My Big Data: Concerns, Opportunities and Policies

The Social Disruption Survey, conducted earlier this year and reported in this blog, identifies Privacy as, of the issues that it considered, the area of greatest public concern in the impact that information technology is having on society. Personal use of information technology has many benefits for many people. In addition to enabling global communications, it provides services that can greatly improve people’s lives.

Today, there is growing awareness that as usage of the internet and social media takes place, the companies that provide the communications tools that people use, the organisations that provide online information and services and the security services that provide public protection gather large amounts of data.

In previous posts in this blog on this topic there has been discussion of the public awareness of these data collection practices. We have seen research that shows most people are not aware of the extent of the information collected and are not comfortable with the level of control that they have over the data collection, storage and usage that is made of it by those who collect it, trade or sell it, combine it with other data and manipulate it. Public information campaigns have sought to inform the public about the extent of the data collection that takes place and personal risks that are taken when information is shared online. Schools have taught students about their responsible use of information technology.

We have also discussed the appropriate policies that governments and organisations might adopt in dealing with these issues. In Canada our system of federal and provincial Privacy Commissioners was established to provide public protection, education and guidance to government on appropriate behaviours and responses to the rapidly changing privacy environment. As with other areas of the social impact of information technology on society, the privacy area is changing faster than governments can deal with. There remain many areas of concern.

The Social Disruption Survey revealed public concerns about privacy in a number of areas. For University of Waterloo students “The impact of the internet and social media on my personal privacy ” is ranked fourth of the 25 social impact of information technology issues that were the subject of questions in the survey. “The use of my data by government” and “the use of my data by companies” were also indicated to be of significant concern to the students.

While fears exist about the impact that corporate and government use of data is having now and will increasingly have in the future, those bodies are increasingly seeing data as being very important to their future development. In a recent interview for the University of Waterloo, Hitachi’s Paul Lewis emphasised his view of the centrality of data to future business strategy. He argues that the combination of data with the Internet of Things and Artificial Intelligence will transform business and government, enabling new products and services to be developed and business models to be revolutionised.

Public concerns about the increased use of data appear to be substantial. Increased focussing of marketing campaigns and product offering that data enables are viewed with suspicion and seen by many as overly manipulative.

These concerns are heightened by perceptions of the use of data by political organisations. While big data will transform companies it is also changing the way that politics is conducted. Use of personal data from social media and other sources in political campaigns is seen as being a threat to democratic processes, especially where it makes foreign political interference easier.

We are seeing a growth in interest in the use of data by companies, government and political groups who see their interests being advanced by it. At the same time we appear to be seeing increasing public concern about the collection and use of personal data. This is an area of potential conflict.

While public concerns are often about the misuse or abuse of the data that is collected from them, it is also important to note that data offers the opportunity to dramatically improve many people’s lives. These opportunities are discussed in many posts inside this blog and include improvements in healthcare, where health related research can be greatly strengthened leading to longer, happier and more productive lives. Gordon Feller’s interview for this blog highlights ways that data will impact cities, leading to better services and positive environmental impacts. Data collection in developing countries can improve the work of humanitarian development organisations. Many opportunities exist for using personal data to improve the quality of people’s lives.

Privacy advocates therefor face a dilemma. Use of the internet, social media and other forms of information technology results in the collection of data. Social media tools that are an important part of most people’s lives in developed and, increasingly, developing countries today have been created because of the commercial value that people create by providing their data when they use them. That is why they are mostly free for users.

Concerns appear to be increasing that data which is shared using social media tools is being used in inappropriate ways by companies, governments and others. Meanwhile, these organisations are increasingly seeing their use of data as being strategically important in their immediate strategic development and this is likely to result in new products and services that will themselves have personal and societal benefits. In addition to this, there are many areas of life where the purely social benefits of the use of data will be dramatic in the future.

Restrictions on the use of data are therefore the subject of extensive debate. Strongly restrictive policies may provide greater public protections but at the same time may result in lesser public benefit. Strongly open data policies may expose the public to unacceptable risks.

These issues were the subject of a book review in the New York Times recently. Amy Webb reviewed two books with opposing views on what should be done. Andreas Weigend, previously the Chief Scientist at Amazon, describes the processes that are used to collect data and how it is used. Weigend argues that the benefits that we get from sharing data should make us willing to share but that a set of rights should be established which provide us with protection. He argues that these rights should include corporate participation in privacy ratings that will indicate how our data is used and that the public should be able to control their own data – that there should be a right to “amend, blur and import or export our own data into any system we please.”

The opposite position is adopted by Kevin Mitnick – previously a hacker who served five years in jail for his hacking activities. Mitnick provides guidance on protecting personal privacy and provides a darker view of how personal data sharing creates vulnerability. Mitnick’s arguments lend support to policies for more restriction of corporate and government data usage.

This post has discussed current issues in Privacy, highlighting the growth in public concern alongside the growth in data focussed activities by companies, governments and other organisations. While substantial public benefits are emerging from the sharing of data, there are also significant dangers that public discussion should consider in efforts to influence public policy.

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The Socially Disruptive Impact of Information Technology Survey

The impact that information technology is having on society is wide ranging. As information technology enters more areas of peoples’ lives globally it is important to consider the nature of that impact. On this blog and in the University of Waterloo course that it supports (MSci 442, The Impact of Information Systems on Society) this impact is considered in a series of areas. These areas have changed in the seven years that the course has been offered, reflecting the fast changing technological environment.

