CXO

2014 showed the reach and limit of technological innovation

A landmark Supreme Court ruling on the digital domain, the impact of opening data, the 'right to record,' and data transparency were key topics in 2014 related to how tech drives societal change.

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When I started writing here about how technology was driving dramatic changes in society, I expected 2014 to be rich in source material. I was right, although I had more potential ideas for columns on any given week than I had time to publish.

While deep coverage of the technology industry will remain the provenance of trade publications and business media, "technology" itself has become subsumed into other areas, deeply woven into every aspect of society. Whether it's how we work, how we learn about our healthcare, how we participate in campaign and elections have changed, or how we manage the challenges of 24/7 connectivity, the pace of change is often breathtaking.

In many contexts, 2014 showed both the reach and the limits of technological innovation, where the rhetoric of "digital disruption" runs into deeply dysfunctional institutions and systemic societal challenges. On the one hand, measures that will provide more broadband internet access to schools and libraries was a clear public good. On the other, hopes that such access or technology alone will solve social or economic ills, classified broadly as "solutionism," certainly look dimmer at year's end.

In the year that was, that was perhaps most poignantly demonstrated after a cell phone video documenting the death of Eric Garner after an illegal chokehold by the member of the New York City Police Department failed to result in an indictment. That doesn't mean that the Los Angeles Police Department buying 7,000 body cams or support from the White House for other departments to purchase them in other jurisdictions won't have an effect upon justice — pilot programs have shown a decrease in complaints against officers — but it did highlight what body cam videos alone cannot change.

The "right to record" is not a question of technology, but rather power and policy, which means that getting the laws and procedures right to protect public safety, security, and privacy as these cams are rolled out in the year ahead will be critical. One of the most important, welcome developments in this space came in the spring, when a landmark Supreme Court privacy ruling applied the Fourth Amendment to the digital domain.

It was a timely opinion: putting more cameras on the streets with officers is a symbol of a much broader issue playing out in Washington and beyond, where technology innovation is deeply tied to the surveillance state. This issue is hardly limited to the US, either. From dashboard cams in Russia to cell phones in Brazil, increasingly networked societies are enabling new mechanisms of accountability, complementing the role of the Fourth Estate. (They're also putting pressure on creaky 20th century IT infrastructure, as the FCC found when record numbers of net neutrality comments clogged its systems.)

Just as the First Amendment is a key check to police militarization, networked activism is a critical balance in places where no Bill of Rights is part of a constitution. In Mexico, corruption sadly remains present in government and organized crime; I argued that open government must include social justice, press freedom, not just innovation.

Globally, rapid increases in "smart infrastructure," from sensors to drones to the energy grid, and the use of "big data" analysis in government, commerce, and academia have put a premium on algorithmic transparency, where new, powerful arbiters work unseen to guide and govern us. On that count, "transparency" came up a lot this year, both in this column and in the world, in many contexts. So did data. When you put the two together, there were a lot of stories this year that will continue to have major impacts on the way we move, shop, govern, work, and heal.

For instance, openFDA launched an open data platform for consumer protection. A huge release of data by Medicare and passage of the DATA Act were significant events, and will be even more so in the years to come. Personal data access is opening new doors for patients and consumers. New wearable computing and patient-centric startups are creating and using health data to use. This year, open energy data also made significant progress with the Green Button standard.

"When the Energy Department picked up the standard from Lawrence Livermore Labs, they enabled a canonical data model," veteran entrepreneur Tom Siebel, the CEO of C3 Systems, told me in May 2014. "None of this energy data comes comes from private enterprise and utilities. Now, we can go into any utility that has incompatible systems and access data in an open format."

ZoningCheck is putting computable municipal codes to good use, offering yet another example of how open data fuels economic activity. Data transparency in real estate is removing asynchronies of information from the market and introducing uncomfortable dynamics for incumbent industries.

In 2014, we also saw more examples of the social impact of open data emerge, including data-driven journalism that fueled accountability and insight. There were also more examples of disruptive technologies that pose difficult ethical questions for society, from players in the "sharing economy" challenging governments to protect consumers in new contexts to the use of social media to spread propaganda by transnational terrorists to mass surveillance and drones.

In 2015, I expect more of the same and some new trends — but I'll save that for my final column, on the year ahead. As always, thank you all for reading, commenting, and sharing what you've found here.

About Alex Howard

Alex Howard writes about how shifts in technology are changing government and society. A former fellow at Harvard and Columbia, he is the founder of "E Pluribus Unum," a blog focused on open government and technology.

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