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Griffin on Tech: Microsoft’s leg-up from the Govt and the tech bro cage fight

Peter Griffin, Editor. 30 June 2023, 1:30 pm

RNZ’s Phil Pennington continues to do valuable investigative work using the Official Information Act to shine a light on the inner workings of government, including its use of technology.

His story today suggests that back in 2020, the Government Chief Digital Officer, Paul James, “asked about a dozen departmental chief executives to come up with ideas to work on with Microsoft”, which was then formulating a plan to build data centres in New Zealand in a bid to expand its cloud business here.

Microsoft was keen for the Ministry of Education to adopt artificial intelligence software to facilitate live reporting on children and teachers in the classroom. It worked with government officials through the pandemic years on developing this “lighthouse” project, which included a plan, according to RNZ, to “help neuro-diverse students”.

Ultimately the proposal went nowhere. Sometime around the end of 2021 it "fell into a black hole", a project leader quoted in correspondence released under the OIA reported. That’s troubling in itself - government officials invested considerable time in a project of “national significance” to let it then fizzle out. That’s concerning enough. Pennington writes that “heavyweight input” went into the proposal, but it eventually came to nothing, wasting everyone’s time.

More concerning is the fact that the Government was working behind the scenes on finding new business opportunities for Microsoft, which is already well-entrenched in the government sector providing Microsoft 365 and Azure cloud services to a wide range of agencies, and throughout the education sector.

Did the Government announce publicly that it was seeking to harness AI to improve outcomes in the education sector and seek expressions of interest from vendors? No it didn’t, according to RNZ. Behind the scenes, it signed a memorandum of understanding with Microsoft and fleshed out a plan for the software giant to take the box seat in providing AI-powered services across our education sector.

The Hi-tech Awards last week in Christchurch reminded me that we have a really strong ed-tech sector in New Zealand. Writer’s Toolbox took out the award for Most Innovative Hi-Tech Creative Technology Solution, and Kami was a finalist for Hi-Tech Company of the Year. We have a host of companies skilled in delivering AI analytics platforms too.

Microsoft may have had a great solution to offer and it may well have made financial sense to deliver it via Azure bundling it in with all the other services Microsoft provides across government. But for something as significant as rolling out AI across schools and classrooms, some public discussion and an effort to gain independent advice and run a contestable procurement process would seem like the prudent thing to do.

I recently had a wide-ranging discussion with Paul James on The Business of Tech podcast, during which he told me that around one-third of government services are currently in the public cloud and that he expects that to grow to two-thirds by the end of the decade.

The likes of Microsoft, AWS, and Google will be the primary beneficiaries of that growth and they certainly have a role to play in improving the efficiency of government services via the cloud. But vendor lock-in is a real concern highlighted by the way this ultimately abandoned project initially came together and progressed. We’ve got to do better in government tech procurement, improving transparency and independent oversight of nationally significant tech projects and offering a level playing field for local and international vendors to get involved.

The tech bro cage fight

It appears as though Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk are actually seriously entertaining the idea of having an MMA-style cage fight, translating their rivalry in the social media space from media comments and subtle digs in Instagram and Twitter digs, into real-life sweaty grappling. Ewww, it's the height of macho tech-bro culture manifesting itself between two billionaires.

The message it sends to Meta and Twitter employees and people aspiring to enter the tech workforce is pretty bleak. This is what success looks like - wanting to take your competition to the mat - literally.

This will be no celebrity boxing match, where good-natured competitors enter the ring with the real purpose of raising a stack of money for charitable causes. This is a real grudge match between two men who practise martial arts, with Zuckerberg clearly angling to take Twitter’s advertising business away and launch a Twitter-like service within Facebook..

Who would win? Zuckerberg. He’s younger and in better shape, but also yearns for respect after the mocking he has had over going big on the metaverse. Whatever the outcome if it goes ahead, that’s one tech spectacle I won’t be tuning in for.


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