The posts on this blog show that opinions and beliefs on the impact that information technology is having on society differ. Some people view technological change mostly positively, feeling that society is improved by it. Others take a negative view, believing that the impact of information technology is largely making the world a less desirable place in which to live. This debate is explored in detail on this site and in the Twitter feed that accompanies it and reports daily news in this area.

The Survey Content and Conduct

The survey that is discussed in this post was initially designed to understand and provide a basis for discussion of the views of students who were enrolled in MSci 442. 216 students responded to the survey, of 229 who were enrolled in the class. An opportunity also arose to conduct the survey with a very different group. 109 senior citizens in the small rural town of Erin, Ontario also participated who were members of the Extended Learning Opportunities group. This group meets regularly to hear invited speakers on a range of topics and were surveyed at one of these meetings. I am grateful for their participation.

The survey is designed to assess attitudes in key areas that information technology is impacting society today. These areas are:

Democracy: Whether information technology is improving or causing a decline in the practice of democracy today.

Globalisation: How information technology is facilitating globalisation and how it is impacting people in the world today.

Developing Countries: Is information technology improving the lives of people in developing countries or widening the gap between rich and poor?

How We Think: Is information technology making us less intelligent and violent? Is it changing the way our brains are wired and changing our behaviour in ways that are positive or negative?

Cities: Can information technology make cities better places to live? How can city planners, politicians and citizens make good decisions today that will impact life in the future? Is technology making people in cities more connected or more isolated?

Education: How will information technology impact education? Can online education achieve high levels of educational quality? Should we be concerned about the decline of the traditional classroom?

Warfare: Information technology is changing the nature of modern warfare. Wars are more visible to the public and information technology is influencing the way that wars are conducted. How is this likely to affect the world?

Jobs and the Economy: Migration of jobs to lower wage economies, increased automation and legal and illegal immigration are impacted by information technology. What is the nature of these impacts and what are appropriate government policies in dealing with them?

Privacy: There is widespread concern about the impact of the internet of privacy and this is an area that is changing rapidly. Should we be concerned and what should be done?

These areas informed the design of the survey which is designed to understand the extent of popular concern in the areas that are described above and improve our knowledge of how information technology is disrupting society. This disruption is often argued to be widely felt. Some argue that it is having widespread political impact and has influenced votes that have been and are being cast in many countries today. Better understanding of the nature of the concerns of people today is important.

The survey had two parts. The first part asked respondents whether they thought that the overall impact that information technology would have in the areas that were listed above would be positive or negative. This allowed us to understand overall attitudes towards information technology and to identify general areas of concern.

In the second part of the survey more detail was considered. A range of 25 possible areas of concern from the 10 broader areas were identified and assessed. Areas of relative concern were discovered and the results of the two survey groups were compared. This section also provided initial indication of areas that it may be important to focus on in future studies.

The Survey Results

In the first part of the survey the respondents were asked whether they thought the impact of information technology was Mostly Good or Mostly Bad. A five point scale was used to assess this with a response of 1 indicating mostly good and a response of 5 indicating mostly bad. These were the responses of the Waterloo and Erin groups:

Here we can see that the areas of concern of the two groups are very similar. They have the last concern about the impact that information technology will have on Education and the most concern about Modern Warfare and Privacy. It is interesting that these items are rated in a similar order by both groups. Apart from a difference over Developing Countries and the Development of Cities, the ratings are in the same order for both groups. This suggests that both generations have similar perceptions of the impact that information technology is having.

In the second set of questions we can understand perceptions in more detail. We can identify areas of less and greater concern and better understand the variance between the two groups. We will first look at the concerns and their severity for each group and then consider the areas of variance between them.

These questions used a different scale which was intended to provide more detail on the extent of any concern that may exist.  In this case the five point scale used  1 for Very worried and 5 for Not at all concerned.

The Waterloo student group responded to the survey as follows. The survey question response averages are arranged in order of severity of concern, with colour coding used to indicate areas of more serious concern:

This chart shows that the Waterloo student group had only two areas, of the 25 in the study, that they had serious concern about, the impact of fake news on democracy and the use of social media by terrorist groups. Concerns also existed in other areas, as can be seen in the chart but only two areas appeared to be especially troublesome. Interestingly, there were three areas where there appears to be minimal concern: increasing international content in the goods and services that I purchase, increasing international content in the media that is watched / read by people in my country and information technology use in university teaching. The area of least concern to the students was the impact that IT was having on their education.

When we examine the areas of concern for the Erin Seniors group we can now see some differences.

Six areas of more serious concern appear in their survey results:

  • Use of social media by terrorist groups
  • Violence in video games
  • The impact of fake news on democracy
  • Cyber warfare
  • That governments are using information technology to influence elections in other countries
  • The gap between incomes of people in rich and poor countries

These results indicate greater levels of concern by the Erin Seniors group about the social impact of information technology. Further study of the results in this area will indicate areas of higher and lower concern. The Erin Seniors group had just one area of relatively little concern – Information technology use in university teaching.

