FWDThinking Episode 18: Catching up with the Digital Nations

Alistair Croll in conversation with Sam Roberts, Natalia Domagala, and Gosia Loj from the DN.

All opinions expressed in these episodes are personal and do not reflect the opinions of the organizations for which our guests work.

Alistair Croll: Hi, and welcome to another edition of FWDThinking this time. We’re going to sit down with three representatives from the Digital Nations. If you don’t know who they are, the DN started out as a small group of progressive governments who shared their best practices around open government and digital innovation. And the number has now grown to 10 countries from around the world who share these kinds of best practices. Last year, we actually hosted the Digital Nations at FWD50 as Canada was the host country in a rotating series of events they run. And this year the Digital Nations is going to return to the FWD50 stage to share with us three case studies on November 4th. Around the world. Things that people have been doing to enable digital governments to take off better, share data more openly and work better with citizens. So please join me in giving a very warm FWDThinking welcome to three members of the Digital Nations, Gosia, Sam, and Natalia. Hi everyone, how are you? 

Gosia Loj: Hi Alistair, I’m good thank you. 

Alistair Croll: Gosia, where are you calling in from today?

Gosia Loj: I’m calling in from Geneva actually. This is where I’m based and I am the official in the UK government. I’ve worked for the department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. And I’m the head of global governance, which is a team that leads on platform engagements. And part of that is the Digital Nations. So, I also chair the digital nations this year as the UK holds the presidency. 

Alistair Croll: That sounds pretty busy. And how about you Sam, where are you today? 

Sam Roberts: Hi Alistair, yeah, so I’m calling in from London. I’m the head of open data and open government policy in the UK cabinet office. So worked very closely with Gosia and others. And my kind of remit in the Digital Nations is that I also chair the data 360 group. So that’s the group that kind of focuses on open data and data infrastructure and all that good stuff. 

Alistair Croll: I actually just, while we’re waiting for Natalia to rejoin us, I actually just finished recording 11 shorts, 10- or 12-minute talks on data. I wrote a book called lean analytics, and then I taught a course at HBS on data science and critical thinking. So, I decided to put those into these talks and we publish them. You know, Hey everybody, here’s some free content. We’re dropping like one on Monday and one on Wednesday for the next 10 weeks, I think, or five weeks. But a number of people signed up who had nothing to do with government just because they want to understand how to think about data and stuff like that. And it, it really does feel like in the current sort of political climate and innovation climate. Knowing how to think critically about data and sharing that data openly is such a, a vital part of technology in general. 

Sam Roberts: Yeah, we think about it in terms of data literacy in the UK. And I think the trick is that we’re trying to kind of hit the top level. So, the senior thinkers, the sort of senior decision makers, trying to make them comfortable with the concept of data, but we’re also trying to hit the working level as well and try and make sure we have the right data scientists, data engineers and kind of analyst expertise at that level as well. So, it’s a, it’s a really important issue and it’s great that you are doing some content on it. 

Alistair Croll: But it’s super challenging just to get that last mile to make it sort of relevant to the audience. I mean, something I’m constantly doing is just trying out my explanation. On muggles, people who are sort of indoctrinated in the world of data science, just to see if that stuff makes sense, because so many of the concepts we understand as, as data people and technologists you know, standard deviation and means, and why averages are terrible ways to understand data sets. Those are not things that most people think about. So, it’s definitely a literacy I wish we had more of. So Gosia, tell me a little bit about the themes that the DN is working on this year and where they came from.

