UK to put up £1BN for full fiber broadband and 5G, £400M extra for VC

The UK government has confirmed it will be borrowing to try to encourage investment in high speed fiber broadband networks and 5G technology — with a plan to spend over £1BN by 2020-2021 to bolster the country’s digital infrastructure.

Giving his Autumn Statement today, Chancellor Philip Hammond said: “Our future transport, business and lifestyle needs will require world class digital infrastructure to underpin them. My ambition is for the UK to be a world leader in 5G — that means a full fiber network, a step change in speed, security and reliability. So we will invest over £1BN in our digital infrastructure to catalyze private investment in fiber networks and to support 5G trials.”

The UK continues to rank well outside the top 10 countries for average broadband speeds, according to Akamai’s 2016 report. While the gap between urban and rural broadband speeds remains problematic.

Incumbent telco BT, whose Openreach subsidiary owns and manages access to the UK’s primary broadband infrastructure, has focused its efforts on squeezing higher speeds out of existing copper based infrastructure — with only very limited full fiber to the home rollouts. While rival broadband network providers, such as Virgin Media, typically focus on urban areas where the volume of paying customers makes the infrastructure expenditure worth their while. The result: Just two per cent of UK premises have access to full-fibre connections.

The government’s plan to improve that figure is to encourage smaller, alternative players to push in with full fiber offerings. There will be £400M for what it dubs “gold standard” fiber broadband, with funds needing to be matched by broadband providers — so a potential £800M to fund rollouts.

Today Hammond also said that from next April there will be 100 per cent business rates relief for a five year period on new fiber infrastructure — “supporting further rollout of fiber to homes and businesses”.

A further £750M will be made available to fund 5G trials.

The chancellor added that the government will be asking the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) for recommendations on the UK’s future economic infrastructure needs — and signaled an intention to increase the proportion of GDP spent here, to between 1% and 1.2% of GDP every year from 2020, up from around 0.8% this year.

£400M to try to help UK startups scale before being bought out

The Autumn Statement also contained a measure specifically aimed at supporting UK startups to scale up, with the Chancellor announcing plans to put £400M into venture capital firms via the British Business Bank — “unlocking £1BN of new finance for growing firms” as, in his words, “a first step to tackle the long-standing problem of our fastest growing startup tech firms being snapped up by bigger companies, rather than growing to scale”.

Eileen Burbidge a parter at VC firm Passion Capital, which has received investment money via the British Business Bank, welcomed the move.

“I think it’s an excellent decision,” she told TechCrunch. “Passion isn’t more likely to be a future beneficiary than anyone else (our existing/prior BBB commitments have been done/in the past, 2011 and 2015) but as a previous beneficiary we can attest to how valuable the BBB support was to attracting other investors in support of our fund and activities.

“The BBB was absolutely crucial for us in launching our first fund since we were first time fund managers. Their commitment helped to secure funding from across European and South East Asian family offices and high net worths. So I think it’s brilliant the BBB will be given more funding to support even more fund managers or to greater degrees.”

Asked about the government’s overarching aim of prevent promising homegrown startups from being bought by overseas acquirers before they have a chance to get really big she described it as a “noble aim”, but added: “I see it all as good activity (acquisitions, mergers) and that it’s a good thing the world recognises Britain as a place to scout for great talent, innovation and technology.

“I’ve no doubt as our digital/tech ecosystem continues to mature that we’ll have more and more British ‘tech giants’ as well.”

Also announced: £500,000 per year for fintech startups, coming from the Department of International Trade — although the specter of what Brexit will mean for UK financial services firms looms rather larger. An annual ‘State of UK fintech’ report is also planned, along with a network of regional fintech envoys. Government will also modernise its guidance on electronic ID verification with the aim of supporting tech for accessing financial services.

Another measure mentioned in the Statement is a commitment to spent £390M to build on what Hammond dubbed the UK’s “competitive advantage in low emission vehicles and the development of connected autonomous vehicles”. He also said there will be 100% first year capital allowance for the installation of electric vehicle charging infrastructure.