We then examined the differences between the two groups by identifying the areas of most difference between them.  We looked first at the areas where the Erin Seniors group were significantly more concerned than the Waterloo group. These areas were:

  • Violence in video games
  • Use of social media by political organisations and groups
  • Social media’s (Facebook, Twitter etc.) use of algorithms to select the content that you see
  • Cyber warfare
  • Use of social media by terrorist groups
  • Drone use in modern warfare
  • Increasing international content in the goods and services that I purchase

The overall variances, ranked by magnitude, are provided in the following chart:

The Waterloo Student group were not significantly more concerned than the Erin Seniors group about any area of the survey.  There was slightly greater concern about the impact of the internet and social media on my personal privacy and that people are less intelligent because of their use of the internet but this difference in concern was less than in any of the areas in which the Erin Seniors had significantly more concern.


This appears to indicate that the Erin Seniors group, while sharing the overall areas where concern is greater with the Waterloo Student group as indicated in the first set of questions in the survey, have significantly more concern when we look at specific aspects of the impact that information technology may be having. Concerns amongst the Waterloo Student group are lower when we look at specific areas. This may indicate that while the overall perceptions of the role that information technology is playing in society are mostly positive, there are specific areas of substantial concern that need to be addressed by governments and companies, especially those companies in the information technology sector.

Further work is being don to understand the survey findings and this will be reported when it is completed. This work will include efforts to conduct the survey with other groups in society, to develop further understanding of the impact that information technology is having.




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Jobs and the Information Technology Enabled Economy

The impact that information technology is having on the working lives of global citizens is a major concern in most developed countries today. Although job numbers are little changed from the past in many countries, statistics show issues with job security and income levels. Job contracts have weakened from the employees’ point of view (working hours have become less certain with zero hour contracts for example) and income levels have been stagnant for many people for many years.

Expectations of continuously rising income levels and standards of living have not been realised and this has caused social discontent that has been reflected in political voting behaviours. Millennials have entered the job market from school or university and had difficulty getting good jobs with positive career prospects. This has led to significant levels of discontent.

At the same, wealth distribution is becoming a greater concern. Reports have emerged showing that concentrations of wealth are increasing with the rich getting significantly richer, resulting in calls for action to more equitably distribute the existing wealth. This demand is featured within some of the solutions that are proposed for dealing with the economic disruption caused by information technology. In this post, wealth distribution is not the main focus but it will be referred to as we consider policy responses to job related issues.

The way that information technology impacts the economy and peoples’ lives is widely debated. This debate is important because it influences the government policies that will be adopted to deal with it. If it is believed that information technology’s facilitation of globalisation is at the root of the economic difficulties that people are facing today then policies designed to tackle this will be more likely to be adopted by global governments.

There are three main approaches that are taken to understanding the economic impact that information technology is having today. First, there are those who believe that information technology has enabled globalisation which has made it easier for companies to locate more of their activities in developing, lower wage economies and therefor to reduce the number of people that they employ in developed countries where wages and other employment costs are higher.

The globalisation argument lies at the heart of policies that have been supported by populist politicians in North America and Europe. It was a key argument used by those supporting Brexit in the UK and Donald Trump in the US. It is used to argue for protectionist measures that increase import restrictions and limit the ability for domestic companies to move jobs abroad (for example to Mexico or China).

Opponents of this approach argue that globalisation is having much less impact on jobs than is assumed by those who are in favour of globalisation. These opponents argue that automation is likely to have a significantly larger impact and that this is where policy efforts should be directed.

Part of their argument also says that tackling the employment issues in the economy through protectionism will make the problem worse. For decades now, government economic policy in most nations and the establishment of global trading blocks such as the European Union, have been based on the benefits of international trade.

International trade is based on the theory of Comparative Advantage. This theory states that everyone benefits from trade where countries concentrate their economies on activity that they are better than others at, and then trade with each other. Statistics show a clear relationship between economic openness, trade and economic growth in countries. Countries that have been more open to trade have strongly benefitted.

While economic growth continues to be stronger in countries that trade more, a new difficulty has arisen that did not exist before, which is influencing the current debate: although trading countries economies have continued to strengthen, the benefits of the growth that has occurred have been unequally distributed. Some sections of the population have prospered and others have suffered as information technology has influenced employment disruption. While overall national economic growth has continued, many people have continued to suffer job related difficulty.

Information technology has influenced disruption through globalisation. Jobs have moved from developed countries in more traditional industries – especially manufacturing, and they have been lost to automation. At the same time, job growth has been in skill and geographical areas that are less suited to the people who have lost their jobs. Adjustment for many will require retraining and a willingness to physically move to where the new jobs are located.

Those who are opposed to protectionism as a policy response to the situation that many people face today argue that automation is a greater threat than movement of jobs to lower cost economies. They argue that automation is likely to reduce the amount that this will happen in the future and that evidence is already emerging of some jobs returning to developed countries and being done by robots.

If these arguments are correct, protectionism may only make things worse. Reducing international trade does not just result in less jobs moving to other countries but also results in increased costs for domestic companies. A car that is wholly made in the US with no imported components would be much more expensive than it is today, resulting in US cars being more expensive in export markets and higher prices for domestic consumers. The argument here is that protectionism will cause job losses in industries where costs increase and higher prices for domestic consumers, resulting in declining living standards.

The alternative view argues that the impact that information technology is having on jobs should be met with policy that supports economic adjustment. Some argue that the jobs that are moved abroad, or which disappear as a result of automation, will be replaced by new jobs – that the period that the economy is going through at the moment is temporary. Those who support this point of view cite historical examples of major economic change where this has occurred.

