Platformland October 2021

These newsletters are restarting properly now. By accident rather than design, this one’s very digital identity heavy, must be something in the water …

Platform news

The practice of platforms

Occasional links to blog posts where people talk about what’s different about the job of making platforms…

Github watch

Sharing, reuse and forking …

Designing the bits in-between

Designing the public facing parts of shared platforms is designing the liminal. It’s about designing the seams.

  • The UK Government Digital Service have been sharing some early prototypes of how their sign-in and account platforms might slot into a user journey.

  • This video shows how credentials from India’s DigiLocker can get used as part of a loan application. It’s clunky, but shows some of the challenges of moving from the well known step-by-step transaction paradigm, to something new. From what I remember there were plenty of clunky transactions and sign-in forms in the early days of the web.

Software is politics

Long reads

Mapping the technology used by COVID-19 apps [from October 2020]

Professor and researcher Jonathan Albright compiled an amazing dataset of the technology used by different governments to create COVID contact tracing, exposure and information apps. It shows the power of Google & Apple’s platforms:

I simply do not remember a time when global public communication channels have been so codified and platformitized. By this, I mean that 2020 marks the stage—quite literally—when hundreds of public health agencies and government communication channels simultaneously collapsed their efforts into exactly two tightly controlled commercial marketplaces: Apple’s iOS and Google’s Play stores. Not to mention the code infrastructure (SDKs) for at least half of these iOS apps has been built by one of the companies (Google).

(Back in September 2020, Journalist Rowland Manthorpe reported on how that power extended to the notification messages that users saw).

Albright’s analysis also includes the permissions that different apps require (location, camera, etc) and the SDKs they are built on (Google Firebase, Facebook Audience Network, etc). This is a manual process.

The permissions and SDKs for some apps simply could not be obtained through any method other than actually downloading and installing them on a device through a foreign iOS app store and local currency.

All this shows how the combination of platforms, digitisation of public services and the mutability of code breeds opacity. Systematically publishing information like Albright’s dataset should become the norm for governments. Monitoring it should become a standard activity of civil society organisations with an interest in accountability.

Co-Develop Digital Public Infrastructure for an Equitable Recovery

The Rockefeller Foundation have published a report on Digital Public Infrastructure and Digital Public Goods. The definitions of DPI/DPG can be a bit fuzzy, so it’s good that this focuses on the foundational platforms like payments, identity and data exchange.

By understanding digital identity, payments, and data exchanges as elements of DPI, we can build them more rapidly, maximize their benefits, and minimize the risks they create.

It also argues for a shared vision for DPI. If there’s something missing, I think it’s a vision, not just for the infrastructure, but for the types of services that should be built on top of them. What should it feel like to use public services in a digital state?

(For more on Digital Public Goods, see this set of essays that I published recently).