Building the future: opportunities for new services and stronger digital rights in telecoms and utilities

Thu Mar 29, 2018

A new report outlining opportunities to drive innovation and transform the telecoms and utilities markets has been published today by the ODI and specialist digital rights consultancy IF

The Open Data Institute (ODI) and specialist digital rights consultancy IF have published a new report, Open APIs in the Telecoms Industry which outlines opportunities to drive innovation and transform the telecoms and utilities markets.

It explores the possibilities for new types of commercial and public use products which could result from better data sharing, with inventive prototypes for three different scenarios.  These are:

    • AutoSwap: a way for consumers to find and switch to the best mobile operator based on things like the privacy policy of an operator or local signal strength
    • Bills Box: a service for managing utility bills in shared households with the consent of everybody in the household
    • Air Quality: a proposal for improving air quality in a city by using bulk location data from mobile phones that gives residents meaningful opportunities to opt-out

The project is part of the ODI’s innovation programme, a three-year, £6M programme to support and build upon the UK’s strengths in data and data analytics, funded by Innovate UK, a non-departmental arms-length body sponsored by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

The report examines how data can shape the next generation of services and builds on IF‘s work on data sharing design patterns. It shows how better ways of accessing and sharing data and giving people more control over their digital rights can build trust and help consumers make better decisions. It also makes recommendations to government and industry.

The services are enabled by application programming interfaces (APIs) – code which enables digital services to interact with each other and exchange data, which can then be used to develop new digital services. They have already been proven in many sectors – such as transport, travel, and more recently retail banking – allowing easy access to data to support services such as comparing prices, booking flights or switching current accounts.

The three prototype scenarios in the report were informed by interviews with industry experts and tested using UK and international participants.

AutoSwap

AutoSwap recommends the perfect phone contract to a customer by learning and understanding their behaviour. Unlike comparison sites which only help find the cheapest deals, AutoSwap would use open APIs to analyse information including the type of calls people make, internet usage, privacy policy, frequently used locations where signal strength is an issue and personal preferences such as choosing an ethical provider.

AutoSwap can them make provider recommendations and supply flexible SIM cards which support all UK telecoms companies and will make future switching even easier. It even has the potential to switch providers automatically if a company launches a new deal or usage changes significantly.

The prototype aims to increase digital rights such as privacy, security and portability, so the design includes the facility for customers to control what data they reveal to an organisation, and a robust system of authorisation using hard copy letters sent in the post to connect recipients to a physical address. Emails or text messages can also be used as extra authentication.

Bills Box

Bills Box helps people living in a shared household manage bills as a group, rather than through a single user account. By scanning a utility bill barcode, Bills Box can download billing and usage data and share payment information, and give utility companies permission to share information. It means all bills can be managed in one place, with housemates seeing clearly how much they owe, and makes leaving or joining a household as simple as scanning a barcode on the app.

Bills Box helps people manage their finances and reduces administration, allowing everyone to build up a reputation and credit history, and reflecting the flexible living situations that many people have. It offers a clear and trusted way for housemates to share billing responsibilities, allowing everyone to see all the accounts in one place.

Improving a city’s air quality

Geo-location data generated by telecoms providers has the potential to be used for public decision making, for example determining which areas should become pedestrianised to improve a city’s air quality.

While a great deal of benefit can be derived from the data retained by wifi hotspots, cell towers and internet connection records, there is also potential for misuse, so the challenge here is how councils can help people understand the data being collected about them and why. The report suggests a meaningful opt-out system for residents using methods such as public notices, mobile alerts and display devices throughout the city.

The examples above demonstrate specific scenarios, but Open APIs (APIs that are created collaboratively, are publicly available and are described in an open standard) have the potential for many tailored services to be built around them, eg allowing carers or financial advisers to manage bills on behalf of others, and helping nationwide companies get the best mobile data coverage across multiple sites using multiple providers.

Making this possible

These are concepts. It will need telecoms operators, civil society and regulators to work together to make this possible. They will need to build data infrastructure that is as open as possible, while respecting privacy and commercial confidentiality, to create the right conditions for the services to be built. Other sectors like banking and sports are demonstrating how to do this.

A recent ODI-commissioned YouGov survey showed that most consumers still need help to feel comfortable sharing their data, and there is a clear need for improved data literacy. Only 9% of people said they already feel comfortable about sharing data about themselves, and 33% said they would feel more comfortable if an organisation provided an explanation of how it intended to use or share data.

To help build the needed trust, the development of APIs must go hand-in-hand with design patterns that control how material is accessed, respect people’s rights and foster transparency, actively explaining what is happening to the information held about them.  This is especially important in the light of the new entitlement granted to people under the General Data Protection Regulation to exercise their rights to control how organisations use their personal data.  

Supporting datasets should be to be published as open data, including datasets about infrastructure network speeds, payment tariffs, and terms and conditions. Organisations like the Open Data Institute and IF will work with the telecoms sector to make this happen.

Commenting on the report, Olivier Thereaux, Head of Technology at the ODI said:“Through the development of APIs, the utilities and telecoms market has the potential to standardise data sharing, widen competition, work more cohesively across borders, empower consumers to make better choices, enable innovation and support new services.”

Sarah Gold, CEO of IF said:“Open APIs could enable amazing new services, but the real opportunity is doing so in a way that enhances people’s digital rights, puts them in control and improves the debate about data collection.”

About IF: IF is a specialist digital rights consultancy. It works with the organisations shaping our digital world to show how they can empower people, be trusted with data and be effectively regulated.

About Innovate UK: Innovate UK is part of UK Research and Innovation, a non-departmental public body funded by a grant-in-aid from the UK government. For more information visit www.ukri.org. Innovate UK drives productivity and economic growth by supporting businesses to develop and realise the potential of new ideas, including those from the UK’s world-class research base. For further information and to stay updated on our latest news visit .gov.uk/innovateuk, follow us on Twitter at @innovateuk or subscribe to our YouTube channel at youtube.com/InnovateUK.

About APIs:  Application Programming Interfaces, or APIs, power many of the things we’ve become used to in our online journeys, allowing computers to communicate with each other and govern how those communications work. APIs operate behind the scenes, sending data between an app and a website, or a website and another website, or in countless other online interactions.

Open APIs enable new products and services to exist. They are created collaboratively, publicly available and described in an open standard. using open processes and published under terms that allow them to be freely used for any purpose.