Gosia Loj: Absolutely. So, this year our overall theme is digital government in open society, sustainable, inclusive, and values driven innovation. So, the theme has been chosen by the UK as chair this year, but it really is one that is shared by all of our partners in the Digital Nations. And it’s one that is also guiding our other engagements this year, especially within the G7 presidency and also later in the year during COP and the most critical part here is really the open societies and the values that we’re trying to make sure are embedded throughout the digital transformation in the government. It’s very important and critical piece of work that we are trying to focus all of our work strands of the Digital Nations on. And making sure that we, through that digital transformation, meet the needs of people, of businesses, whether that’s delivery of health care, social support education or anything else. And for that reason, with the increasing sort of reliance on digital technologies and the accelerating pace of that transformation, we really, really strongly believe that we need to be guided by the shared values as democratic societies. And so, the, the key here is the public trust that is really paramount to the success of the adoption of the digital technologies. And making sure that there is transparency and public confidence, especially in the public sector use of data and digital technologies and making sure that things like transparency of algorithmic decision-making is embedded as well as safeguards human rights, ethics and anything in between in our approaches to the digital transformation. So, then the concept of inclusion is one other one that is particularly important now, during the pandemic and what the pandemic has shown us is how important and vital it is to leave no one behind. And so, we want to make sure that we understand all of the considerations of the variety of different needs in a society. And so being inclusive, digital government is really a priority for us in the UK and for the Digital Nations and all of our partners. And so, for example, we’re trying to make sure that we design for accessibility, that we build digital skills and confidence in the public, but also within the civil service itself as an example. And that we make sure that there is a wide access to technologies and digital tools, especially in underserved communities. And then the last piece of that theme is sustainability. And again, as I’ve mentioned we also host a COP meeting later in the year. And so, it is really critical for us to make sure that this is the central theme in the Digital Nations’ work as well. We know very well that the technological advances can help us to drive down our carbon footprint, but we’re also very aware of the negative consequences of technologies and say these need to be properly managed. So, we hope that together we can promote more of the shared understanding of how to build sustainable digital governments and make sure that we lower that environmental impact of our digital operations in the government. So, these are the things that we will be discussing. We have been discussing and are working on throughout the year, but specifically, will be discussing at the summit in November when our ministers meet to once again, reconfirm the commitment to driving the progress in the digital transformation especially based on the values of open societies and inclusivity, sustainability, and democratic principles.

Alistair Croll: That’s an auspicious and daunting list and obviously a lot of the right things on the list, but many of those topics are sort of hard to digest for mainstream politicians who want to, you know, captivate the popular vote. Targeting the margins to make sure they’re included versus the objections of the mainstream or the middle austerity that might have to happen around carbon sequestration or, you know, restricting cargo ships. I think I read somewhere that the sulfur oxides, the transmission of the 15 world’s largest container ships is equivalent to 760,000 cars or some, you know, million cars, some insane number. The thing, the tensions between what the public wants and what government has to do to meet some of these guidelines for transparency, which sort of lays all of a government’s dirty laundry to bear for people to inspect. Carbon and climate change battles, which obviously lead to some form of austerity. Many of these initiatives seem to run counter to the political tide and nothing has really changed that as much as the pandemic has. Really the last 18 months have been a Sisyphean effort by governments around the world to try and deal with a deluge of digital information. A population that’s massively online and the rise of misinformation. So how has the pandemic influenced or shifted any of those changes? And Gosia, maybe you can start and then Sam, you can chime in. 

Gosia Loj: Absolutely. So, you know, I think actually the pandemic has not really changed any of the priorities, but it kind of reinforced the need for us as the Digital Nations to do the work that we have already been doing and specifically kind of reinforced the collective determination to find ways to deliver and be more innovative and be more collaborative and that cooperation internationally has become really critical during the pandemic. And it showed us how important it is to share best practice, to be engaged with different governments who are struggling with the same big challenges and making sure that they deliver for the public. And so, it is critical for us to engage and we always do that on the basis of open-source and the very sort of collaborative and genuine exchange and support to one another. And so, that’s really been sort of reinforced even more through the pandemic. And one other thing that did happen though. Has been an introduction of a slightly different model, because so far, we have been working on the base of annual work plans within an established set of thematic working groups on AI, on sustainable IT, on data, on digital identity. But what we have seen through the pandemic is the need to be even more agile and do more and be quicker in what we sort of share and where the priorities lie. And so, we have been able to introduce a set of short-term projects that wouldn’t necessarily be common for all of us, all of the 10 countries, but that particular two or three governments could work on. And so, we would then be able to do more than, than as we thus far have been in, in the whole group of 10. 

