Good day from Martinique.
I’ve been on a hiatus for a few weeks as I wind down a multi-month project researching and investigating the state of ICT in the Eastern Caribbean, I hope you don’t mind. Rather than the 2,000-ish words I write here, I’ve written and re-written over 50,000 words in the last month or so. Looking at the statistics for Grammarly —yes, I use it happily— I have written over half a million words over the previous year, despite being on a reduced schedule. I’m back malgret tout(1), and I’m hoping to share some of the insights and information I’ve been researching.
In addressing COVID-19, the good news here in Martinique, infection rates are stable, and there is much hope to look forward to with the start of vaccination campaigns soon throughout our region. If I have a bad word to say, it’s about France’s strategy, which frankly was woefully inadequate and too reserved for dealing with a national and global tragedy like we’re seeing. Things are picking up now, so hopefully, we’ll have more good news in a few months. If I have any explanation for the French government’s attitude, it is rooted in technology, as almost everything is these days.
This is a discussion for another day, but France is one of the most vaccine skeptical nations globally, so much so, the government was forced to introduce legislation that barred school children from attending schools if they didn’t have their vaccinations up to date. Social Media, particularly Facebook, had played a significant role in the amplification of misinformation. As a result, more and more parents had chosen not to vaccinate their children, making herd immunity less effective as the absolute numbers of vaccinated people dropped. I’d like to dig into regulation and control of “Internet Power” in the future, and I’m gathering my thoughts and researching, to bring you an informed point of view, hopefully.
Back to COVID-19, around the Caribbean, the story is a mixed bag, but on the whole, the Caribbean has suffered far less from the virus in terms of infections and death, but paradoxically suffered far worse than others from the economic effects as the effects of substantially reduced tourism is affecting our region.
I thought I’d start the 2021 season with a quick outline of some of the trends I see in the global market and how they may or may not affect us here. Let’s get started.
Some of the trends I’m seeing
Despite the best efforts of various despots and nationalists worldwide, we are living in an increasingly global marketplace where local trends are being driven from outside sources, having profound effects on how a business operates locally. The increasing use of Cloud Computing, for example, is a trend that started outside the region and has now shoehorned itself into local politics and business strategy. COVID-19 has accelerated that push, but it has also exposed many weaknesses in our digital infrastructure that will profoundly affect our countries over the coming years. Subjects like Digital Health and Digital Healthcare are now starting to be taken more seriously than at any time in the past and looming regulations of “Big Tech” are also on the list of topic discussions for governments and businesses throughout the Caribbean.
Cloud Computing is a catch-all term used to describe the tools and services offered by companies managed and controlled by remote data centers dotted around the globe. For example, in the region, Digicel has built a data center network in Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago to host Infrastructure and Software services throughout the region to its customers. The two most prominent players in the market are Amazon with AWS (Amazon Web Services) and Microsoft with its Azure offerings.
Cloud computing, as an opportunity, is still massive for the region, with IDC predicting more than 2T US$ of global cloud sales by 2023 with a reasonably even split over the types of service offerings (IaaS 9%, Managed Services 20%, Consulting 16%, SaaS 19%, and Support 17%) for the Microsoft Partners surveyed. (Source: IDC Software Partner Survey, January 2020). The Caribbean will be no exception in the coming years.
Digital Transformation and Work from Home
You know I’m not a fan of this overused and abused term, but it still resonates for many businesses just starting to open their eyes to the prospect of integrating at a deep level, digital technologies in their businesses. But it is precisely because it has become ubiquitous that there is now a serious drive around the world for companies to embark upon their transformative projects. COVID-19 has probably done more for the cause than any big-budget marketing campaign from the likes of Microsoft and Google.
Lockdowns and new working practices are now beyond the point of being stop-gap solutions to stem a hemorrhage of income. Companies have been forced to experiment with new ways of working together, initially entirely remotely —which didn’t go down well for some— and now in a more hybrid mode. Indicators are starting to appear to suggest that we are in the midst of a sea change of working practices that legislation will likely adapt to. Vacant office space is at an all-time high in some cities, and immigration/emigration figures between different states in the USA show that a recalibration of resource distribution is taking place.
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced a significant shift in working remotely, collaboration and the need to be in a single-space to produce. For many years, we have talked about this possibility, but very few organisations have been able or willing to make the human and financial investments necessary to enable this new way of working. COVID-19 has come along and wholly blown all previous notions out of the water, making all but the most resistant organisation think deeply about how they can change their working practices to take advantage of a situation. That is not likely to be resolved in the next few months.
Digital Transformation will be the backbone, or the operating system if you will, of this adoption. Companies that adopt digital throughout the value chain will be those that adapt to the new.
Security is becoming a defining differentiator for solutions that are becoming increasingly complex as the old-world security perimeters are broken down as we move more services to the cloud. Security is no longer limited to firewalls, passwords, and antivirus. Technologies like two-factor authentication (2FA), Virtual Private Networks (VPN), encryption, and Single Sign-On (SSO) services are increasingly in demand and an example where expertise is not readily available in the region. These services cannot be isolated from the implications to business, marketing, and operations as sophisticated attacks are no longer driven by teenagers driven by pride and disruptive cyber-graffiti exploits. In 2018, the island of Sint Maarten (Dutch side) suffered an incident that took offline government services for the 40000 or so population, and according to the Caribbean Council, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines was the target for ISIS originated hacks on Government websites, although details are scarce on the impact. Therefore, knowledge of the whole security stack and its integration with the business value chain is imperative to develop valued services and advice, such as risk management, BI, and Data Analytics.