Others argue that government support for adjustment is necessary. Providing access to education and training opportunities that will enable people to gain the skills needed for the new jobs is usually at the heart of policies to support adjustment.

There is some debate over whether enough jobs will be created in new employment areas for people who lose their jobs in more traditional areas. Some believe that while new jobs will be created, we are entering an era of less than full employment, where many people won’t be able to get jobs. This has led to discussion on the Universal Basic Income, which is being trialled in some areas at the moment.

It is also important to refer to the concentration of wealth. Some argue for wealth redistribution that will support adjustment within the economy.

This post has explained the debate over the economic impact that information technology is having today. This debate is of critical importance in most countries and is strongly influenced by beliefs about the impact of globalisation and automation and the ability for the economy to replace lost jobs with jobs that will enable most people to have a decent quality of life. Support for policies to address the problems that people face today is based on these beliefs.


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Cyber Warfare

Patrick Tucker describes the use of cyber tactics. Shortly after the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, US forces sent text messages to insurgent fighters which told them to assemble at a certain point (eg. a street corner). When they arrived at the meeting point, US forces had their response ready. This simple use of electronically based communications in the practice of war is an early example of how cyber warfare is emerging as an element in modern warfare.

The recent US election has illustrated the range of elements that comprise modern cyber warfare. While it may initially be thought that cyber warfare is focussed largely on events on the physical battlefield, we now understand that cyber warfare also includes a wide range of activities that are designed to undermine governments and other authorities, create social and economic instability and create conditions that enable the objectives of the attacking nation or group to be achieved. Russian cyber warfare which was directed at the US political process was intended to destabilise the political system and undermine the legitimacy of democratic government. A weaker US would allow the Russians to achieve their political aims more easily – such as in the middle east.

Previously in this blog we have considered the approaches that governments should take to modern warfare generally. It was argued that the internet  and information technology had influenced changes in the nature of modern warfare – while conflicts between countries would still exist, many are now arguing that insurgencies, such as Daesh or the Islamic State were likely to be more common. Approaches to this new situation were the subject of debate in military and political circles. Some argued for a Fourth Generation Warfare approach that emphasised the political impact of military activities while others focussed on applying information technology to make physical fighting forces more effective. Known as Net Centric Warfare, this approach applied technology to better integrate battlefield resources and in the creation of military hardware that would reduce troop and civilian casualties through better targeting and remote operation.

Developments continue in the application of technologies in both of these areas and these approaches are also evident in the areas that cyber warfare activities might be focussed on. Before we consider this we will look at an overview of the various forms that cyber warfare might take beyond the battlefield.

The battlefield remains an important aspect of cyber warfare, and it is the focus of much work today as most modern militaries are actively developing capabilities in it. Concerns exist about how enemies might use battlefield cyber warfare and development is taking place in offensive and defensive cyber warfare capabilities.

Cyber warfare is usually thought to have two main forms, espionage and sabotage. Espionage is the gathering of information from an enemy or target that will provide the receiver with an advantage, either in military or other areas that will assist the achievement of political objectives. The hacking of government or corporate data or that of political parties would be included in this category and there are many examples of this today.

Cyber sabotage is offensive cyber activity that is designed to cause damage or destruction which itself will assist the achievement of political objectives. This might include activity to affect Iran’s nuclear capability (as happened with the Stuxnet incident), to disrupt electrical, water or other utility services or to undermine political systems (such as with the disruption of electronic voting systems through a Denial of Service attack).

There are many motivations for cyber espionage and sabotage. These include military objectives, designed to weaken the enemy military forces and support the achievement of military objectives and civil objectives, designed to damage or destroy communications and other utility infrastructures. Debate exists on the extent of the vulnerability of civil infrastructure to cyber attack, some people believe that this type of attack is easier and more likely than others. In any case much work is currently under way to reduce vulnerability in both military and civil areas.

Hacktivism is also an area of cyber warfare focus. This is politically motivated activity that seeks to access and release politically sensitive information (such as with WikiLeaks) and could include sabotage.

Private sector cyber crime is also an area of vulnerability. Use of cyber activity by organisations to gather commercially confidential and sensitive data from competitors and potentially to damage their operations is also an area of concern, which many organisations are addressing today.

Of increasing additional concern is the impact that cyber warfare is having on democracy.  Writing in The Atlantic, Moises Naim says that modern democracies are now more vulnerable to cyber attacks from authoritarian governments such as that of Russia. Citing the report of the US intelligence community that concluded that the Russian use of cyber warfare had worked to:

“undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency.”

Naim argues that the democratic freedoms that exists in the US, combined with social media caused this result. By taking advantage of the free flow of information to leak information and spread misinformation the Russians were able to achieve their objectives. This success has led to increased potential for this type of activity from authoritarian regimes in the future, as the US intelligence services report:

“We assess Moscow will apply lessons learned from its Putin -ordered campaign aimed at the US Presidential election to future influence efforts worldwide, including against US allies and their election processes.”

With elections due in many European countries over the next year this is an area of some concern and causes Naim to argue that action to counter the threat that is posed is urgently needed.