Alistair Croll: It’s a super interesting point. The fact that you were able to meet digitally. You know, there used to be this idea of, oh, we’ll talk about it next year at the annual meeting. And it was a nice sort of way point now with the facility of setting up a meeting, being a few clicks away, it seems like you no longer need to be beholden to this one-year cycle right.

Gosia Loj: Absolutely. So, it’s been both a challenge, but also an enabler. So definitely meetings virtually that have been happening have been a lot easier to set up and it’s more of as well. At the same time, we’re dealing with a lot of different time zones, so we do have colleagues who wake up at 3:00 AM to join us. So, a massive thanks to all of those. But it has been happening in a sort of, a lot more agile way than before. That’s true. 

Alistair Croll: And Sam, how has the pandemic shifted or influenced DN priorities from your perspective? 

Sam Roberts: Yeah. So, it’s a really interesting point. And I think going back to one of Gosia’s points around being a challenge and an enabler. So, the challenge that we’ve really hit is that we had a plan, you know, my group that did the data 360 group even my team in government, we had a plan for last year that got completely kind of scrapped. So, we wanted to look at things like data standards. We wanted to look at things like, you know, really kind of technical, nerdy things around data. Like, you know, how are we collecting and using data? How are we kind of, you know, sharing stuff. And, you know, that was the challenging part, but the enabler was really the, you know, we had to start getting quicker about all of those things. And so, what we ended up doing was rather than focusing on a, kind of a, a very kind of, you know year long program of talking about all these different aspects, we actually ended up having to practice these things as a result of the pandemic. So, you know, within our respective 10 governments. We had to kind of figure out how do we share data more efficiently? How do we collect data more effectively? And how do we kind of, you know, start using data to answer these questions to help stem the tide of the infections and all the rest of the things, you know, things like the various lockdowns that we’ve had here in the UK, they’ve been informed by the data and we have to kind of figure out a way to work more quickly. So that informed our kind of work plan for the Digital Nations. And so rather than focusing on this kind of longer-term piece, we’ve actually been kind of working on a collaboration looking specifically at, you know, data use throughout this process and throughout this kind of period, which is kind of altered the way we’ve worked, but that’s the enabling aspect of this, I guess again, where we’ve been able to move more quickly, we’ve been able to kind of call out more interesting kind of case studies that are directly resulting from the pandemic. And we’ve had a lot more kind of data heavy work happening across the 10 nations. And the other thing I would say in, you know, just reiterating what Gosia was saying about the agile nature of all of this is that, you know, the 10 nations of the Digital Nations. It’s not a big group, like 10 countries in terms of multilaterals is not a huge group. You know, we work with others, whether you know, in some cases, you know, tens, if not hundreds of different countries involved. So that enables us to have a little bit more of a frank exchange than we would in other forums. And so that’s, again, enabled us to kind of, when we are looking at data things, when we are looking at different kinds of best practice models, we’re able to kind of call on these other nations and have these kinds of frank and open conversations in ways that we wouldn’t have through other kinds of bilateral or multilateral discussions. So that’s been another, you know, huge benefit of the Digital Nations throughout this kind of period. It has changed how we’ve worked. But I think it has in some ways shown more effective ways of working. 

Alistair Croll: So, Natalia, welcome back. Sorry about the technical issues. I know sometimes recording these things can be mean to a computer infrastructure. Where are you joining us from today? 

Natalia Domagala: Hi, everyone. It’s a great pleasure to be here with you today. So, I’m joining you from London, from the central digital and data office where I’m the head of data ethics and in Digital Nations, I lead a working group on artificial intelligence. 