Also mentioned: support for plans to boost transport links between Oxford and Cambridge, with a view to capitalizing on knowledge sharing between the two universities.

“This project can be more than just a transport link — it can become a transformational tech corridor drawing on the world class research strengths of our two best known universities,” he said, backing the NIC’s interim recommendations on creating an Oxford, Cambridge “growth corridor” — including £110M in funding for East-West rail, and a commitment to deliver an Oxford to Cambridge.

In the speech the chancellor also reiterated the Prime Minister’s announcement earlier this week of a £2BN per year funding boost for R&D by 2020. And confirmed the corporate tax rate will drop to 17 per cent next April — although Theresa May has also said the government will be reviewing the rate to see if a further cut is possible.

He flagged up, in passing, what he described as “the raft of investments in the UK” since the Brexit referendum — name-checking Softbank, Nissan, Google and Apple, “among others”.

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DeepMind Health inks new deal with UK’s NHS to deploy Streams app in early 2017

DeepMind Health, the division of the Google-owned AI company that’s focused on building links to healthcare providers to drive the application of machine learning algorithms for preventative medicine, has inked a fresh data-sharing agreement with the NHS Royal Free Hospital Trust in London. The new data-sharing arrangement extends until at least 2021.

It’s the second agreement signed between the pair — and it supersedes their original agreement inked last year, which ran into controversy after a freedom of information request by New Scientist revealed the volume of patient identifiable medical data (PID) flowing from the Royal Free to DeepMind, and raised questions about whether NHS information governance principles were being correctly followed. The data in question was being used to power an app called Streams, built by DeepMind but using an NHS algorithm to generate alerts on patients at risk of Acute Kidney Injury (AKI).

At the time the collaboration was made public, last February, no details were provided about how much PID was being shared between DeepMind and the NHS — leading to huge consternation when the scope of the arrangement emerged.

The U.K.’s data watchdog, the ICO, began investigating complaints about the data-sharing agreement. The Streams app also ran into trouble when it was revealed DeepMind and the Royal Free had not registered it as a medical device with the oversight body, the MHRA, despite piloting the app in the Royal Free’s hospitals. The MHRA had not been approached prior to starting tests of the app.

The pair subsequently suspended use of Streams in the hospitals. But they’re now announcing plans to restart the project — and, evidently, to try to reset it onto a firmer information governance footing. Above all this is an attempt to improve the tarnished public image of DeepMind’s inaugural push into preventative healthcare by trying to secure patient trust — to, ultimately, grease the future funnel for more data flows from the NHS to DeepMind.

The point is, healthcare-related AI needs very high-quality data sets to nurture the kind of smarts DeepMind is hoping to be able to build. And the publicly funded NHS has both a wealth of such data and a pressing need to reduce costs — incentivizing it to accept the offer of “free” development work and wide-ranging partnerships with DeepMind (which has several other projects on the go with other NHS Trusts).

DeepMind and the Royal Free confirmed today that the Streams app has now been registered as a medical device with the MHRA, and said it is ready to be deployed in the Royal Free’s hospitals from early next year.

“Following prototype testing, as well as registration with the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), this first version of Streams is ready to be deployed to clinicians across the Royal Free hospital sites early in 2017. It is expected to result in an immediate improvement in AKI-related patient safety and outcomes,” they write in a press release about what they describe as the “next phase” of their collaboration.

There also looks to be a broadening of the scope, with the PR talking about expanding the app’s remit to cover early detection of sepsis and organ failure, as well as AKI.

“The ultimate version of the Streams app will alert doctors and nurses to patients who need their attention in seconds rather than hours, reducing the number of patients who deteriorate in hospital without a clinician being aware,” they write, adding: “Streams will be extended beyond AKI to help care for patients with other serious conditions including sepsis and organ failure. At least ten thousand people a year die in UK hospitals through entirely preventable causes, and some 40% of patients could avoid being admitted to intensive care, if the right clinician was able to take the right action sooner.”

