2020 was a year of extremes. It was either eminently forgettable, or wholly unforgettable. Or both. There was little by way of middle-ground.
The painfully ugly demise of the Trump presidency, Brexit, a confident and more aggressive China forced to turn back inwards, Google and Facebook rampancy latterly curtailed by policy-makers and regulators.
A year of calamity for those who lost loved ones to COVID-19, of frustration for airlines, retailers, restaurants, schools and universities and others caught in the virus’ merciless march, and of seething anger for libertarians, anti-vaxxers, and BLMers.
There again, 2020 also spelled opportunity. For governments to connect and re-build trust. For technology, healthcare and logistics companies. For the fleet of foot to expand and grow market share. Digitisation accelerated at an unprecedented rate; Amazon hired over 400,000 new staff in the year to October.
Unsurprisingly, given the pace of change, it has also been a year of unintended consequences. Governments intervened with record financial hand-outs, to the glee of fraudsters and some board directors. But economies faltered and debt amassed. Policy U-turns, at least in the UK, were as regular as clockwork.
Mis and disinformation abounded, and occasionally rebounded in the face of its protagonists. And, despite mounting pressure from an increasingly active and vocal responsibility and ethics lobby, a startling number of AI, algorithmic and automation programmes went astray, some in spectacular fashion.
How I fared over 2020
The start of the year was hardly promising. Concerned at the pace and impact of COVID-19, and conscious that the work involved was necessarily face-to-face, a major global client (astutely) pulled its entire budget line.
Some promising leads failed to materialise and international speaking engagements were cancelled, putting paid to business trips to Dubai, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Morocco, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam.
However, I managed to retain two anchor clients, both of which required significant handholding, and secured a few crisis and communications projects. All of which was interesting, challenging and satisfying, paid the bills, and helped make the lockdowns and many quasi-lockdowns in the UK a good deal more bearable.
In the spirit of never letting a good crisis go to waste, I took it upon myself to use the COVID-19 pandemic to deepen my understanding of AI, algorithms and data analytics, and to start burrowing my way into the AI ecosystem.
I read numerous research papers and studies, tuned into a host of virtual conferences and webinars, and moved to Cambridge to get more involved in its burgeoning business, innovation and technology clusters,
I also prepared the ground for taking a stronger stance on strong digital rights and safe, transparent and trustworthy technologies. To this end, I joined the RSA as a Fellow, the European AI Alliance, and artificial intelligence educational NGO We and AI as an expert advisor.
Somewhat against the grain, I decided to dial back on marketing and business development and focus on cause communications in the form of my AI and algorithmic incident and controversy repository and a contextualised timeline of the UK government’s response to COVID-19.
I recall several analysts and commentators predicting ‘the end of the website’ in the heady days of web 2.0 and 3.0. It struck me as short-sighted; organisations and individuals will always want – and need – to have a space to articulate their activities, experiences and views on home turf.
That said, given my decision to keep a low profile, it seems counter-intuitive that visitor and view numbers for my website boomed over the past twelve months.
This seems to have been driven by high interest in a handful of posts and pages, including the AI repository and UK COVID-19 timeline, more return traffic, and by many more users from mainland China.
Top five posts in 2020
- Five ways to stop false rumours and reduce speculation
- UK government COVID-19 response timeline
- Is the coronavirus a crisis, disaster, or emergency?
- Understanding how to manage the reputational risks of AI
- How Cathay Pacific botched its data breach communications
Top five countries in 2020
To what ends?
For me, 2020 was largely about dislocation, relocation, education and experimentation, preparing the ground for the post-pandemic future.
With the UK seemingly destined for lockdowns until spring, 2021 looks like it will be a game of two halves, or perhaps of thirds, with Zoom, Teams and Hop.in remaining the primary mode d’emploi until such time as offices and airlines are safe.
Meantime, I will be doubling down on AI and algorithmic research and product development, establishing new business partnerships, getting more deeply involved in digital rights and technology transparency advocacy, and raising my head a little more above the virtual and real-world parapets.
Wishing you a healthy, happy and prosperous new year.