Alistair Croll: Awesome. Data ethics and AI are pretty hot topics these days for a number of reasons. So, Natalia, as Gosia and Sam have showed us, there’s a, a daunting amount of stuff to do here around data 360 stuff and identity and inclusion. What would you say are the biggest obstacles to implementing those kinds of focuses within the DN and also like, what are the biggest enablers what’s making it easier to do that? How have things changed since last year? 

Natalia Domagala: Sure. So, I would say in terms of obstacles, the biggest obstacle that we’ve encountered in the AI working group has actually been the logistics and issues related to the lack of resources. And the fact that many people across the Digital Nations countries have been redeployed to various emergency COVID projects. And quite frankly didn’t have as much time and as many opportunities to really dedicate their time and efforts to this work. On the other hand, this has also been a really interesting enabler because it gave us a source of case studies for various data ethics dilemmas and challenges in practice, especially in this really dynamically changing crisis environments. So, once we’ve managed to get used to the new normal and overcome all these challenges that came with working remotely as Gosia and Sam mentioned earlier we’ve actually managed to establish a very supportive, a very active network that essentially helps us discuss some of the very fresh, very emerging challenges in data ethics when using artificial intelligence.

Alistair Croll: It does seem like it’s been a lightning rod for certain issues like digital identity you know, which people were sort of avoiding and gingerly sidestepping, and there’s no way to avoid it now. So at least we had those conversations. 

Natalia Domagala: Exactly. And I think one important thing that I am personally grateful for is that after the past 12, 15 months, let’s say we don’t have to explain why we need data ethics, why we need the ethics of artificial intelligence, I think after we’ve seen various issues and various challenges play out in practice, everyone understands that this is a really, really key priority for not just Digital Nations, but every government in the world really. And I think we’ve been able to use that to our benefits and collaborate on some of the most cross cutting and innovative projects that look at various applications of AI ethics in practice. 

Alistair Croll: Sam, have you, I mean, there’s many other issues besides just COVID, obviously the whole BLM movement. The Black Lives Matter movement in the US sort of spilled out around the world, obviously, but also gave us much more discourse around marginalization and the inherent biases of AI and training data. Have you seen that have an effect on the implementation of your focuses this year? 

Sam Roberts: It’s an interesting question. I think in a way it’s been an enabler for us again, because that kind of singular focus and that kind of, I guess, world focus on these issues it’s actually been a lot easier for us to have these conversations. And so, we worked very closely with our counterparts across civil society. So, you know, your external groups, you know, the bodies that kind of look into these things. And so, you know, they’ve always been calling for more transparency around things like disaggregated information, you know, things like intersectional analysis, gender, race, you know, these are the kinds of markers that we’re asking for, are being asked for outside of government. And so, these, these kinds of, you know, I guess cross cutting issues, these things that are kind of cultural within the zeitgeist all of a sudden that that means that it’s easier for us to have these conversations and kind of make that case. And so, yeah, they’ve been real that that’s been a real enabler for us. I also think that what’s been interesting has been one of the biggest obstacles, I guess when it comes to data specifically, is that when you’re talking about 10 different nations and you’re talking about different ways that we do things, it’s actually kind of hard-to-find similarities in some ways, because the case studies and the ways that we all kind of operate, in some cases, it can be quite different. You know, it can be radically different in the ways that we all kind of work. But when you’re talking about these kinds of cross-cutting issues, things that haven’t been looked at, you know, even going back to the pandemic it has actually kind of focused our minds and it’s focused all these different nations on specific outcomes and needing to do things in specific ways. And that’s meant that actually for the first time ever, there’s been a lot more unity in the way that we’ve done things and actually that’s enabled us to be more comparable. So, we’re able to now look across and see where things are actually very close to what we’re trying to do, or things are kind of, you know the outcomes that we’re aiming for a much more similar. And that’s actually enabled a much, like, kind of a much closer reading of the way that we work and a much more kind of collaborative way of working as well. So, so yeah, we’ve seen, we’ve seen a huge amount of these over the last 15 months or so for sure.