On the information governance front, among the noteworthy developments are:

  • A commitment from DeepMind/Royal Free to publish “the key agreements underpinning this partnership,” including the master services agreement (covering the partnership as a whole) and information processing agreement (covering how patient data is processed) — although they do not state when these documents will be published. Update: both documents can now be downloaded from DeepMind’s Streams webpage.
  • A statement that DeepMind’s software and data centers will undergo what they describe as “deep technical audits by experts commissioned by [DeepMind’s] Independent Reviewers” (a list of the reviewers can be found here).
  • The introduction of what they describe as “an unprecedented level of data security and audit” pertaining to the data being shared under the arrangement, with data access “logged, and subject to review by the Royal Free as well as DeepMind Health’s nine Independent Reviewers”
  • An intention to develop what they describe as “an unprecedented new infrastructure that will enable ongoing audit by the Royal Free, allowing administrators to easily and continually verify exactly when, where, by whom and for what purpose patient information is accessed.” This is being built by Ben Laurie, co-founder of the OpenSSL project.
  • A commitment that the infrastructure that powers Streams is being built on “state-of-the-art open and interoperable standards,” which they specify will enable the Royal Free to have other developers build new services that integrate more easily with their systems. “This will dramatically reduce the barrier to entry for developers who want to build for the NHS, opening up a wave of innovation — including the potential for the first artificial intelligence-enabled tools, whether developed by DeepMind or others,” they add.
  • They also describe the types of data being shared under the new agreement as “similar” to those being shared in the original agreement — suggesting there has been some rethinking of which types of data are appropriate to share for the AKI use-case (a key criticism of the original arrangement); although it’s not yet clear what those differences are. We’ve asked DeepMind for clarification and will update this story with any response.

Commenting in a statement, DeepMind co-founder Mustafa Suleyman said: “Privacy and trust are paramount, and we’re holding ourselves to an unprecedented level of oversight by publishing our agreements publicly and engaging nine respected public figures to scrutinise our work in the public interest.”

Despite what is clearly a lot of re-engineering of the presentation and some changes in the structure of DeepMind’s collaboration with a publicly funded and much-beloved National Health Service, many questions remain unanswered — not least the core criticism that the volume of PID being shared without patient consent is questionable, given the pair have always relied on claiming they do not need to obtain patient consent for sharing the data because they say it is being used for what’s termed “direct patient care.”

However, direct patient care refers to a direct care relationship between an individual patient and their clinician(s) — whereas some of the patients’ whose data is being shared under the Streams arrangement, so at least initially for the purposes of detecting AKI, will never be in the relevant direct care relationship because they will never develop AKI.

Safe to say, the push toward “preventative” healthcare looks to be putting a lot of pressure on the NHS’ traditional information government processes — which are not set up for an era of big-data mining and machine learning-driven “future potential” promises. It remains to be seen whether the U.K.’s National Data Guardian will seek to provide some guidance here (following controversy generated by the original DeepMind/Royal Free data-sharing data, Caldicott has been looking into how data was shared between the pair).

But as private sector giants like DeepMind make early bids for valuable public health data sets — for the stated aim of building future healthcare services to sell back in to the NHS etc. — governments and regulators have an equally pressing need to get their heads around the new reality of health data — as both a highly sensitive and personal resource and a commercial-accelerant-in-waiting that could enable the creation of a new generation of digital healthcare products. One thing is certain: Gaining and sustaining patient trust in any such systems will be essential.

At the time of writing DeepMind had not responded to requests for an interview. 

Facebook plans to boost UK headcount by 50% as gov’t signals corporate tax rate cut

Facebook has followed Google’s lead by trumpeting plans to expand its presence in the UK — despite ongoing uncertainty over the impact of this summer’s Brexit vote for the country to leave the European Union.

Speaking at the annual CBI conference in London today, Facebook’s Nicola Mendelsohn, VP EMEA, announced plans for the social network to increase its UK headcount by 50 per cent by the end of 2017, and open a new HQ in the country.

Mendelsohn said the aim is to grow headcount from 1,000 to 1,500 by then — with “many” of the new jobs touted as “high skilled engineering jobs”.

