open question. 

The digital landscape is vast: if demand from the private sector for the trustmark increases, this could potentially involve hundreds of thousands of companies. There are many ways of doing assessments, either through self assessment or auditing by an independent auditing body (often the outcome is somewhere in between the two). Participants indicated that the focus should be more on independent self-assessment to avoid false self-reporting. However this creates other challenges in terms of resourcing and ability. Any governing body with assessment responsibilities would need to be resourced appropriately to carry out its functions. In light of the growth of the digital economy and ongoing auditing needs as software is updated this may be significant. This raises the question of how the trustmark would be paid for. If it is paid for by companies who apply it may put additional barriers in the way of smaller companies, startups or free, open source software. 

The governance of the trustmark also needs to be tied to a trusted organisation itself, in order to help strengthen support and credibility of the trustmark. Participants felt that the European Commission was in a strong position to play this kind of role. Participants also indicated that many initiatives have stalled or failed to come to fruition due to a lack of funding or support from a larger independent institution. 

Business models and consumers

A trustmark’s success will be heavily dependant on how effectively it can help disrupt entrenched business models and create a market for alternative, responsible companies. This will be particularly difficult in the data economy where many different companies have vested interests and lobbyists will play an influential role. 

Perhaps most important of all however is consumer engagement. If consumers are apathetic about an NGI related trustmark then it will never achieve any of the potential goals set out above. Workshop participants did not consider this to be a big challenge however, as many polls and public engagement exercises have already demonstrated the public’s interest in areas like privacy, data use and sustainability concerns. Trustmarks can be used in several ways, identifying potential impacts on the user or environment, a way to educate consumers or through eliciting a ‘feel good’ response (eg fairtrade approach).

Themes

Participants also brought up a variety of other important topics trustmarks could potentially be used for: 

  • Sustainability: The sustainability of the internet itself, software and hardware are becoming a topic of ever greater salience, though public awareness about the large environmental footprint of many of their connected devices and internet use remains limited. One possible way of encouraging technology companies to adopt more sustainable ways would be to design a trustmark around these issues (which could everything from CO2 emissions from data centres, energy efficiency, ability to recycle a device, etc.). 
  • Privacy and data use: Trustmarks could be given out to companies whose tools handle their users’ data in a particularly secure way, allow for data portability, otherwise make valuable datasets available to third parties in a responsible way, or use particularly transparent models for consent, to name just some examples of concrete interventions we could evaluate on in this realm. 
  • Cybersecurity: Also cybersecurity is often touted as a potential focus of a trustmark, particularly in the Internet of Things space. Has a solution of device successfully undergone a security audit? How transparent is the company about cyber breaches and underlying vulnerabilities? How securely do they store users’ data? Though this is an interesting area, lack of transparency might make it hard in practice to certify tools. 
  • AI ethics: Using trustmarks to formalise AI ethics principles in specific tools often came up as a possible application. Could we give trustmarks to solutions that offer transparency about the inner-workings of their algorithms? Make serious efforts to reduce bias? Subjectivity and lack of agreement about what “ethical” means, will require intensive efforts to build a coalition around this topic. 
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The social promises of the blockchain

Innovation always has a deep impact on society, new processes or technologies can completely transform existing systems and ways of working. But how can we ensure that innovation has a positive impact on today’s society? How can we make sure we achieve the revolutionary promises offered by emerging technologies? How do we identify real opportunities […]

Innovation always has a deep impact on society, new processes or technologies can completely transform existing systems and ways of working. But how can we ensure that innovation has a positive impact on today’s society? How can we make sure we achieve the revolutionary promises offered by emerging technologies? How do we identify real opportunities from hype?

At Nesta Italia, we decided to focus on two technologies that carry great potential : blockchain and artificial intelligence.

Our approach was exploratory, we did not take a precise position on the matter, but decided to study technologies and the benefits they can bring while remaining aware of the great risks that exist.

The popularity of the Blockchain started with cryptocurrencies, digital and decentralized currencies. Through these currencies, it is possible to exchange money around the world over the internet, but the blockchain is more than just the basis for new currencies. It is a technology that allows the creation of a large distributed database for the management of transactions that can be shared between multiple nodes on a network. The database is structured in blocks (containing multiple transactions) that are connected to each other in a network so that each transaction started on the network must be validated by the network itself in the “analysis” of every single block.