Alistair Croll: It does seem like any good metric is comparative. And so now that you’ve got a baseline, you can see where you’re actually moving. So, we’ve, we’ve entered into a second phase of government deployment of data science, where now we can at least compare it to the first phase. So, we have some context. Natalia, from an AI point of view, about a year ago, I had a FWDThinking conversation with a few public servants who are in the product management side of things. And I asked them about AI and they were unequivocally pessimistic. They were like, look, there’s so much low hanging fruit in government, just modernization and fixing, you know, forms and turning them into useful things. And there’s so many low hanging fruits. Why would we waste our time on AI? Now as someone who’s a big fan of tech and what it can do, I obviously take that with a grain of salt, but is your sense that AI and the innovative use of AI in the public sector is increasing. And if so, where do you see it happening in ways that the sort of naysayers who are like let’s walk before, we can run, we’ll still find it useful. 

Natalia Domagala: So, I would say the innovative use of AI is definitely increasing. And when chairing this group, I have seen some wonderful examples from the Digital Nations countries where they used AI projects that perhaps, weren’t as complex or as difficult to establish from the technical point of view, but actually made a very big impact on the part of the public that they were aiming to serve. So, for example, Korea have a really fantastic AI based sign language translation system, which helps people with hearing loss, understand various online and offline information within the public’s pace. And there are some excellent examples from Estonia as well, for example, and their virtual state assistants that helps citizens with their issues. So, we see a whole range of projects starting from automating simple tasks and simple interactions with the public sector such as chatbots, for example, or various translation services that’s technically are not that complex. And then we see all the other more creative uses of AI, perhaps. And I think one trend that I’ve observed and that we can definitely see in this group is how important ethics and using AI to advance various wider socioeconomic goals has been. And the fact that all those projects are in most countries and all the countries really are assessed against all the potential risks. I think that should be one argument for all the skeptics that now we were getting to this point when we were able to innovate in the public sector, but we’re also doing this in a responsible manner and because we have this platform, the Digital Nations AI working group we’re actually able to discuss various issues discuss all the challenges that come up and really help each other out. And this is, I think this has been one of the greatest that has been the source of the greatest value of this group, at least because some of the conversations that we’ve had, where we’re very sort of practical and almost like, how did you manage to achieve that? Please help us. And I think that’s really where we can all succeed and where we can all demonstrate on a global level that a responsible, innovative use of AI long-term is possible.

Alistair Croll: I mean, a lot of these issues seem like game theory, right? You know, the prisoner’s dilemma idea of two people who’ve been arrested and are separated and they face a choice. You can rat the other person out and preserve yourself, or you can stay silent. And both of you go to jail for a shorter time. It seems like in many of these debates, there’s a country that may want to break those rules and find an unfair advantage. One of the most frightening conversations I’ve ever had was about seven years ago, I was at an event in Washington, DC, and I met a very highly placed person in government who said, we’ve already looked at the game theory around AI. And we realized that if two nation states start to compete on AI for military purposes or whatever else, the nation that regulates its AI and makes it explainable, we’ll give its AI such a disadvantage that the other state will win. And I was just like, that’s a horrible thought because some kind of balance, some kind of ethics, a set of guidelines and explainability and transparency, and even a kill switch is something everyone has to agree to. And it only works if everybody’s incentives are aligned. I know that’s a big question and you may not be able to answer it, but I thought I would ask how do you see the various countries collaborating on things like pandemics or digital transparency or other issues that don’t really know a border?

Natalia Domagala: I can speak to the AI and ethics side, and then I let some talk more on transparency. I think it’s a really interesting example that you’ve raised, but that’s very much not what I’ve seen at least a working as a part of the Digital Nations AI working group, because in this case we understand that when it comes to really emerging issues, such as AI in the public sector, there are no winners and losers. Really. We all have to work together to advance this agenda. And we’ve noticed that many countries are facing the exact same issues and when we’re able to map those, then we can essentially come up with solutions together. Then we can advance in our respective national contexts. And I think this is what we’ve been trying to do, especially in terms of how do we build capacity in the public sector to be able to use AI properly to maybe even build AI properly as well. And discussing things like that for this platform really shows us that ultimately, we are all working towards the same thing, which is advancing the use of technology in the public sector. And at least at this stage, I don’t see it as rivalry necessarily. I think it’s more of a collaborative process and we all just learning as we go to a large extent, especially when it comes to ethics and all the new dilemmas that emerge every day.

