Politicians Talk Tech: Adam Afriyie, MP for Windsor

Are parliamentarians behind the times or tech savvy representatives? We chat to global politicians to discover how they view and use tech...

adam-afriyie-mp Name: Adam Afriyie

 Role: MP for Windsor; Chair of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology

 Party: Conservative

 Constituency: Windsor

Are the UK Government, political parties, and politicians in general embracing technology enough and in the right ways?

Yes, the Government is generally on the right track. It has started to release datasets in open, standardised formats so they can be ‘mashed up’ by outside developers, and it recently re-launched the new gov.uk website. Having worked on these digital policies some time ago, it’s great to see them come to life.

Politicians may not be the most tech savvy group of people around, but I think we’ve made substantial progress since I arrived in Parliament, almost 10 years ago. Over the last few years, a number of MPs from all parties have been elected to parliament with strong technical backgrounds, and some of this expertise is now starting to filter through.

You recently wrote about your views on the roll out of Smart Meters across the UK. What would you like to replace them with, and what are your views on the Internet of Things generally?

To quote one example from the article, it might be easier for some people to access their energy data through a smartphone app rather than a wall unit – which is so last century.

The Internet of Things and, more generally, the ability of lots of different devices to ‘talk’ to each other presents us with lots of opportunities: your thermostat can automatically change with the weather, floors can detect if someone has fallen over, and kettles can start boiling before you even get up! But it’s important for us to settle questions about the ownership of this information first. For example, if we’re going to use smart meters, who owns your energy data? You, or your energy supplier?

How have your experiences of founding your own IT Company affected your career in politics?

As an entrepreneur you really appreciate that starting and running a business is tough – really tough. Many don’t succeed. For these small businesses, bureaucracy, complicated administration and high taxes can mean the difference between success and failure. These kind of tough day-to-day experiences make you more alert to wrong-headed policies that would undermine real-world job creation.

To be honest, people with business backgrounds are still very much in the minority in Westminster. You are often surrounded with career politicians who’ve spent most of their lives just living and breathing politics. This can be difficult at first but it’s great to feel I can bring my business skills to bear and potentially have an influence on the way new business laws are written. Personally, I’d like to see many more MPs with business backgrounds coming into Parliament and hopefully this will happen as time goes on. 

Your company, Connect, is based at Canary Wharf. What’s your view of London’s Tech scene and how it compares with the rest of the UK?

It’s official! London is the largest tech hub in Europe. These fast-growing tech firms create jobs, pay taxes, and build cheaper, better products for their customers. I know that sounds like an advert! But it’s all true! And it’s not just London: Tech clusters are also emerging in Cambridge, Glasgow and Manchester. The fantastic thing about the digital economy is as long as you have a decent Internet connection, you can start up your own business.

As English is the de facto language of the electronic world, Britain has a head start and a comparative advantage. As a country, we’re also well known as earlier adopters of new technology: In 2013, UK shoppers spent £91bn online, one of the highest figures in the world. We also host some of the top computer science research labs in the world, and I was encouraged by the Government’s commitment to a new big data research centre in the last Budget.

I want us to build on these strengths. We must bear down on tax rates and accelerate the roll out of superfast broadband, so the UK is increasingly attractive to tech entrepreneurs. That is why I have recently been calling on the Government to release another 650MHz of spectrum from the public sector. If we can take the lead on 5G, then we can secure our place as the place to be for all things digital.

What’s your view on making Coding mandatory for children? Will it help reduce skills shortages or will forcing it on kids turn them off to the idea?

The salaries for software programmers are far higher than average salaries right now. No coercion is required in my view, pupils and students just need teachers with the right skills, decent careers advice and good information on the jobs market.

Are you in favour of e-Voting in elections?

I’m cautious about radically changing our electoral system. Any change would have to be carefully piloted and introduced gradually over time.  One of the great things about ticking a box on a slip of paper is that the public can watch the count take place in the open. Literally dozens of people can watch the counting take place and verify that the result is right. If we move too quickly to purely electronic voting then the results may be viewed with distrust.  But I am hopeful that we’ll see electronic voting used more widely in the future. I’d love to see some pilot schemes within the next couple of years. We can then judge the results and take it from there.

What are your views on the NSA/GCHQ revelations over internet monitoring?

The balance between security and privacy is a tricky one and the devil is always in the detail.

If we are to track and catch terrorists, or those who are involved in serious crimes like major fraud or paedophilia, then love it or hate, there is an essential need for the security services to be able to monitor and review online interactions. But this must only be conducted in accordance with the law and in tightly controlled circumstances where a court has specifically given permission.

We cannot have a situation where the State can listen in to calls or read the contents of emails whenever they choose. It is, however, important that records are kept of when and between whom electronic communications have taken place so that the police and security services can request the information they need should an attack, like the tube bombings, take place.

Do tech firms have too much influence in politics?

No, but I do think large tech firms get their own way too often because politicians often think that technology is a special case. We’d never allow a supermarket to have a 90% market share or put its competitors out of business with predatory pricing or cross-subsidisation. We must make sure that competition law remains just as strong online as it is offline.

Certain search engines and general retail sites have a very large share of the UK and European market. We must be vigilant. We must make sure they’re not misusing their market dominance to steamroll competition and put consumers and other companies at a disadvantage. We need to make sure that they’re not using their control of the market to ‘drive’ users only to their own products and services.

How tech savvy would you say you are?

I used to be great, but now after a decade in parliament, I’m rather rusty. I really miss the digital world.

Do you use Social networking for either your work or personal life?

I tend to use Twitter for signposting articles and sporadically letting people know what I’m doing when I get a few moments between events, but I don’t use Facebook, Google+ or Instagram for my political work. I must admit that I hate the idea of the State holding too much of my personal data, and I’m a little cautious about big tech companies too.

I use the web for a lot of other stuff though! I love watching TV and films on-demand, reading online news, audiobooks and learning online. I also still get a thrill from the latest smartphones, laptops and tablets. I do like gadgets!

What devices do you use to access the internet/conduct work?

I use an iPhone, a Blackberry, a superfast and superlight Sony notebook, a big screen iMac, a family iPad...and a pen and paper for personal notes!

Are you aware of Bitcoins?

Yes. It’s an interesting alternative currency that offers some anonymity and protection against State snooping. Once the price volatility settles down I hope it will prove hugely successful. But I’m a little suspicious about security and the ability to turn the Bitcoins back in to cash if needed. Alternative currencies have a chequered past. One would certainly hope that your hard-earned cash wouldn’t suddenly vanish into a digital black hole. For now I’d personally only consider a small holding and would encourage everyone not to put all their eggs into one basket.

Do you know how to code?

Yes. Although I’m a bit rusty and out of date, I remember programming my first rocket with green asterisks in the mid-1980s at University and I miss the days of designing and writing databases in second generation languages like Dbase in the early 1990s.

It’d be a joy to have the time to learn some of the emerging languages, like the exciting new JavaScript development platforms, and newer non-relational databases like, MongoDB, that seem so much better developed and easier to manipulate.



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Dan Swinhoe

Dan is a journalist at CSO Online. Previously he was Senior Staff Writer at IDG Connect.

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