Internet of Things (IoT) and Autonomous Agents are two of the biggest tech trends to look out for in 2016, according to leading IT market researchers Gartner Inc.
“Gartner’s top 10 strategic technology trends will shape digital business opportunities through 2020” says David Cearley, vice President of Gartner and Fellow. But what does this mean for local authorities, here we look at the impact and potential of these new technologies within the public sector.
The Internet of Things is the idea of a ubiquitous environment where objects and people are connected to one and other with the ability to share data over a network. Today there are about 14bn things connected to the internet and this has the potential to rise to 100bn by 2020. Evolving out of wireless devices and remote sensors, the IoT has now developed into a network of intelligent devices with computing capabilities.
With the IoT there is the opportunity to digitally transform more ordinary aspects of life and everyday things that we take for granted. We have already seen this in the home energy market with the introduction of British Gas’ Smart Meters. Smart Meters can automatically take meter readings of how much gas and electricity you are using which can then be sent to your provider. These help customers make smarter choices around their energy consumption using live information. Additionally there has been the introduction of the Hive Active Heating which offers customers the ability to control their heating wirelessly from smartphones, tablets or laptops. The IoT has the potential to revolutionise our daily lives, making us smarter, better connected, infovorous beings.
But what does this mean for local councils? The IoT has the capacity to completely disrupt traditional models for the delivery of public services, allowing local authorities to act smarter and faster in response to growing demand. Areas such as public transport and health and social care could be completely transformed.
In 2016 we can expect to see sensors around bus stops that can detect the number of commuters that are waiting at given times. IoT technology such as this would allow local councils to develop more ‘on-demand’ services by which they could reactively schedule bus services creating a more responsive and efficient public transport network.
Manchester city council are set to pioneer this IoT technology as part of a £10m investment from The Department of Culture. Through their CityVerve Project, they aim to test traditional services with this new technology, including bus stops, streetlamps and parks, all of which will make up a network of smart sensors with the capability to feed live data back to the council which will better inform future spending on public services. The Digital Economy Minister Ed Vaizey had this to say, “The UK’s tech sector is renowned for its creativity as well as pioneering research and development. The Manchester project will help the UK to be a world leader in the adoption of Internet of Things technologies and inspire others around the world to create smarter cities.”
Furthermore the IoT has great potential in the realm of health and social care services. We can expect to see more wearable devices and telehealth that allow for remotely delivered health services, reducing the need for face-to-face appointments thus making healthcare more personal and efficient. These wearable devices would be capable of monitoring a patient’s health and then sending the data back to the physician for monitoring. According to Orange, 1 in 3 Brits are willing to use these wearable healthcare devices.
This in turn could solve much of the budgetary pressures currently facing the NHS and local councils by encouraging patients to stay at home whilst also providing the NHS and local councils with data on particular health trends which could better inform future spending on services.
However with these ideas of the IoT and the sharing of data comes the added issue of data security. Local authorities will need to be aware and pragmatic when dealing with the potential risks in regards to the sensitive data of patients. Equally so, the idea of sharing data between devices raises further concerns as to the meaningfulness of the vast sums of data being collected. Local councils will need to approach this with careful and well thought through analysis to ensure they can create some meaningful and useful information.
Secondly we have Autonomous Agents and Things, Autonomous Agents are software entities with the ability to carry out a set of operations, mimicking that of a human or program with a certain degree of autonomy. These can include robots, autonomous vehicles, virtual personal assistants (VPAs) and smart advisors. According to Mr. Cearley, “IT leaders should explore how they can use autonomous things and agents to augment human activity and free people for work that only people can do.”
Autonomous agents are not uncommon in industries such as manufacturing or the newly evolving e-commerce industry. Companies such as Amazon have been using autonomous agents to assist in their factory operations for many years now, improving efficiencies and reducing staffing costs. Made possible through huge technological developments in computer chips, sensors and actuators, meaning robots have become cheaper, safer and more intelligent. However outside of this context it is difficult to see their practical use.
More recently however, we have seen a huge shift within the autonomous agents community towards the development of driverless car technology. This represents an exciting new series of autonomous agent technology, one with profound societal ramifications that could completely revolutionise the way we think about motoring. The technology is focused around Lidar (Light detection and ranging) system which can capture data on the vehicles surroundings and machine learning algorithms which can learn and memorise unusual road events. Major manufacturers such as Google, BMW and Nissan are already trialling the new technology, with a view to release it commercially within the next few years.
Driverless cars offer major economic, environmental and road safety benefits, with the potential to considerably mitigate the risk of human error in motoring, which currently accounts for 90% of all accidents. It is easy to see then its potential use within the public sector. Services such as waste management, in which bin lorries drive around on pre-determined routes to collect rubbish could be greatly improved in safety and efficiency if this technology was to become more accessible.
This is an excellent example of how humans and autonomous agents can work in harmony to improve services and process efficiencies. By getting autonomous agents to perform more manual tasks will proportionally free up human resource which can then be spent on adding value to the service.