Alistair Croll: Gosia, did you want to chime in on that too?

Gosia Loj: Yeah, just a quick thought. So, from my perspective, and I guess from our perspective as chair this year not only on the Digital Nations group, but within other groups that we collaborate internationally with other governments in like the G7, like the G20 as we mentioned before coming up COP meeting, I think there is, definitely, you know, a dose of reality and an understanding that the governments need to make sure they protect the public. And so, there is the, you know, security aspect and they sort of resilience that is part of our national strategies. Absolutely. That’s true. But the more we do that, I think the more we realize that there is a lot more that kind of unites us than separate when it comes to these like-minded groupings. And therefore, there is a greater gain from our collaborations and interactions, then just staying within our own borders. And that’s something that I think there is a very high political sort of willingness to and that’s why we have these collaborations and we see that in Digital Nations. We see that in other like-minded sort of groups and that’s why we were getting the summit now together in November to just reinforce that message and having our ministers meet together and reconfirm that commitment to collaboration and shared values. 

Alistair Croll: So, the DN works with more than 10 governments on a lot of these things. Any thoughts on seeing that number grow beyond 10? 

Gosia Loj: That’s an interesting question. So, we are currently not accepting officially any applications for membership because of the process being paused because of the pandemic. So, during last year we weren’t able to come back to opening the applications process as we were setting up all of these different kind of ways of working virtually out of the pandemic and dealing with the resources and everything that we had to. But we are now coming back to the point that we are able to do so. And so, we will be revising the process and then we’ll in due course be able to open the application process for new members potentially next year, but nothing confirmed yet. 

Alistair Croll: Gotcha. So, I want to end with one fairly big question and I’d love to hear from all of you, Sam, why don’t you go first? It’s been said that society is a consensual hallucination, that we all need to believe it exists. And then it exists. But if we wake up one morning and everybody decides society doesn’t exist, then in two days, everything’s done. Right? The police don’t show up the bank stop working. The power goes out, we’re done. We need to all believe in this consensual hallucination for it to function. And there has been a balkanization or a fragmentation of the hallucinations that people are having, partly because of the mechanics of social media and filter bubbles, partly because of foreign actors, partly because of humans, you know, trying to fight this constant tension between individuality and collectivism. Trust in government is more important than it’s ever been for government to just function. How have the Digital Nations member states been using the move from physical to digital to reinforce or inform people so we can avoid this kind of epistemic crisis in democracy. And Sam, I’m going to take that light question and lay it right at your feet first. 