Measures to deal with the threats posed by cyber warfare are currently being developed. At the same time, cyber warfare itself is changing very rapidly. Development of approaches and resources for dealing with current cyber warfare threats struggles to keep up with the changing nature of the threats posed. This is the subject of advice that is provided to the new US Secretary of Defense, James Mattis in a recent article in The Hill. Gary Brown of the US Cyber Command and Kurt Sanger of the Marine Corp argue that dealing with cyber attacks has the following options: coercing adversaries (persuading them not to launch the attacks), creating an environment that incentivizes self restraint, aggressive cyber acts and seeking verifiable non aggression accords (treaties or agreements that restrict the use of cyber warfare).

Microsoft’s President and Chief Legal Officer has called for the creation of a digital Geneva Convention which would control the way that nations wage cyber war. This would limit the impact that cyber war would have on civilians and curtail its impact on companies. It would limit the creation of cyber weapons.

It is argued that the cyber arms race has already started, that a full scale cyber war could start easily and be very difficult to stop.

This post has discussed recent developments in information technology and modern warfare. Over the past year Cyber warfare has gained significant attention, especially as a result of the activities of the Russian government in the US election. Concerns about the impact of cyber warfare on democratic countries have been discussed and the dialogue on responses to this has been introduced.


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Interview With Anant Agarwal, CEO edX

Interview with Anant Agarwal, Chief Executive Officer of edX. Founded by Harvard and MIT and now with global university partners, edX provides quality online education worldwide. This interview with the University of Waterloo’s Peter Carr, discusses edX’s work delivering high quality online education, and the future impact of technology on traditional universities.

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Better and More Education Using Information Technology

Education is vitally important today. This is not a new statement – it has been argued for thousands of years. Education enables people to be productive, get jobs and participate in society and most people have recognised this. Today, these arguments are still true but they have been added to with others that were perhaps less important in the past.

The knowledge economy needs people with higher levels of education. as developed country economies have reduced the extent to which they are based on manufacturing and towards services and technology, more jobs have required more education. This has been one of the main factors behind the growth of the education sector. More students have completed high school and more have gone on to get bachelors and, increasingly, masters degrees. Programmes in universities and colleges have grown quickly.

Today there are two new factors that make education even more important. As technology has increased the pace of change in most countries, the nature of work has also been rapidly changing. While manufacturing jobs have been in decline for many years, automation is resulting in further decline in manufacturing and service jobs . It is thought that automation will accelerate in future years, resulting in significant employment disruption for many.

Job related disruption is expected to increase as a result of automation and other technological change based on artificial intelligence and the proliferation of the internet of things. A range of political responses to this situation are possible. Some populist movements have argued that governments should introduce barriers to trade and immigration that are based on the incorrect assumption that job loss and change is largely based on the expansion of globalisation. Statistics show that much of the change that has occurred is based on automation and that trade and immigration restrictions that are proposed are likely to make the situation worse.

It now appears clear that the technologically based disruption that people in most countries are experiencing today is not a temporary phase that will eventually be resolved with minimal government action. We are now recognising that governments will need to act to help their populations adapt to the new economic and social environment, to develop new policies that will ensure appropriate distribution of wealth and provision of services and support that minimise exclusion. Political discussions are now taking place in these areas.

Education will be a critical element. Education is necessary to enable people to acquire the new skills that the new jobs that are emerging will require. New skills are needed in technological areas as well as in the areas that are necessary for the creation of new businesses – entrepreneurship will be especially important as a key element in the ability for economies to change.

Education will also be important in broader social areas as economies and societies change more rapidly. People will need skills that enable them to adapt more easily, to understand the changes that are taking place in their lives and participate in the positive development of  civic society.

The changes that are occurring in the world today make education ever more important. Conventional thinking suggests that doing more with the  same or less resources will lead to a decline in quality. That was the way that we used to think about manufacturing and service operations. That belief has now been modified to understand that our approach to operational design, including our use of information and other technologies, can enable more to be done with less. But, we have to be careful how we do this in education.

Demand for post K – 12 education has increased in recent years. many more people are obtaining degrees and pursuing other programmes of study. At the same time supply of education has also been expanding. Most existing universities have increased their enrolments and new providers have entered the market. Some of these have maintained a traditional classroom model while others have applied information technology and offered courses online. It has been argued here that more education is necessary for the technology enabled world that exists today and which will increasingly feature in the future and information technology is likely to have an important role in its provision.

Previous posts in this blog have considered the application of technology in education and introduced the importance of pedagogy – the approaches that are taken to education design and delivery. We have seen that different beliefs about effective learning methods will lead to different course designs in the physical classroom and in online courses. The way that information technology is applied will reflect these beliefs and create limits on and possibilities for the pedagogies that are can be applied in different classroom and online learning environments.

In traditional universities information technology is now widely available. Most will have a Learning Management System, usually from Blackboard, Moodle or Waterloo’s Desire2Learn. Often support for the use of the LMS in classroom based courses is provided and many professors have developed and are offering courses that are wholly or substantially online. Students find the flexibility that is offered by online courses attractive.

The impact that online courses will have in traditional universities is as yet uncertain. Will we see the decline of the traditional classroom, will there be growth in support services for online learning, how might the application of technology support and strengthen the whole university, its research, teaching and administration?

New learning organisations are also emerging. Online universities, offering whole degree programmes are now common with a range of pedagogical approaches and a resulting range of quality. Students also now have access to new sources of online learning, some free like the Khan Academy or at low cost such as MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) with very large numbers of students taking each course. Questions exist about the business models that will be successful for MOOCs and there is some uncertainty about their sustainability, but they present new options for significantly expanding the availability of education.

