CIO Folder: Europe… an ICT collective
The EU is possibly at its most aggressive — in policy at least — in protecting the personal data of its citizens. Some people may regard European taxation policy as the more combative, especially in the case of Ireland and Apple, but it is certainly more recent and immature. On the other hand, history may regard the oncoming (four months) General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) a major comprehensive step internationally in laying to the legal framework for personal data protection.
When it was first published, many experts prophesied that it would become the accepted world standard — or the basis of such an international convention. It would be the data equivalent of the World Trade Organisation trading system. The UK government has to comply because Brexit is still in process but in fact the coming Data Protection Bill is a parallel piece of legislation that will come into effect after the UK leaves.
“Ireland is profoundly lucky to be in the EU — and remaining. On the other hand, our closest research and co-development partners are in the UK. That pattern is unlikely to die out. We share too much with inner island in terms of education, culture, business and public policy — not least because we are both prone to monolingualism”
The history of European data protection goes back to 1973, when Ireland and the UK joined the European Economic Community and the Council of Europe adopted Resolutions establishing principles for the protection of personal data in automated databanks in the private and public sectors. In Ireland the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner was established in 1989 following the enactment of the Data Protection Act of 1988, the first such legislation to be introduced into Irish domestic law. Nearly 30 years.
So, we should be ready for the GDPR. Are we? Well in fairness, the civil service and state organisations have been pedantically careful in their systems for years. The principal flaw is — or was — unauthorised access in larger state organisations, frequently not logged or untraceable to individual culprits. But the systems themselves have been well managed. Certainly, no major scandals and the track record so far is better than many well-known brands and multinationals.
The EU has for decades recognised the key importance of protecting EU citizens’ data, personal and ‘state’ records. While the major nations of the EU, notably UK, Germany, France and the Scandinavians have consistently taken the lead in matters of state and military security, the EU centrally has concentrated on personal data. But it also has assumed leadership of European research, progress and investment in IT and other advanced technologies, from space exploration and satellites to railway transport systems to sustainable energy.
IT innovation and development have consistently been central to those efforts. The latest, and in many ways most outstanding, example is the commitment to create a supercomputing and data infrastructure known as EuroHPC. Reported by TechCentral.ie early last month, it has been largely ignored by other media — even the tech specialists. Yet it is a €1 billion project of potentially enormous significance to the EU digital economy, a joint undertaking involving all EU member states over the next three years. The EU Commission’s Digital Single Market division points out that no European state has a supercomputer in the world’s Top 10. Those of us within the IT sector would largely agree that the reason is lack of investment, not expertise or talent.
So, this EU initiative gives 27 countries a collective chance to catch up. Not that the supercomputer league table is all that important in itself, but there is no doubt that computing power is the future of competitive digital trade. It is already here, to some extent, for example in the automated stock market trading which depends on sub-nanosecond speeds and is based on analytics and even AI. The EU ambition is for a pan-European exascale integrated infrastructure that will provide services for state and research bodies, commercial enterprises and ultimately SMEs — a kind of EU super-cloud. The EU countries which initially signed up are France and Germany, naturally, joined by the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Spain and Portugal. They were joined during 2017 by Belgium, Slovenia, Bulgaria, Switzerland, Greece and Croatia. Luxembourg has a small economy but is destined to be the HQ of the administrative and possibly the research functions of EuroHPC, so that is no surprise.
What about Ireland? We have our highly reputable ICHEC [Irish Centre for High-End Computing] led by NUIG since 2005 and The Trinity Centre for High Performance Computing which goes back to 1997. In fairness, Science Foundation Ireland has supported advanced computation since its foundation. But of Irish national participation in EuroHPC, we have heard nothing so far since its launch in early 2017. Perhaps because the EU is contributing just half of the budget, which has to matched by a similar amount from member states. Our politicians have consistently been cautious about committing large sums to esoteric projects which have no public recognition or appeal.
The EU programmes of ICT innovation and investment, progress and economic benefits, are a collective effort that is in the interest of individual national economies as well as the EU as a whole. Should Ireland not adopt a policy of universal participation? We joined the European Space Agency in 1975. Far-sighted. Enterprise Ireland, then the IDA, saw the opportunities for small, specialist Irish companies. The governments of those times, in the opinion of this column, were far more willing to be guided by expert judgment. The IDA was almost universally revered as The National Prophet of economic development in those days.
The EU programme Horizon 2020 is ambitious and embraces subject and projects all across many fields of science, from human health to the environment to public sector modernisation. What in many ways all the fields have in common is that nowadays they depend on advanced ICT and the use and protection of personal and social data. In light of that, the ICT sector is set to expand in all of its aspects. At present it accounts for just under 5% of the European economy. That could conceivably double in the near future, possibly in under a decade. Its drivers now span all of human activity, so the volume of innovation is multiplying. As is the investment, worldwide.
In that context Ireland is profoundly lucky to be in the EU — and remaining. On the other hand, our closest research and co-development partners are in the UK. That pattern is unlikely to die out. We share too much with inner island in terms of education, culture, business and public policy — not least because we are both prone to monolingualism.
But the EU is our Big Sister* in so very many respects that we should be profoundly grateful — and continue to take full advantage of her economic and political support — and protection of our personal privacy. The politics of the EU are very like our own — voices loud at times but not really given to extremes and consistently democratic. So they can safely be ignored in discussion of EU joint initiatives, driven by ‘Brussels’ and its powerful brains trust. Like all bureaucracies, the leaders are of a class with leaders throughout society and far above the 9-5 majority. It functions by multinational committees, which is cumbersome but essential.
But big, ambitious, imaginative programmes get designed and funded, elicit national and commercial cooperation — and succeed. The EU is looking and planning across Future and Emerging Technologies, from biotechnologies to robotics to medical and neuro-technologies and the Internet of Things. This column is emphasising that Ireland, led by the ICT sector in all possible ways, has to galvanise itself to get on board EU research and innovation programmes across the board. None of them are irrelevant to our economy or our spread of talent and what is more they offer the prospects of growing indigenous industries as opposed to FDI.
*Big Brother seems inappropriate