Sam Roberts: I wasn’t sure where you were going with that one. So yeah, it’s a great question. I will try to; I’ll try to address that. I think what we tried to do, so it’s, it’s no surprise. When I look around the members of the Digital Nations, that a lot of them are familiar to me through other forums that are focused on things like transparency, accountability, ethics. These are all people that are kind of, you know, public officials that are working on these kinds of things day in, day out. And absolutely as you kind of say. One of the key things that we’re trying to do here through particularly the data group. And, and I know, you know, certainly in Natalia’s group on AI is, is engender and foster that public trust in government. And it’s not easy, you know, particularly at a time when, as you rightly say, there are issues around disinformation, there are issues with kind of the fragmentation of society through, you know, the online space. And so, what we do, you know, is that we’re all working in ways that kind of, to try and kind of improve this. Firstly, I would say in, in my case open data is a huge way of doing this. You know, all the information that we publish around, things like the pandemic, the decision-making processes that go into making policy decisions, trying to involve as many people from our kind of respective countries as possible in the, you know, the citizenship in the policy-making processes really important. It’s all about transparency, accountability, and public participation. And those values are kind of shared across the Digital Nations countries. So, for us, you know, the work we do in data, the work we do in a number of these groups it all comes back to this idea of how do we communicate in a way that actually resonates with our kind of citizens. So, you know, what you’re trying to do I guess, is in terms of making our work more accountable, we work openly. We publish our information, you’ll see that there is a data 360, charter that we published. We signed it in Montevideo back in 2019. And that kind of tells you what our kind of collective vision for digital is. And it also kind of lays out how we will communicate the work we’re doing in a way that is accessible and open and, and kind of transparent. So. You know, by taking those kinds of measures by taking those steps and by kind of working in these ways, we’re not just kind of putting out the information about the ways that we’re doing things, but we’re also doing it in a way that that’s openly collaborative. And so that, that fosters more public interest. And as you say, this shift from physical to digital, it actually enables a lot of this stuff to happen. It also creates huge issues when it comes to, as you say, the spread of disinformation and kind of hostile kind of thoughts, but in a way, actually we can address those through these other ways of working. So. We’re kind of working in a, in a different environment, the situation has changed. The landscape has changed dramatically and all of the nations in the Digital Nations are kind of looking and trying to address these things. So, you know, I think for us, it feels like a very collegiate kind of response. It feels like something that we’re all able to kind of collaborate upon. And it feels like, you know, the work we’re doing, it’s, it’s having an impact. It’s having an effect. And you can see that through the various kind of projects and kind of the products that we’ll be unveiling, hopefully later this year at the Digital Nations conference and some of the things we’ve been working on within our groups really, really kind of demonstrate how we can be more accountable and transparent in the way we work. So, I think, I think it’s something that we’re all very cognizant of and is something that we’re all kind of working on and developing all times. So, yeah. 

Alistair Croll: Yeah. I just finished reading Malka Older’s Infomocracy, which is all about that kind of stuff. How do you fake fight fake news? And it is the question of our time. Natalia, you want to chime in on that?

Natalia Domagala: Sure. So, I’d say that one of the things that we’ve all witnessed during the pandemic is how levels of trust in government can determine a success or failure of any digital solutions. And I think we’ve all understood that gaining and maintaining public trust is our biggest challenge, especially when innovating with AI, for example, and as Digital Nations, we’ve agreed on the shared approach for the responsible use of AI, which has been guiding us and helping us work in a way that actually advances this trust and some things that we all collaborate with the aim to do, for example, understanding and measuring the impact of AI in the public sector. And we’ve been discussing various tools and approaches to doing that in our working group meetings. The second one and some mentioned that is being transparent. Especially in the context of AI. Things like algorithmic transparency, so proactively communicating to people when, and in what context we are using AI. Are those AI systems used to inform decisions? What kind of decisions? What is the appeal process? And all the issues like that, basically just being really transparent, really open about that is extremely, extremely key. Then providing meaningful explanations about AI decision-making and also providing opportunities for review. And there are some countries such as Canada, for example that have the algorithmic impact assessment. That is one way of doing that. And so, we’ve been discussing various other options on how to achieve and provide those meaningful explanations as well. Then sharing source codes, sharing any other relevant information be it through data or just blogs and various updates, public communication, more broadly. I think that’s also really key. And finally providing training making sure that public officials have relevant skills to work with AI and communicating that to the public as well. I think that’s really key because this lack of trust is also based on the fact that people quite simply don’t think that governments are able to build AI products and services that are good enough or as good as the private sector. That’s one of the common assumptions that I’ve seen in some of the public engagement work that I run. So, skills and building lasting capability for AI work within the public sector is very, very important because this way we can show that actually we are able to do this well. And that can in the long run also increase public trust. 