The debate on the application of information technology in the higher education world has many aspects to it. First there is the debate over pedagogy – which learning models are most effective and then what will the impact of technology be on these. In the traditional classroom model, information technology is believed by some to be a threat to educational quality. In other pedagogical approaches information technology offers substantial potential for the creation of high quality online education.

The need and demand for more education at an affordable price will strongly influence the growth in the use of information technology in education.

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Interview With Gordon Feller – Meeting of the Minds

In this audio interview I discuss the Future of Cities with Gordon Feller, Co-Founder of Meeting of the Minds. Gordon examines the issues facing cities today and the opportunities that information technology offers in tackling these and improving the lives of citizens. Further information on the content of this interview can be found on the Meeting of the Minds website which includes a rich archive of blog posts on the topics that are discussed here.

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The Future of Our Cities


Thre is intensive discussion of the impact that information technology will have on the future of cities and this post summarises many of the areas that will be affected. this information is important for decisions that are being made today by governmental authorities as they consider their investment priorities and the development of their governance structures. They are important to businesses as they consider their future strategy and for citizens as they consider their careers and families.

It appears clear that future cities will be significantly different than they are to day and we have an improving understanding of the possibilities that exist in many areas. It is not yet clear, however, how all of this will fit together, how the many technological innovations will be integrated with each other – what their combined impact will be.


Cities Are Changing

In most major cities, in both developed and, to some extent, developing countries we are seeing dramatic changes which are creating challenges for citizens, businesses and governments. Increasing urbanisation is bringing more people to cities from rural areas, placing pressure on existing infrastructure and services, and raising accommodation prices for rent and sale. Many younger people and those on lower incomes face accommodation difficulties. Roads and transit systems are clogged. Businesses struggle to find employees who can afford to live near their workplaces. In many cities climate change threatens with rising water levels and more frequent extreme weather events that call for major action to avert disastrous consequences.

These challenges, and many more, are often influenced by information technology. Cities are growing as the pleasures of city life are more visible to all through the internet. Communications have become easier and transportation quicker and cheaper, supporting the global movement of people towards cities. Money has more easily moved between countries, often landing in hot real estate markets, raising house prices rapidly and beyond the reach of many of the local population. Rental services like Air BnB have accelerated this process.

Transport systems have been stressed as growth has occurred. Frequent smaller deliveries have increased the number of vehicles on streets and governments have appeared powerless to respond – the challenges that they face have stressed political systems that were created in slower moving times and which now have difficulty coping.


Technological Capabilities

The change that is occurring in peoples’ lives is enabled by information technology. That technology features the ability to communicate and process data more quickly and easily. Web 2.0 featured social media with its publishing and collaboration functionality and this has accelerated the trends that were described in the previous section. Today, new technological capabilities are emerging and these are appearing in new products and services which will have a significant impact on today’s cities. The changes that are discussed here are happening now.

Advances are occurring rapidly today in artificial intelligence, the internet of things and big data. As these advances are integrated with each other they have the potential to transform the lives of people living in cities. This transformation can improve or damage the quality of these lives, depending on how we decide to apply it. In the discussion that follows, the options for its application will be considered.


New Possibilities

The Meeting of the Minds website is a good starting point in understanding the impact that information technology will have on the cities of the future. The site provides an archive of contributions on a wide range of city related topics. These include:

Urban Poverty: What impact is technology having on poverty today? Rising accommodation prices are causing hardship for many. Gaps between the wealth of those with good educations and those without appear to be widening in the knowledge based economy. Can information technology help by increasing educational access?

Transportation: Polluted, traffic jam ridden inner cities are common today. What should the response to this be? Will self driving vehicles help? How will information technology impact public transit with driverless busses and new rapid transit systems being widely discussed? What will the impact of driverless delivery vehicles and delivery drones be?

Paying For It? What are the models that will fund the transformation of cities, taking advantage of the benefits of information technology. Public, Private Partnerships (P3s) are controversial – are they part of the solution or do other funding options need to be explored, such as municipal bonds or creative forms of taxation?

Sustainability: Protection and improvement of the environment for current and future generations also features in discussions on the future of cities. Information technology can be used to manage this more effectively, reducing power usage through smart management of heating and cooling systems and integrated power management in office buildings and homes. Use of renewable power sources, often including the use of solar power are considered.

Water is an important element of the discussion on sustainability. In many global cities access to water and its quality are serious issues with predictions of more restricted access to water in the future due to its increasing scarcity. Innovative uses of technology to manage water usage are often seen as part of solution to this problem.

Food supplies are also considered in the discussion on sustainability. Concern about the availability of food with the growing global population and about the impact on the environment of growing methids and chemicals and the carbon footprint of food transportation have caused local food solutions to be pursued in many localities. Urban agriculture is attracting significant interest as is the application of information technology to do this more effectively.

Digital Equity: While it is often assumed that increased use of information technology will benefit everyone equally, this is often not the case and the impact that it has, as well as how it should be addressed are being considered. Digital inequity can affect access to services, participation in local communities and the ability for individuals to contribute economically through work.

Governance: Engagement of citizens in cities is thought to encourage higher levels of participation in and commitment to more effective change and operation of cities in the future. Technology enables people to be more easily consulted and involved in the governance of cities. For example, we have already seen the incorporation of petitions in US and UK federal government processes. Online presentations, discussions and consultations are now common around major municipal decisions. Many forms of engagement are discussed today and the forms that will be used are evolving.

