Building the foundations for 'smart' services

#LocalDigital Live is a series of studio-based discussion programmes streamed live online that invites the audience to add their opinions and questions to the debate.

Like previous debates in the series, the latest Local Digital live discussion on smart cities quickly turned to defining 'smart'.

"There's not one definition. A lot of people are adapting the term just to cover their own agenda. 'Smart' is convenient because it covers a range of things", said John Thornton, Council Member Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy.

Smart Cities Live debate 27 FebruaryThe smart city concept describes better use of resources and more responsive services to residents through a range of web-enabled technologies, including embedded sensors that gather and intelligently re-use data.

Already deployed in places like Milton Keynes, Bristol and Glasgow, 'smart' encompasses diverse services such as health, transport networks, utility supply and demand, energy efficiency and street lighting.

The latest live streamed online debate asked: 'how do we build smart foundations for smart services?' Chair Helen Bedford Olsen - Local Digital's Head of Communications - kicked off the programme by asking the expert panel what building blocks are needed to create a 'smart' place or organisation, particularly in light of huge budget cuts.

"It's about driving fundamental change", said Thornton. "If you're talking about HR and other basic systems, you need them in place, but it's difficult to get people to buy into a vision. It's more about what technology does to deliver for people - how to make transport better or how to help the elderly", he said.

It is also important to get employees of public sector organisations, residents, and importantly, "hard-nosed" Finance Directors on board. For this, you need to carefully convey the bigger picture, said Thornton. "We need a vision that underpins what we're trying to do that makes it understandable to everyone", he said.

"For Finance Directors and management teams [to come on board] there should be opportunities to bring in early-stage efficiency gains and cost savings and doing things quicker and easier with technology, not creating a smart city", said Paul McPherson, Director of Public Sector, Microsoft Business Solutions.

"There's an opportunity to automate processes. When it's done properly, that should deliver faster, more convenient services".

Overall, said McPherson, building the foundations for smart operations comes down to connecting people with each other and with local facilities. Technology and big data are secondary to that "and should be seen as enablers", he said.

To get local government decision makers to buy in to the same 'smart' vision, said Thornton, you'll also need 'smart' governance. "Governance is about evidence-based planning and customer insight. Big data gives you the opportunity to drive customer insight. If you dig in to big data you can understand cause and effect".

But when it comes to big data - the automated analysis of large data sets to reveal patterns and trends related to people, services and interactions - local government has a long way to go.

A recent Local Digital survey sought to find out what digital and technology elements make a city or region 'smart'. The survey found that more than three quarters felt big data was important to address complex challenges and predict service demand. But less than one in five respondents were actually using data in this way.

What is crucial is that participants are willing to share, said McPherson. "Some organisations feel their data is more valuable than others. I've seen lots of examples of organisations willing to consume others' information but less willing to share theirs".

"There are huge opportunities to use data more intelligently, like in counter fraud", said Thornton. "Fraud is an old-fashioned crime, but nearly all is enabled by some form of technology, so it leaves a digital trail. If you can collect that data you can map patterns and look for signals. With £2.1bn of fraud in local government, the potential payback is huge", he said.

There's one way to capture the attention of the Finance Director.

One example of successful use of data to combat fraud is a London Council that investigated the abuse of claims for the Council Tax single person's discount. It found that by matching data with information from parking fines and applications for parking permits, it could identify homes fraudulently occupied by more than one person, and with this data began to crack down on the crime.

Sometimes data can turn up surprising results. A scheme in the West Country to combat misuse of student allowance claims unexpectedly revealed cases of fraud among colleges and Universities, said Thornton.

"The more you invest in prevention and disruption, the bigger the payback", he said.

McPherson agreed. "Fraudsters also go through 'iterative development cycles'. As they become more sophisticated, the public sector response needs to become more sophisticated too", he said.

But while using data and technology to reduce fraud is one way to hang on to resources, it is just a small part of the bigger picture. "There's a lot of publicity about the 'jaws of doom' gap as we see cutbacks in funding and social care expanding. We can either stop doing things - much of which we can't do - or be much more efficient. The only way we can do that is by leveraging the power of technology", said Thornton.

Just 'stopping things' can lead to a false economy. Thornton cited the case of a school that decided to save money by removing painting the window frames from the maintenance schedule, only to find that the frames began to rot some years later - a more complex, expensive problem to fix.

Payne said that compared to the rising cost of social care and reducing the impact of the ageing population on services, it's "a drop in the ocean". He also highlighted that responsibility for gathering and providing access to 'smart' datasets may not all be down to local authorities. "Hackathons and universities can get involved. It doesn't have to be the authority investing", said Payne.

Initiatives like FutureGov's Casserole Club, which 'matchmakes' someone willing to cook an extra meal to an elderly person in their neighbourhood, exemplify the increasing DIY spirit, he added.

Indeed, smart city programmes are often led - and are reliant on - cross-sector consortiums of universities, large IT firms, small local companies and developers, voluntary and charity sector organisations and local authorities.

"This stuff is going to happen whether or not the public sector engages. AirB&B and Uber are changing the way people operate. Citizens are engaging more. The public sector can't control this, it just needs to make the case for the investment required and put its money where it can get the biggest bang for its buck. That could be the infrastructure to support smart cities or fixing pot holes".

Payne agreed. "This is happening anyway. It'll happen better with local authorities taking a lead in it, providing the leadership and governance. But if they don't, it'll happen around them, which could lead to more chaos".


Watch the video recording of this debate.

Register to watch and contribute to the next live debate: #LocalDigital Live: Can Smart Care help tackle the rise in care need? (20 March 14.00-15.00)