“We came to London in 2007 with just a handful of people, by the end of next year we will have opened a new HQ and plan to employ 1,500 people. Many of those new roles will be high skilled engineering jobs as the UK is home to our largest engineering base outside of the US and is where we have developed new products like Workplace,” she said, also noting the company’s presence in Somerset — where its Aquila facility is working on designing and building solar power unmanned planes to bring connectivity to remote regions.

It’s not clear exactly what proportion of the additional jobs would be engineering roles vs other jobs such as sales. We asked but the company declined to provide any further details.

Facebook’s announcement of an intention to increase UK headcount follows Google’s UK-focused publicity last week when the company re-announced a long planned expansion of its London campus — couching the move as a continued commitment to the UK in spite of Brexit.

Reporters were told that the capacity of Google’s new London HQ is 7,000 vs the 4,000 of its current building — with the implication being the company could employee 3,000 more staff in the UK by 2020. Assuming, that is, business conditions in the UK prove favorable — with CEO Sundar Pichai talking about the ‘absolute’ importance of open borders and free movement for skilled migrants. Two things that, absolutely, cannot be guaranteed, given the UK’s impending Brexit. So quite how many of those potential 3,000 additional Google UK jobs end up existing remains to be seen — like so many things affected by Brexit.

Facebook’s UK expansion plans don’t mention any specific caveats or conditions for the company to grow headcount in the country. But in related PR it also makes a point of referencing its mission to “make the world more open and connected”. Which reads like a not-so-subtle argument for the UK government to push for a ‘soft Brexit’, rather than the tough on immigration rhetoric of the hard Brexiteers.

Especially as a “plan” to add an additional 500 jobs is in no way an irreversible guarantee. So again, it remains to be seen how many of the extra Facebook jobs survive the looming Brexit negotiations.

UK Prime Minister Theresa May has said she intends to trigger the start of the two-year negotiation process to leave the EU by the end of March 2017.

Also speaking at the CBI conference today, the Prime Minister announced a series of business-friendly measures aimed at pouring some emollient oil on the troubled waters of Brexit — including a government funding boost for R&D worth £2BN per year by 2020; and a review of the UK’s corporate tax rate, suggesting it could move to substantially cut the rate below the current 20 per cent. (Albeit, such a move could in fact complicate the UK’s Brexit negotiations — given it would likely be viewed as a hostile move by EU governments.)

Also on the table: a possible boost for R&D tax credits to further support businesses conducting research in the UK.

May also announced a new Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, overseen by UK Research and Innovation and funded by some of the £2BN R&D boost — aimed at supporting the commercialization of what the government is dubbing “priority technologies”, such as robotics, biotechnology and AI.

Other emerging fields that could benefit from the new fund’s support include medical technology, satellites, advanced materials manufacturing and “other areas where the UK has a proven scientific strength and there is a significant economic opportunity for commercialisation”.

Featured Image: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Google’s DNI fund puts €24M into 124 news projects across Europe

Google’s ongoing effort to fix its reputation in the world of publishing in Europe took another step forward today.

The Digital News Initiative, a group formed by the search giant to explore, promote and financially back new efforts in news publishing, announced that it is putting €24 million ($26 million) into 124 projects across 25 countries in Europe. The efforts span major newspapers embarking on projects to advance data journalism and the use of AI to surface stories for readers, through to a nonprofit developing ways to weed out fake news, a timely subject in the wake of the recent U.S. election.

More highlights of the projects below, and a detailed run-down can be found here.

This is the second tranche of funding from the DNI, which was launched in 2015 and opened up for applications a year ago. If 124 sounds like a lot of projects, that appears to be the strategy for Google: fund far and wide with smaller sums of money. The first group of funded projects, announced earlier this year, numbered 128, which received a total of €30 million.

Google’s efforts to support news organizations big and small trying out new things comes at the same time that the company is trying to negotiate a path forward in Europe with regulators, who are coming after it with a series of antitrust cases accusing it of being too dominant, not just in its search business, but in its mobile Android business, as well.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai is currently in Europe and is expected to meet with Margrethe Vestager, the EU antitrust chief, on Friday of this week, to discuss the ongoing cases.

