From 5G to Edward Snowden: What I learned at CeBIT 2014

CeBIT is one of the most important events in the IT business calendar, and we were generally impressed by our visit to Hannover this year. A host of leading technology brands, including HP, Huawei, IBM, Intel, Samsung, SAP and ZTE were out in force, complementing a big name keynote lineup featuring Eugene Kaspersky, Steve Wozniak, and Jimmy Wales.

Even Prime Minister David Cameron decided to a pay a flash visit to revel in the UK's role as official CeBIT 2014 partner country, while on the startup front, the CODE_n competition showcased some of the world's best big data companies. We're still catching up on some well earned sleep, but now the dust has started to settle, it's time to reflect on what we learned at this year's conference.

Cameron's promises a false dawn

The biggest headline of CeBIT 2014 was made early on in the show, when UK Prime Minister David Cameron took the stage at the Opening Ceremony and made a pair of significant announcements.

First, ordinary bloke Dave unveiled a new 5G research partnership between leading British and German universities, which sounds well and good. We'd all love to be able to download 4K films in a second, but the truth of the matter is that 4G rollout is still far from complete, and many rural areas on the UK still suffer from abysmal Internet access. Britain should, of course, be looking to the future - but should be prioritising bringing the country fully up to speed with contemporary technologies.

Read more: Prime Minister David Cameron pledges new UK support for 5G, Internet of Things

Following on from his 5G pledge, Cameron also revealed that the UK government would be committing a further £45 million of funding to Internet of Things research. Again, this is a fantastic gesture on paper. Yet as we learned the hard way following 2013's shocking NSA revelations as delivered by whistleblower Edward Snowden, the last people most of us want controlling our data is government. Moreover, following the vicious slew of cuts over the last few years, Westminster's priorities may not be totally in line with popular demand. The fact is, Internet of Things research and pilot projects are likely to be funded by big business regardless - the government jumping on the bandwagon is really neither here nor there when the likes of IBM, HP, and Cisco are all investing fervently. But could NHS workers and local councils do with a spare £45 million? In my view, Cameron's CeBIT announcements raised more questions than they did provide answers.

Understanding datability

Slightly lost amidst the hype surrounding David Cameron's headline announcements at the Opening Ceremony was a very articulate speech by Volkswagen Group chairman Prof Dr Martin Winterkorn that finally made sense of this year's CeBIT theme: datability. Tech's latest portmanteau, datability is the notion of combing the vast potential of big data with improved government and business accountability. In other words, it's about making sure the swathes of data being collected about individuals and their behaviour every second of every day are used responsibly and for the greater good. As Winterkorn explained: "The car must not become a data monster...I clearly say yes to big data, yes to greater security and convenience, but no to paternalism and Big Brother." We couldn't have said it better ourselves.

"Edward Snowden? I wish it was me": Woz speaks out

For many ordinary CeBIT attendees without access to the exclusive Opening Ceremony, the highlight of Hannover was the keynote address by Apple co-founder and all-around industry icon Steve Wozniak. Woz was in typically combative form, dropping a number of juicy sound bites in response to a slightly over zealous moderator from the German press. As well as opining on the current state of play at Apple, talking smartphone recommendations, and reluctantly posing for a selfie, Woz made some intriguing points around mobile security. Noting that the EU was ahead of the US when it comes to data protection, Wozniak's appearance culminated in an exceedingly bold declaration. "Edward Snowden is a hero to me," he commented on stage. "He had the guts and the courage to give up his life for his principles. I wish it was me."

Related: Relive all the action from CeBIT 2014 as it happened

Big data? It's all about the Benjamins

By now it's probably clear that a lot of really cool stuff went down in Hannover, but the real highlight for me was the thoroughly brilliant CODE_n startup competition, which took over Hall 16 of the Deutsche Messe in style, hosted the best after-parties, and generally showed the way for CeBIT as a whole. So it's kind of perverse that the contest also produced one of the sadder realisations of my time in Germany - that the big data industry is first and foremost driven by money.

Eventual winner Viewsy, a sophisticated retail analytics platform, was praised for demonstrating how big data can be "profitably used," but for me, the sector should be driven first and foremost by the public interest. Helping improve health care, reduce carbon emissions, and increase the safety of our roads and cities - these are just some of the ways big data can be harnessed for the greater good. That's not to say that Viewsy isn't a great company, and that all commercial applications of big data are misguided - neither of these statements are at all true. Yet the single biggest virtue of the world's ongoing data boom is its transformative potential in the public sector, not ensuring Jenny at PC World knows I like violent video games when I walk into the store, or Joe at Sainsbury's can shove me in the direction of the Brew Dog special next Saturday.