COVID-19 has provided an almost unlimited opportunity for individual, organised, and state actors to target users over COVID-19 fears. Just days after the UK Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHPRA) approved Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine for emergency use, a sophisticated hack and phishing campaign was mounted to attempt to steal information concerning the logistics process.
Besides the global pandemic of COVID-19, if 2020 has taught us anything, it is that regulation of a largely unregulated sector of the economy is about to start in earnest. Initially, it is likely to affect the multinationals such as Google, Facebook, etc., mostly. However, make no mistake, much of the legislation that will be implemented on national and local levels will affect businesses down to the small suppliers of technology. The GDPR of 2016, implemented in 2018, ostensibly protected European citizens from personal data transfers and data mining abuses. It affected every company on the planet that needed to collect and store personal data of European citizens. Online marketplaces and social media sites were the legislation’s apparent targets, but any business that dealt internationally was required to hire, train, and implement a Data Controller and Data Protection Officer responsible for ensuring compliance. Liabilities and penalties were harsh for non-compliance, the most mediatised being either a €20 million or 4% of annual worldwide turnover fine for a serious breach.
GDPR is but one example, with others becoming hot topics in the coming years, such as COPPA (Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act), Do Not Track Legislation, ePrivacy Regulations, the Digital Markets Act, and the Digital Services Act, for example. In this climate, businesses will be required to update current and upcoming legislation continually and implement training, auditing, and compliance adjustments continually through training and consulting services from specialists.
Many industries are subject to specific, technical regulation, such as Pharma, Oil & Gas, Finance, Utilities, and Cars. Tech and ICT are about to join that list with specific regulations affecting specific issues. It is essential to understand that rules are not usually implemented as wide-brush solutions, and that regulation is highly targeted to treat a particular problem as defined by the various regulatory authorities. “Banks” have never been regulated, only specific products and services in the banking industry are regulated, Deposits, Credit Cards, Pensions, Trading, Mortgages, Futures and Options, by way of example.
Regulation may also lead to an increase in digital sovereignty, with the above example of GDPR showing how this may come to be. The Great Firewall of China is another extreme example, and the fact that China and India now count for more internet users than the rest of the world in total is showing us how the balance of power over the Internet is moving from being US-centric to something more international. One thing to bear in mind is that regulation is designed to protect a specific point of view. The US-centric perspective is more about keeping prices lower —which explains why the free-to-use products have mainly been let off until now— whereas the European-centric position is about healthy competition and consumer protection. This divergence will play out over the coming years and influence every stratum of business.
In an era of ubiquitous access to internet-connected devices from almost anywhere, one of the pre-pandemic concerns was an issue that has been questioned by humanity for centuries; Is the next-generation spending too much time with technology? Much debate had been made over the amount of time people were spending with technologies connected to the Internet. Screen time was such a hot topic that many software providers stepped up with solutions to monitor and control the time people, particularly children, could spend on these devices.
It is in this direction that new insights about screen time will evolve, and it will be a debate about quality, not quantity. It will be about how we can implement “good” screen time and then monitor and control it. It will be about preventing “bad” screen time with quantifiable justification and suggested preventative solutions. This will likely affect the education sector hugely by providing tools better adapted to this new paradigm. We are only just at the end of the beginning of a change in digital health.
Disinformation and conspiracy theories have been part of human nature for millennia. However, recent technical advances like social networking and recommendation algorithms have fuelled to an extent never witnessed, the spread and belief of such disinformation that has consequences for society and possibly even democracy. Today, businesses focusing their marketing and revenue-making activities online should be aware that they could be subject to organic and organised campaigns to discredit their work, profession, or any other attribute that is the current target for attack. An example of this extreme took place in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Italy when nurses suddenly went from national heroes to national conspirators over misinformation about Coronavirus vaccines.
Disinformation is no longer the “graffiti of the Internet”; it is being used politically and weaponised in cyber-attacks throughout the world—one to watch for.
Automation and Artificial Intelligence
Over the last few years, we have seen an explosion in the number and prevalence of automated systems, from website chatbots that provide first-line support services to deeply integrated automation-development platforms such as Zapier and Microsoft Power Automate. Many predict an increase in spending on automation over the next three years, with services companies well-placed to take advantage of this opportunity by providing help in implementing these systems.
Two main types of automation are emerging as the development targets: Robotic Process Automation (RPA) and Business Process Automation (BPA). RPA can be applied to many general and industry-specific tasks such as Procurement, Marketing, HR, Retail, Telecommunications and Banking, to name a few. BPA is best suited to the processing of unstructured data sets such as voice, images, and natural language systems, and often rely on Artificial Intelligence to accomplish line of business help, for example, real-time translations over video conferencing. GPT-3 is one such language model that has produced human-like text for human interactions through chatbots etc. Currently, only developed markets such as the US, Europe and Asia-Pacific are investing heavily in these capabilities, but the Latin American market is predicted to grow five-fold by 2025, according to learnbonds.com.
I don’t know what the future will hold, of course, but looking at trends in the wider world can at least give us a heads-up that can help us better understand and adapt. Here’s to a better 2021.
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1 Despite everything