The DNI work also comes at a time when many news organizations are struggling against the economics of the news industry — which has had a messy transition from being a profitable, print-based business that made money through both newspaper sales and advertising, to a largely ad-based free effort that is available online through a vast proliferation of outlets.

That is a trend that is hurting not just smaller primary news outfits but some of the most iconic among them. The WSJ and the Guardian are among the larger publications that have announced job cuts in recent months; among some of the newer groups, Fusion and Univision yesterday said they will lay off up to 250 staff, with some of that already taking effect. (And that’s before you start to consider smaller blogs.)

Some have laid at least part of the blame for the slow demise of the news industry at Google’s feet (and more recently Facebook’s) because of the way that they aggregate and share headlines and offer their own way to quickly scan the basics of stories without needing to click into publishers’ own sites, making it a challenge to institute subscriptions or paywalls around that content, or even benefit from an uptick in traffic that can be used to promote ad sales.

Still, some publishers have tried to forge ways of working with these portal behemoths, for example, by incorporating Google’s AMP project and Facebook’s Instant Articles to make the experience of viewing articles faster (even if, such as in the case of Instant Articles, those publishers are again giving up some of their traffic in the name of better UX).

The DNI sits as a counterbalance to this, with some 180 members from across the industry in Europe aiming at coming up with ways to build smarter, tech-driven news organizations that will, arguably, be in control of their own disruption and therefore at least reap the financial benefits of that.

Notably, as part of the financial backing, Google and the DNI do not take any equity stake in the projects or the companies running them.

Ludovic Blecher, the head of Digital News Initiative Innovation Fund at Google, said that the main criteria for this latest tranche of funding included not only “impact, innovation and project feasibility” but also projects focused on collaboration.

“The projects that stood out prioritise collaborative approaches between publishers, academics, designers and entrepreneurs, both within a single country and across Europe,” he said. The range of individual funding can go from €50,000 to €300,000 typically, although can be higher in special cases.

Getting even €50,000 from Google is a competitive process. There were 850 submissions for this latest round of funding, and Google said that 43 focus on collaboration. “We see this collaboration — across countries, across newsrooms and across specialties — as an amazing display of the intent to energise the European news ecosystem with new ideas, new technologies and more,” he notes.

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We have taken a deeper dive into one of the projects getting funding today from Google, in part because it’s a timely issue: Full Fact, a nonprofit out of the U.K., will be using the funding not just to continue building out its human team of fact checkers, but also to embark on building some automated fact-checking tools.

Among others getting funding, Google highlights the following three, all classified as bigger projects: one in data science; one developing a chatbot to answer newsy questions; and one working on finding a publication’s best “evergreen” content that’s not time-sensitive but potentially interesting for readers nonetheless.

Spiegel Online – Germany – in collaboration with Institut für Spielanalyse & TU München
What happens when you mix sports reporting and data science? With EUR 689,116 from the DNI, Spiegel’s collaborative project aims to create an entirely new way for readers and journalists to experience and analyze soccer games. With a goal of using new approaches in data collection, data interpretation and player analysis, Spiegel Online plans to help fans become experts — using novel applications of artificial intelligence.

Corriere della Sera: The Vocal Bot – Italy
With EUR 300,000 in funding, Corriere della Sera will pursue the design of a digital assistant where Corriere della Sera can answer users’ news-related questions on a variety of devices. The ambition is to be able to answer natural language queries such as “Please, tell me the latest on the Brexit” or “Who won today’s GP?.” The “Digital Assistant” will read headlines and articles, search Corriere della Sera’s archives, and scrape the publisher’s digital content for material.

Le Temps SA – Switzerland
The industry agrees that exceptional content increases loyalty and engagement. So with EUR 45,000 in funding, Le Temps is pursuing a tool to resurface and republish the newsroom’s best ‘evergreen’ articles when they relate to current events. Called “Zombie,” the tool will analyse articles on Le Temps’ website using data from both Chartbeat and Google Analytics and apply a score to each piece. At the same time Zombie will analyse web activity for trending topics — which can be matched to Le Temp’s database of content. If so, the tool will alert the newsroom.

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