Chi Onwurah’s take on Web Summit - ‘Tech is just talking to tech. Where is the citizen view?’

Chi Onwurah Profile picture for user Chi Onwurah November 11, 2018
Chi Onwurah, MP, Shadow Minister for Science and Innovation, and a Chartered Engineer, attended Web Summit last week and has some thoughts on why tech needs to urgently engage with the many, or it will find itself on the side of the very few.

Chi Onwurah, MP and Shadow Minister for Science and Innovation
Chi Onwurah, MP and Shadow Minister for Science and Innovation

“Tech is changing.” I thought as I surveyed the WomeninTech lounge at the close of Web Summit, watching articulate, excited, diverse women techies from all over the world networking over free prosecco courtesy of I remembered my first Tech conference, CeBit in Hannover back in the eighties.

On the packed, specially laid on plane to Hanover there was only one other woman – and when I saw her again in the conference centre she was wearing a Bunny costume as she tried to lure men onto an equipment vender stall. That told me all I needed to know about the role of women in Tech back then.

At Web Summit, active support for women and a discount of up to 90% on the (800 to 1500 euro) entrance fee made this the most gender balanced event I’ve attended. And the women weren’t shy in making themselves heard, I was told it was the WomeninTech Web Summit Facebook group which had forced founder Patrick Cosgrove to rescind his (ill thought through) invitation to Marine LePen to speak.

The buzz at Web Summit was very impressive. And the range of tech companies there. From Google, whose rooftop lounge gave you the option of exiting via a slide, to the smallest of disruptive start-ups like Bunk from Bristol and Nebula Labs from Newcastle who won a free place in an open source competition.

There was everything in between, a geographic range that included – shock horror – developing countries. The scale was scary, the biggest tech gathering in the world 70,000 people across three days with seven stages, four halls and a 20,000 seater arena. The city of Lisbon is spending 110 million euros to keep Web Summit there in the face of tough competition from other countries including the UK. It seems clear that one business model that isn’t being disrupted right now is Web Summit’s.

For the many, not the few

In comparison to CES which I also visited this year, Web Summit was less glitzy, more diverse and more of the ‘real’ world. But at least one very important voice was missing and that absence highlighted how far tech still needs to go – the voice of ordinary people was nowhere to be heard.

Yes Tony Blair was there, but I would not say he is the people’s politician now – if he ever was. And whilst there were a few elected politicians such as myself and the Mayor of Vancouver, the non-techie third sector was entirely absent as far as I could see. No consumer rights groups, no citizen groups.

The fact that Web Summit does not pay the flights and accommodation of speakers no doubt contributed to this – I don’t suppose Citizen’s Advice could afford to compete with Facebook and Amazon for hotel room in such a crowded city. But the absence of the voice of ordinary people mattered because it meant Web Summit was basically still tech talking to tech.

That has got to change. Tech is everywhere and in everything. As the UN rapporteur Peter Alston saw for himself this week, my constituents are forced to use food banks because they are sanctioned if they don’t job search online, yet their Government does not give them access to the skills or infrastructure they need to do so.

As a speaker at Web Summit my message was the need to put ordinary people at the heart of technology, technology for people not people for technology. So that means, for example, putting people in control of their own data, making algorithms accountable, building equality into the design process.

If applications are not diverse by design they will be unequal by outcome and tech companies are far from emulating Web Summit success in getting women and minorities in through the door.

Speaking as Shadow Minister for Science and Innovation and a Chartered Engineer who has worked across three continents in just about every stage of the development process from concept to regulation, I explained that the opposite of regulation is not no regulation, it is bad regulation.

Too often, still, tech evangelists denigrate or reject the importance of appropriate regulation, saying either that Government has no right to regulate, or that Government is too dumb to regulate, or that it’s all fine anyway and if it isn’t blockchain will fix it.

Well, unless there is an open, honest conversation and debate about the right regulation, then the wrong regulation will be imposed in a knee jerk response to negative tabloid headlines.

But that conversation can’t happen without the citizen consumer voice. This Government is drowning in Brexit and its own internal power struggles - it hasn’t got the intellectual capacity to facilitate that conversation as it should do. Labour, under Shadow Digital Minister Liam Byrne, is engaging over what a Digital Bill of Rights should look like. Tech needs to get on the front foot and engage with ‘the many’ or it will find itself part of the side of the very, very few.

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