Economic Development: Startups will be important in local economic development and they are likely to be more important in the future. Rapid automation will lead to the decline of many job areas and entrepreneurs will play a major role in creating new companies, applying new technologies and creating new jobs. The creation of ecosystems that provide fertile environments for entrepreneurs will be essential.

Health: Healthcare and healthy living will be transformed with the use of information technology. Use of technology to create healthier environments through control of pollutants, use of big data to identify and manage health risks and provision of targeted health related information are likely to create healthier citizens in the future.



The discussion above has considered many aspects of the impact of information technology on cities. It has been stressed that choices exist over the ways in which technology will be applied – will it be used in ways that improve city life or will we see further negative impacts of trends that exist today. Will housing become more continually more expensive, will streets become more crowded and polluted, will lifespans of the poor continue to decline and will the distance between governments and citizens continue to increase?

This post has outlined possibilities for the application of information technology in ways that can improve people’s lives. They require us to choose to do it.

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Is the Internet Destroying Our Brains?

In this blog we have looked at the arguments around the impact that the internet is having on the way that we think. Concerns have been expressed historically that technologies will have a negative impact – including that the printing press would inhibit our ability to think and that radio and television would reduce our ability to think critically because we would be reading less.

Arguments about the internet have usually focussed on two areas. First, that the behaviours adopted when using the internet (especially surfing quickly from one page and topic to another), would limit the ability to concentrate and think deeply – qualities gained when reading books, the argument went. Nicholas Carr is a leading exponent of this theory, along with others, who said that the internet would make people less intelligent.

The second area of concern was that information technology would make people more violent, based on their exposure to violence in video games. Supporters of this argument tried to associate violent video games with spree murder events such as Columbine and their efforts led to legislative efforts to limit access to the games.

Previous posts in this  blog reviewed the arguments that had been presented in support of both of these arguments and concluded that in both cases evidence that information technology was causing the effects argued (that we were becoming more stupid and violent) was very weak and did not logically lead to the conclusions that were reached.

Over the past few years this debate has continued though, with frequent public discussion of the impact that the internet is having on our brains. A wide range of areas are now cited as negative impacts of internet use and includes:

  • The internet is causing people to become autistic
  • There is now physical internet addiction. Some argue that heavy internet use can result in addiction symptons that are similar to those experienced by gamblers and alcoholics.
  • People are more withdrawn and/or narcissistic
  • We have reduced empathy due to video games – we become numbed to the meaningless violence.
  • Our attention span has been reduced as we engage in surfing behaviour
  • More people have low self esteem
  • Our memory is becoming weaker as we become more reliant on externally available information and less focussed on remembering things.
  • Learning is impacted – education does not use rote learning as much
  • Our research skills are weaker – we can just Google a question
  • Our concentration is weaker
  • We are focused more on new information rather than understanding existing knowledge
  • Creative thinking is impaired
  • People are becoming lonely and jealous
  • The internet is a suicide risk

This list is not exhaustive but illustrates the wide range of ills that are being attributed to the internet today. Others argue that the evidence that supports these assertions is weak or non existent and does not justify the case that has been made for them.

Susan Greenfield is a leading advocate of the risks to our brains that have been associated with the internet. An Oxford academic, Greenfield has provided a coherent framework for many of the claims that are in the list above. Her case is based on neuroscience and states that internet use affects the way that our brains are wired – how the connections within our brain take place and which then influence the way that we think. In the following video, Susan presents her research:

Greenfields arguments have received much attention, have encouraged parents to exercise caution in the guidance provided to children on the internet and have raised serious questions about the impact that these brain changes may have on society. If peoples’ brains are changing in the way that Greenfield suggests then the implications for society may be profound. We might expect an overall reduced ability to think and hence poorer decision making at all levels of society, for example.

Support for Greenfields’ arguments is not unanimous though. many have argued that the case that she presents is weak, unsupported by solid evidence and resulting in unnecessary alarm. While not arguing that unlimited internet use is desirable (there are many non brain related reasons why we shouldn’t spend excessive time online – like physical fitness and the development of our social skills) it is suggested that there also may be many positive benefits of internet use:

  • It may counter aging
  • Improves decision making
  • Better complex reasoning
  • People are becoming more adaptive to change
  • Improved academic performance
  • Improves multitasking
  • Better visual acuity
  • Better at finding information

The arguments against Susan Greenberg are articulated by the Economist and by professors at the University of Melbourne as well as others. Kathryn Mills, from University College London presents a summary of her arguments against Greenfield from a neuroscience perspective – significant as Greenfield bases her case on this area. Kathryn’s presentation here considers the development of the brain in adolescence:

This post has reviewed the arguments on the impact that information technology is having on peoples’ brains. We have seen that some argue that there is a negative impact from technology that may have a damaging impact on people and society. Others argue that the evidence to support this case is weak and that there are substantial societal benefits of internet use.


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Economic Development Through Improved Internet Access In Developing Countries

In this blog posts on information technology and humanitarian development have thus far focussed on the potential that is offered in tackling specific development problems. Lower levels of connectivity restrict the overall impact that higher levels of connectivity can have. That is the emphasis of this post – the potential for integrated, connectivity based development.