In Japan, the home of robotics and autonomous agents, they have taken autonomous agent technology a step further, implementing them into health and social care services. A solution for elderly care is critical for the country to deal with its ageing population, with the proportion of over 65s set to rise to 40% by 2055. Similar to the UK, elderly care in Japan is one of the biggest strains on public spending and the Prime Minister Shinzo Abehas has allocated 2.39bn yen (£14.3m) for the development of care robots to tackle the issue. Notably, Japanese robotics company Cyberdyne have been developing Hybrid Assistive Limbs (HALs), a robotic suit that can assist elderly people with mobility, potentially alleviating much of the work of carers. Ironically named, lets hope these robots behave more compliantly than the infamous HAL 9000 in2001: A Space Odyssey. For the sake of elderly people worldwide, we hope these HALs are more reminiscent of Paulie’s friendly robot in Rocky IV.
Although sounding suspiciously like science fiction, local government should pay considerable attention to the rise of these technologies as they will no doubt play an intrinsic part in elderly health and social care in the future. With ageing populations across the globe it is crucial that we explore new innovative ways of caring for the elderly and autonomous agents present a serious opportunity.
Going by Gartner’s predictions, it seems then that the council of the future will have to be much more innovative when tackling budgetary and demand pressures. The IoT presents a very real opportunity for council’s to optimize service output, offering more on-demand, smarter services, whilst they should also take note of the rising developments in autonomous agents and their potential impact on public services.
From public transport to health and social care, these new peripheral technologies have the potential to completely transform traditional operating models of public services and will garner increasing significance in years to come as budgets continue to shrink and demand grows.
… a brief history of digital public services in Britain
During the 19th Century the public sector as we know it was born out of local organisations with their paper-based administrations, driving social change throughout society. In the late 20th Century government moved towards electronic records as a means of standardisation and optimisation. At the turn of the 21st century, with technology advancing and a new government in power, the public sector moved towards ideas of online services and electronic data capture. Britain was at the dawn of a new digital age.
Labour’s 1997 election landslide brought with it a huge mandate for public service reform. The government increased spend on key public services in an effort to bring Britain up to a world class standard. Blair sought to drastically improve the quality, responsiveness and availability of public services.
Over the following decade public services across Britain improved dramatically, with the Office of National Statistics estimating a one-third increase in quality and quantity. NHS Direct was established providing 24 hour healthcare advice 7 days a week and citizens were now able to apply for provisional driving licences online. Britain was entering an age of Digital Public Services.
However under the skin public services were still poorly evolved, Sir David Varney’s influential 2006 report highlighted the scale of the work still to be done. He noted that throughout history public services had evolved completely independently of each other, leaving them disjointed and inefficient. The result was a public service economy that focused too much on the supply of particular products rather than coordinating services around the needs of citizens and businesses. For example, on average each citizen would have to prove their identity to government 11 times a year across various services. Critically this left citizens and businesses with the burden of joining up services accordingly to meet their particular needs.
Varney believed that government could greatly improve the efficiency and quality of public services through the coordination of front line e-services, customer contact centers and the reduction of duplication and back office functions. It was Varney’s vision of innovative, collaborative and integrated public services that really shaped the discourse around public service reform for the next decade.
Out of the Varney Report came a huge transformation programme, looking at a major reduction in the number of face-to-face government offices and the complete rationalisation of all 560 Government websites down to 2 with Directgov and Businesslink, later consolidating as just Gov.uk.
Societal attitudes towards public services and the internet were changing drastically. Between 2007 and 2010 the number of adults online grew by 10% as did the number of adults using online government services at both local and central levels. Britain was demanding and spending more on public services than it had been in 20 years, however the Age of Austerity was about to begin.
By 2010 the credit crunch had turned into a global recession and the public purse was tighter than ever with the largest budget deficit in British financial history. Under David Cameron’s Conservative government, public services would experience huge cuts in an effort to balance the books. Over the next 5 years local authorities would experience a 37% real-terms reduction in budgets, Varney’s ideas of innovation, collaboration and integration had never rung truer.
With unprecedented cost pressures and rising public expectations the government would have to take a more radical approach to public service delivery and digital transformation was widely regarded as the best way forward.
Leading the way was GDS and their ‘Digital by Default’ strategy of 2013 which brought with it the development of 25 fully integrated digital services, delivered through Gov.uk. At the same time local authorities across the country were adopting digital strategies, with more customer focussed websites, new innovative mobile apps and improved integration in an effort to drive efficiencies and meet customer demands.
Over the next few years local authorities would make some giant leaps in the way they deliver public services. Digital delivery of services such as council tax and housing were increasingly becoming the norm, with GOSS reporting 74% of all local authorities having adopted channel shift strategies. At the same time digital participation was increasing also with 84% of the adult population having access to the internet, 65% of which were now using online government services. Public services were becoming increasingly digital with more and more services available online.
However local authorities and central government alike still face significant barriers such as integration of back office processes whilst new technological ideas such as The Cloud and Open Data disrupt traditional service delivery models.
Which takes us up to today. A day in which digital is no longer an option but a necessity for public service delivery. Online services, mobile apps, customer accounts, email alerts, social media are all seen as intrinsic components to digital public services. However technology accelerates at such a fast pace and budget pressures continue to grow we cannot afford to rest on our laurels. There is still much to be done if Britain is to realise its potential as a world-class digital public service economy. We need to rethink what it means to be a total digital public service economy, not just in regards to transactional services, but as a whole model for public service delivery.
Britain is now faced with a stark choice unto the future success of digital public services: evolve or die.
Throughout the next year I will be exploring the concept of total digital public services with a focus on local authorities, as part of the SOCITM Graham Williamson Research Award. I will be looking towards international examples of public sector innovation, collaboration and integration in a hope to develop a picture for the future of digital public services in Britain.