Computer Weekly Editor's Blog

Feb 7 2019   2:57PM GMT

Of course there’s technology for the Irish border – that doesn’t mean it will work

Bryan Glick Bryan Glick Profile: Bryan Glick

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It’s understandable that people express cynicism when a politician – particularly one with a clear ideological bent – proclaims that “digital” or “technology” can solve the core Brexit issue of the Irish border. With very few honourable exceptions, politicians have the same understanding of technology and how it works as the average voter has about Erskine May, the authoritative publication on parliamentary procedure.

But when an IT company makes a similar claim, should we sit up and take notice? It’s notable that we’re now seeing leaks of technology supplier proposals just as the Brexiteers in Parliament are pushing their “alternative arrangements” ideas to overcome objections to the UK/EU Withdrawal Agreement.

The Sun got its hands on a Fujitsu document, while Buzzfeed published details of a report from wireless sensor maker UtterBerry. It’s clear that the Brexiteers leaking these ideas believe this gives substance to the possibility of a technological solution to the Irish border.

Don’t believe a word of it.

From what’s been released into the public domain, these proposals read like classic, old-school, Big IT plans that offer simple-sounding solutions to difficult problems couched in ways that make it seem like the supplier has all the answers, knowing that the recipient won’t know the right questions to ask.

It’s true that technologies exists to automate border functions between two countries – internet of things, wireless, sensors, GPS tracking, facial recognition, automatic number plate recognition, cloud, real-time data analytics, to name a few – of course one of the proposals throws in blockchain, because, well, you have to these days.

And it may even be the case that such a solution could be demonstrated on a small-scale – a couple of delivery lorries perhaps, being tracked from start to finish across the border.

But what every conversation about a technology solution fails to grasp is the complexity such a project would have to deal with. Ask anybody that has worked on large-scale IT projects and you will hear the same thing – the technology is rarely the problem. Big government IT initiatives mostly fail because they underestimate the complexity of making large-scale technology work.

Sure, you can point to Amazon and say: look, here’s a hugely scaled technology that works. But when Amazon started, it sold books via a simple website. It’s taken two decades, billions of dollars and many millions of working hours to get to where it is now.

Has anybody at any of these tech companies that believe they have a solution done any in-depth user research to properly understand the problem? You suspect not.

This is a great Twitter thread from a director of a specialist vehicle routing software company, that touches on the complex questions that would need to be answered before even considering a technology solution such as those proposed.

All this also overlooks the unique political complexity inherent in the Irish border.

IT companies do themselves, the IT sector, and UK politics no favours by promoting apparently simple solutions to such an enormously complex problem. Of course, that’s what most of them have done in government IT for decades, so you can’t expect them to change when there’s a multibillion-pound contract in the offing.

But whenever technology is thrown up as the answer to this most difficult of Brexit issues, the question that needs to be asked is not whether the tech exists, but whether anyone can explain how to manage the complexity involved in making it work. If they claim they can, be very cynical.

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