Global Poverty

Global poverty remains a serious issue, although some progress has been made in recent years. According to the World Bank, in 2013 10.7 % of the worlds population lives on less than $1.90 per day which is down 35 % since 1990. The problem is still very serious though – 10.7 % is 767 million people, who live extremely difficult lives.

Improvements which have happened have largely been in East Asia and the Pacific Region. Progress has been especially notable in India. Half of the world’s poorest people live in Sub Saharan Africa, where 389 million people live on less than $1.90 per day.

Efforts continue to alleviate world poverty and create sustainable economic development to improve the incomes and lives of poorer people. Information technology may have a substantial role to play here.

Can Information Technology Enable Economic Development?

Earlier posts in this blog have referred to examples of the use of information technology to improve peoples’ lives in developing countries. These examples span a number of areas, including agriculture, health, education, fishing, banking and the functioning of government. They show that substantial benefits are possible if information technology is appropriately used.

Use of information technology in humanitarian development also has significant benefits. Its use in supporting the work of Non-governmental organisations in their activities to create sustainable development and provide famine and disaster relief as well as in their work with refugees is supported by NetHope who the University of Waterloo has worked with for the past ten years:

University of Waterloo Support for the Use of Technology in Development

Over the past ten years Masters students from the University of Waterloo have worked on over 25 projects to support the use of information technology in the work of humanitarian development organisations. These projects have included research on technologies to improve the accessibility of electrical power, to increase connectivity and in the work of the NGO’s themselves through examining their social media and project management practices. The projects have also looked at the use of information technology in agriculture, health and education and at technologically based solutions for the counterfeit drug problem. The role of information technology with refugees and its potential in encouraging entrepreneurs has also featured in the projects.

These projects have sought to encourage the appropriate use of information technology in humanitarian development and provide further examples of how information technology can be effectively applied. The overall impact that technology will have will partly depend on the future development of connectivity – the access that those in developing countries have to the internet.

Connectivity Today

The oAfrica website provides links to data on the levels of connectivity in Africa today. It is important to note that the digital divide, the divide between those with internet access and those without, also discussed elsewhere on this blog, exists in many parts of the world.  The World Wide Web Foundation provides data on a wide range of indicators of the impact of the internet. The International Telecommunications Union provides extensive connectivity statistics that enable better understanding of the detail of the digital divide.

These statistics illustrate the digital divide on an international basis:


The chart above shows levels of internet accessibility globally. It is based on household internet access and does not include mobile access, which will be discussed later in this post. The next chart shows the price of internet access and illustrates one of the main challenges in expanding internet access in developing countries:


This chart shows that the cost of household internet access in developing countries is far higher than that in developed nations. there are many reasons for this which include the low density of the population, with many living in rural areas with no telecommunications or electricity infrastructure.

Mobile is often argued to be a solution to this problem and in many developing countries mobile internet access is increasing rapidly, providing access to many new services and supporting some development. This remains restricted though by data costs which tend to be relatively high.

Efforts to expand lower cost internet services have been taking place – Facebook and Google been especially active here.

Facebook Free Basics and Google Project Link

Efforts to expand internet connectivity in developing countries have been pursued by local companies and organisations, by NGO’s and others. These efforts are driven by an understanding of the potential economic and social benefits and also by the commercial opportunities that increased connectivity creates. Facebook and Google have been especially active in this area and their work has sparked controversy.

Facebook’s Free Basics service provides free data access to selected internet sites which include local news and jobs, sports scores and, of course, Facebook itself. Access to other internet sites is possible, through the payment of additional fees. Facebook argue that their services allow people in developing countries to access the internet who would otherwise not be able to do that. However, they have been criticised for controlling the sites that users have access to and the potential misuse of this that may occur. India has stopped Facebook offering Free Basics there and the arguments in the debate on this are articulated in the following video:

Google have also had their own efforts to increase connectivity, known as Project Link, which is designed to provide local connectivity in countries where this doesn’t exist. Their work on this has so far focussed on Uganda and Ghana and has provided high speed home internet service in metropolitan areas. Google’s efforts have been less controversial as they have not limited access to specific sites.

Other efforts are underway to expand internet access. Facebook are looking at the use of solar powered drones to provide Wifi access, OneWeb from Virgin are looking at the use of satellites while Google’s Loon is considering high altitude balloons.

These developments are intended to expand the commercial opportunities that exist for the companies that provide them. Expanding internet access expands the market for advertising and other services that they offer. The access that is provided can also support efforts for economic and social development, based on the possibilities that would exist for this in a fully connected world.

Integrated Development

The work that has been undertaken at the University of Waterloo on information technology and development has included consideration of the impact that a fully connected world would have.  There would be many areas that might benefit, including the areas that were outlined earlier in this post. In agriculture, health and education more connectivity would enable more to be done.

The collective impact of connectivity is also important. One of the areas that this was examined in was that of entrepreneurs. Higher levels of connectivity would provide many benefits for them, including better access to markets, education and training, connections with investors (both locally and internationally)  and the potential for collaboration with business partners. This area illustrates the integrated value that widespread connectivity can have on development. As connectivity improves, new possibilities for development will also emerge.


This post has provided a discussion on the impact of the expansion of connectivity in developing countries today. posts in this blog have previously emphasised the individual areas in which connectivity can provide benefits. This post initiates discussion on the integrated possibilities when higher levels of connectivity are achieved.

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