Friday, 15 April 2016

Why we need a Digital Jersey?

The new CEO of Digital Jersey spoke to the Chamber of Commerce at their monthly lunch yesterday, and, having listed to him, I’m more optimistic about Jersey and the digital economy that I was a few months ago.

Here are my notes on that talk, transcribed from my scribbles after a good lunch (braised beef bourguignon, flavoured with red wine, caramelised baby onions, creamy mash potatoes with spring buttered cabbage), and a glass of white wine, and a fortuitous cup of coffee to wake me up sufficiently afterwards to take notes!

I would have like him to elaborate more on failure, which he sees as important part of the learning process. It is true that we can learn a lot from our mistakes, but expensive mistakes in IT - as Private Eye has exposed in the health service (for example) exceed what most people would consider acceptable. But it is true that too much focus on the possibility of failure leads to a risk averse culture in which nothing is risked, but nothing is gained.

Of course sometimes failure comes because of the impossibility of crystal ball gazing to determine the future. Back in the 1980s, there were three personal computers available launched almost simultaneously - the Act Sirius, the IBM PC, and the DEC Rainbow. As the States of Jersey already had DEC mainframe systems, they duly rolled out DEC Rainbows to civil service desktops, purchasing systems which would be effectively obsolete by the early 1990s.

Digital Jersey is not without its own critics about failings. In 2015, in an open letter to the agency, a group of web developers and coders have criticised Digital Jersey for ignoring their views and not doing enough to help start-ups or attract new businesses, and for not having enough digital skills or expertise. Has that changed? Certainly this talk shows that Digital Jersey has been listening to concerns from the Industry.

On one point, the talk was rather vague. Tony Moretta seemed to suggest that there was a need to almost fast track or bias the immigration policy towards much easily and more relaxed immigration for the digital sector. But this was vague. I would like to see a clearer published message about immigration for the digital industry, with guidance for both local businesses and those considering setting up or relocating their businesses to Jersey.

"Why we need a digital Jersey?”: A Summary of the Talk

Tony Moretta was speaking on “Why we need a digital Jersey?” at the Radisson hotel. He found that there is no shortage of ideas, good innovative, creative thinking about IT, but the challenge was in the “follow through”. The ideas were there, but Jersey was slow to embrace change, and often the implementation just did not happen.

Parking scratch cards were an example of a system which, to outsiders like himself, and holiday makers, seems incredibly strange. Most cities in the UK have parking systems which allow for drivers to pay using smart phones, and have done for years, but Jersey’s public sector is dragging its heels and is slow to embrace this new world.

Digital Jersey was not just about the organisation of that name, but also about improving matters across the whole island. Unlike larger jurisdictions, Jersey has to focus and pick the right areas to focus its skills upon; it needed to look for appropriate niche markets just as the Finance Industry has managed to do.

Ensuring proper plans were in place so that the digital economy could grow were needed to ensure the future prosperity of the Island just as much as finance.

But there had to be realistic expectations. We could not complete on the same scale as a Silicon Valley, so we had to focus on selected key areas, and a natural match for Jersey was FinTech (Financial Technology), as well as mechanisms for automating and streamlining matters like compliance, which was also a growing global market. “eHealth” – bringing new ways to improve access to data and services was also a way of becoming more efficient with limited resources. And Jersey could also serve as a useful “test bed” for the emerging technology such as the “internet of things”.

It was very important the government supported local technology firms, and helped build them up, funding projects. The government should be looking for local solutions rather than going offshore, and provide incentives and support from Digital Jersey for private sector businesses. Cyber security and Data Protection were important issues for engaging with the private sector.

With regard to education, it was important to grow the private digital economy to encourage young people to come back to opportunities. School children should be developing digital skills like coding. In that respect, while there was nothing intrinsically wrong with religious education, it did seem odd that it was a compulsory subject for all students while information technology was not.

However, it must be realised that while talent can be nurtured, the technical demands of a growing economy must not be unduly hampered by employment licensing and regulation. It Jersey’s digital economy is to grow, we need to have sufficient talent, even if it means initially some employees from outside of Jersey coming to live here.

Jersey in the past has typically looked towards the UK for the means by which the economy and government can be improved by digital technology, but the truth is that the UK is not always the cutting edge of the digital economy in public and private sectors. Also what is good for a country the size of the UK cannot necessarily be scaled down and work well in Jersey.

In particular, where the public sector is concerned, Estonia, a much smaller country of around 1.3 million people, the smallest in Europe, is leasing the way with tried and tested technology, with electronic voting, submission of tax returns, eCabinet meetings, digital signatures on documents etc. Digital Jersey has had meetings with officials and government members from Estonia, and are looking to improve relationships with that country, and seek to find what could come from Estonia and fit a Jersey model.

Digital Jersey aimed to grow local talent, and also provide opportunities for local talent to compete globally. It was enabling, supporting, developing, promoting and partnering with the private sector. And a digital policy for government was currently under development for publication later this year.

This should ensure that procurement is weighted towards the local digital sector, rather than just outsourcing to the UK on an even footing. If we are going to have a local digital economy, we must enter into partnerships with local industry. A recent procurement went to the UK, and this was not a good vote of confidence in the local digital economy. Hopefully we will not see that sort of thing again. There should be very clear “blue water” between external and internal bids for work.

Digital Jersey was in partnership with a number of organisations including Jersey Business, the States of Jersey, Visit Jersey, Jersey Finance, Jersey Financial Services Commission and the Jersey Library. The latter was in fact becoming a portal for opening digital opportunities to the wider public.

A key part of digital innovation was to realise that failure could also be important, and that lessons can be learnt to improve digital systems if they are not successful. Learning from mistakes was important part of the learning process and a culture which crucified civil servants for making mistakes also suffered from being too risk averse.

The Digital Hub is also taking a lead in growing talent, in the regular weekend “hackerthons” at the Digital Hub where people come not just “techies” but from other areas, for example lawyers, and are given challenges. Organising into teams, they need to work together to generate ideas to solve the challenges, and from this can come solutions that can be put into practice, as well as prizes being awarded for the best proposals. It is a small way in which Digital Jersey is shaping the future of the digital economy. But from small acorns, great oaks grow.

Useful Links:
Digital Jersey


1 comment:

James said...


One small correction to Mr Moretta, one minor point, and one major.

The correction: Estonia is not by any measure the smallest nation in Europe (if we are talking EU Luxemburg, Cyprus and Malta are smaller by population; if we are talking Europe as a whole we can add Iceland to the list).

The minor point: the scratchcard system for parking is perfectly comprehensible. Using mobiles to pay, as implemented at Sand Street, is an answer I am deeply unhappy about, because it relies on automatic numberplate recognition, a technology which is an unwonted invasion of privacy.

This actually leads to the major point. I was at the recent presentation at the Hub by an Estonian government speaker, and Tony Moretta was only listening very selectively. Part of the reason that the Estonians have moved forward so far and fast with e-government is that they understand it is not about technology. It's about a raft of cultural factors.

- The Estonian constitution has teeth: if the authorities break the rules they get prosecuted. Consequently there is a substantial degree of trust in the authorities.
- The Estonian people had a motivation to bank the farm on going digital (and they were fortunate because one of their early startups produced a piece of software called Skype).
- The government trusted its technical advisers to produce a system that was solid, and then it enforced compliance on all government departments - unless you are Secret Service, if you are collecting and processing data for government you must use the central data exchange. Law backs up the fact that in all but two cases, a digital signature is equivalent in law to a pen and ink one.

The idea that Jersey could match that would be laughable - if it wasn't a tragedy.