An enjoyable day at the Royal Society! The EPSRC leads of the digital economy programme for RCUK. This is a wide interdisciplinary set of activities that look in a joined up way at the benefits and risks of the digital technologies as well as their general development.

The theme of the conference was the ethics of Cloud Computing. (See #cloudmatters). The assembled mix of academics, industry and policy folk talking about these issues, made for a challenging and interesting set of debates.

My reading of the day was that no new ethical issues arise from PaaS / IaaS type services that have not arisen with the Web and Internet. However, once you get into the data layers things get complex and fraught with conflicting challenges that may lead to serious unintended consequences.

The issues of IPR, Privacy and security are widely discussed within the technical domain. Similarly, the legal issues of governance and jurisdiction are widely debated. However, when you look through an ethicists eye, an economists eye or with a policy dimension, the infancy of cloud computing is much clearer to see.

Of all the personal data issues, health records provide the most complex challenges from an interdisciplinary viewpoint.

For a child born this year, we need to think about their health record being available and accessible for 120 years or more. That is around twice as far into the future as the history of the ICT industry. The technical challenges of data formats on that timescale are not inconsequential.

Look beyond the technical and the impact of decisions we take now will have economic and societal impacts for generations to come. Let me illustrate.

While misrepresented, in my opinion, terribly by the media, the Connecting for Health IT programme to provide electronic patient records for all is both expensive and controversial.

So, in an age of austerity can we do it differently, more cheaply and with reduced risk of breaches of security?

An obvious approach is to allow individuals to sign up with private providers who will manage their records for them. The Web 2.0 approach of free to the user sounds attractive. We could reduce costs to the taxpayer while providing choice for the individual.

However, we still live in a country where 15m adults do not use or have access to the internet. This week Finland has become the first country in the world to make broadband access a Legal right Living in a country with a largely socialised system of medicine, then the challenge of universal service at the data layer is a serious political and economic challenge in such areas as health records.

At the same time, the Free and Freemium models are creaking for many service offerings. If Flickr, Linked-in or another service folded ( I am not suggesting they will, by the way) while valuable to me, the loss of data would be far less of an issue than if my health records provider failed. Increasingly active privacy campaigns around the world are likely to restrict what a service provider can put in their terms of service as allowable use of personal data. Health records will certainly be one of the most scrutinised.

Given that Health records have this challenge of longevity it is worth reminding ourselves how few companies reach 50 years of age, let alone 100 to 120 years.

So in a few years, a health records provider finds that the free model doesn’t work for them and decides to charge a nominal £50 per year per user. Say they hold 10 million peoples records.

The poorest individuals decide they cannot pay. Who steps in? Does the notion of a Universal Health record become unsustainable?

We cannot of course anticipate all potential problems. Nor should we hold back valuable technological advances because of this type of complexity.

What interdisciplinary academic research can provide for us I believe is valuable insights into areas where short term problems and decisions may create long term unintended consequences. It can provide insight into the areas where policy needs to be proactive rather than merely respond to the latest crisis.

So, how might the IT profession demonstrate its wider societal role to ensure that the benefits of Cloud Computing are delivered to the economy and wider society while minimising the downside risks?

One of the political ideas of the day is the “Big Society”. For me, what this idea is about is the role of the voluntary and private not-for-profit sector alongside the state and the private sector. I should declare an interest here, as a past Trustee of the School for Social Entrepreneurs.

The disruption of the industrial age led to a proliferation of new organisational forms: the Building Society, Mutual and Friendly Societies and the Co-Operative movement being important examples.

When IT professionals talk about the Cloud platform, the words open and collaborative are frequently used. My suggestion is that the challenge is for new organisational forms to emerge which embrace the Cloud platform’s values to build inclusive and diverse forms to reach all of our citizens and to meet their diverse needs and wants.

We are building the technology. Do we need to build the social vision? Can we afford not to?

About the author

Chris Yapp is a technology and policy futurologist. Chris has been in the IT industry since 1980. His roles have spanned Honeywell, ICL, HP, Microsoft and Capgemini. He is a Fellow of the BCS and a Fellow of the RSA.