Alistair Croll: Yeah, it does feel like it’s not just things like AI, but also when the government says I’ll, I don’t know, you know, the NHS will save 300 million pounds or some number like that. There’s a lot of question about where did that number come from. In the US there’s the there’s a whole department that sort of puts together budget estimates and is supposed to be non-partisan, but trusting that data and showing people how we got there, whether it’s electoral data, which is currently under, you know, the third re-examination by a private organization, or it’s just budgetary projections or estimates showing how that was collected and letting people inspect those supply chain to see where it came from. It seems like a very good way to sort of end that discussion of how do we know, but we’re still in this very epistemic puzzle right now. Gosia, tell me a little about your thoughts on how we are going to maintain this consensual hallucination we call society. 

Gosia Loj: Yeah, that’s a very interesting question. And you know, one thought that I have is, is basically following on what Sam and Natalie has just been talking about in terms of the trust aspect, and it’s both, you know, trust in technologies, but also trust in the governments to be able to secure that the technologies are working for the people. And I think it might be worth actually mentioning here that the UK government is hosting this year’s future tech forum at the end of the year, which is aiming at doing precisely that at bringing together governments as well as other stakeholders to discuss how to make sure that we work towards a, one set of frameworks for governance of technologies. And so, avoid this whole fragmentation and making sure that we build on, on the trust in technologies and in governments as well as ensuring that we know what the accountability is for us as officials, but also for other stakeholders that are part to this ecosystem. And Digital Nations will be meeting at the future tech forum to also engage with the wider set of countries then, and make sure that we share experiences and continue with this commitment.

Alistair Croll: We’ll put some links to the Future Tech stuff in the learn more section when we post this video. Just to wrap up quickly, because I know you all have to go back to your day jobs of saving the world and making society run. What, first of all, I guess Gosia, what’s the best way for people to learn more about the DN?

Gosia Loj: Well, please go on the website. I that’s the first thing to do really. And then you’re very welcome to reach out to us directly as well. And, all of the details to the secretariat are provided on the website and we’re very happy to engage and facilitate any exchanges and answer questions that you may have. 

Alistair Croll: That was great. Cause we did have last year 79 regions around the world, join us for FWD50. And as I’m sure you know, with the regional access pass, we basically let two people from any municipal regional state provincial government. So, if any of the DN members have people at their level or within the provincial state city level, they’re all welcome to join as well, but it would be great to have that many voices as part of the conversation. All right. So, on November 4th, we have an afternoon with the Digital Nations. I know we’re working with Jordan from your team on what that lineup will be. But attendees are going to be able to see three case studies from different regions around the world that the Digital Nations has been building in the last 18 months or so largely under an incredible amount of load from the pandemic, from the rapid acceleration of digital adoption, from many of the changes that we’ve had to face people being retooled and repurposed. So, it has been one heck of a year and we really look forward to seeing what you’ve been up to. So, thank you all very much for joining me today. Really looking forward to it. And as always, it’s great to have you as a partner in putting on FWD50 and we look forward to welcoming folks from Digital Nations around the world this November too.

Gosia Loj: Thank you very much.

In 2020, Canada hosted the Digital Nations, a coalition of 10 progressive governments who share best practices and transformation objectives. Canada joined the group in 2018, and has pioneered work on AI governance and other topics within the members since that time.

Given the pandemic, we were thrilled to host the DN alongside FWD50 last year. This year’s gathering is hosted by England. Sam Roberts leads the DN’s Data360 thematic working group; Natalia Domagala leads the Artificial Intelligence thematic working group, and Gosia Loj is the 2021 DN Chair and UK Digital Nations Lead.

We caught up with Sam Roberts, Natalia Domagala, and Gosia Loj from the DN to learn how its organizations have weathered COVID, and what this year’s priorities are. Data science, analytics, and transparency are a major focus this year, particularly around veracity and avoiding marginalization as we move from physical to digital processes, or use digital sources to inform policy and decision-making.

At one point, we talked about the civil rights issues inherent in a digital, algorithmically curated world, which brought back a 2012 post I’d written on the subject.

To learn more about what the DN’s been up to, and the focus of their 2021 event, watch this interview.