Blockchain and others Distributed Ledger Technologies (DLT) (blockchain is part of a wider family of technologies called DLT) allow geographically distant parties, or those who have no existing mutual trust, to exchange any kind of digital data on a peer-to-peer platform without the need for trusted third parties or intermediaries. The data could, for example, represent money, insurance policies, contracts, land titles, medical records, birth and marriage certificates, purchase and sale of goods and services, or any other type of transaction or asset that can be translated into digital form.

The benefits of the blockchain

The blockchain should not be considered new technology, but rather a unique combination of other existing technologies such as peer-to-peer networks, cryptographic techniques, consent protocols, and distributed data storage.

The blockchain solves three types of problems:

  • Who’s Who? Blockchains can be used to certify identity through the use of digital signatures. Each user is assigned a set of two digital codes: a “private key” (similar to an account number) and a “public key” (similar to a password) that allows them to easily demonstrate their identity and issue transactions authorized.
  • Who owns what? Blockchains can be used to verify ownership through a technology called “cryptographic hashing”. A cryptographic hash is a piece of data that has been executed through a mathematical function and transformed into a shorter piece of data. In a blockchain, each block contains a hash representation of the data in the previous block
  • What is true? Blockchains can be used to solve the verification problem by making it possible for a group of people to publicly verify that a transaction is true, without the need for a trusted intermediary. In blockchain terminology, this is called “distributed consent”.

The blockchain is still often publicly associated with Bitcoin and concerns about money laundering, tax evasion, fraud or other criminal activities. Beyond the controversies over the potential negative uses of Bitcoin, and other cryptocurrencies, blockchain technology could bring enormous social benefits.

A technology that increases efficiency, reduces costs and promotes transparency can in fact have significant implications for the sectors dedicated to leading social impact. The potential to transform systems and entire infrastructures can allow solutions that previously were not thought to be possible.

Blockchain for Social good initiatives

According to a study by the Center for Social Innovation of the Stanford Graduate School of Business, which analyzed 193 organizations that use the blockchain, “Blockchain for Social Good” initiatives are still only just emerging, but are growing.

25% of the analyzed initiatives are concentrated in the healthcare sector, such as Modum.io that keeps track of the temperature conditions of medicine during transport, 13% deal with financial inclusion, such as the startup Aid:tech that has lowered the cost of transactions of remittances between Germany and Serbia, 12% operate in the energy / environmental sector, such as Grid Singularity which is starting a transition towards a new system of distributed energy utilities where energy can be found and distributed in a decentralized way and more efficient.

Overall, 61% of the cataloged initiatives are for profit. The sectors with the most profit-making initiatives are those with the greatest commercial opportunity: energy (94%), health (87%) and financial inclusion (78%). Conversely, the sectors driven by non-profit activities or public funding are those traditionally rooted in non-profit or government activity: philanthropy and donations (76%), democracy & governance (33%).

Governments are also working to test this technology: the Estonian government was one of the first early technology adopters (2008), exploiting technology to improve government services (99% of government services are digital and usable by the platform e-Estonia). These services exploit the distributed ledgers to increase security, efficiency and accessibility (more information here).

Nesta Italia projects

To better understand the potential impacts of this technology, Nesta Italia has undertaken two initiatives:

Blockchain for Social Good Event: on December 15th, 2017 we organized together with the City of Turin and the University of Turin, the first major Italian meeting between internationally and nationally renowned experts focused on exploring the social impact of blockchain technologies. More than 200 participants were present and we involved 20 partners for the realization of the project. During the event, the DG Connect of the European Commission launched the “Blockchains for Social Good Prize“, a € 5 million prize for technological solutions that can demonstrate that they bring an impact to society.

Blockchain for Social Good Learning Academy: a one day academy organized together with DSI, European commission and De-CODE, where we brought together social innovators from all over Europe to discuss how this technology can be used to address the social challenges in Europe and what are the tools to implement the various solutions Blockchain for social good.

Next steps

Blockchain is not just a new technology, it is a new mentality. For Nesta Italia these are the main priorities for the implementation of “blockchain for social good” initiatives:

  • Legal and regulatory framework: The first priority is the resolution of the tensions between GDPR and blockchain. The legal, tax and accounting status of the tokens must also be clarified, along with the rules relating to the exchange of crypto assets and legal money.
  • Focus on research and experimentation: technology is still at an early stage. In-depth studies and practical experiments are needed to test the real benefits they can bring.
  • Public-private partnerships: The pursuit of cutting-edge projects that bring real benefits to users and demonstrate the addition of technology, will have the dual effect of creating an internal market for innovative entrepreneurs and encouraging investors to finance more local projects.
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