Crowdsourcing in smart cities: a world of best practice

By Steven McGinty

Too often, debates on smart cities revolve around terms such as “Internet of things”, “big data”, and “sensors”. However, there is a growing realisation that truly smart cities take a more person-centric approach, which focuses on the needs of citizens and harnesses their skills, talents and experience.

Crowdsourcing is one approach that can help cities do just that. From Danish toy maker Lego to tech giant Amazon, organisations are using digital tools to gather views, opinions, data, and even money from citizens. Public sector institutions have also got involved, introducing projects that engage with citizens, as well as tap into external skills through events such as hackathons (where civic hackers come together to solve key city problems).

Already, there is a wide range of crowdsourcing initiatives across the world. Below I’ve highlighted some of the best.

Scottish Government

In 2015, the Scottish Government’s Open Data and Fisheries teams introduced Dialogue, a citizen engagement tool developed by Delib (a social enterprise based in the UK and Australia).

The Open Data team were in the process of creating an open data plan for public bodies. They felt that crowdsourcing could help them gain a greater understanding of the types and formats of datasets people would be interested in, and as such, posed a series of questions to citizens.

The Fisheries Team took to crowdsourcing to gather the views on a proposal to create a ‘kill licence’ and carcass tagging regime for salmon. As they knew this would be controversial, they wanted to gain a better understanding of the concerns in fishing communities, and to see if there were any better approaches.

Both teams learned a lot of useful lessons from the process. These included:

  • ensuring questions were as specific as possible so citizens could understand;
  • marketing projects to specific communities with an interest in the question raised;
  • avoiding making assumptions or stereotyping audiences; and
  • giving short deadlines (as this added urgency and encouraged greater participation).

Milton Keynes

MK: Smart – Milton Keynes’ wide ranging smart cities programme – has introduced an online platform known as Our MK to connect with citizens. This award-winning project supports people in playing a central role in urban innovation, from crowdsourcing initial ideas through to finding mentoring support and funding through their dedicated SpaceHive page.

The platform’s citizen ideas competition offers up to £5,000 worth of funding to turn ideas into reality. So far it’s generated over 100 ideas, with 13 projects being allocated funding. This includes the Go Breastfeeding MK App (an app which promotes the use of breastfeeding within Milton Keynes) and the gamification of Redways (which saw an app developed to encourage people to explore the Redways network – a series of shared use paths for cyclists and pedestrians.)

Madrid City Council

In 2016, Madrid City Council launched Decide Madrid. The platform played a key role in supporting the city’s participatory budgeting process, allowing citizens to propose, debate, and rank ideas submitted to the website. Once citizens had chosen their top proposals, city employees checked the ideas against viability criteria and a cost report was carried out. If the proposal failed to meet the criteria, a report was published explaining why it had been excluded.

Decide Madrid provided guidance of what was allowed and what was not (offline meetings were also used to explain the limitations of the scheme), to ensure that only valid proposals were checked. This ensured the initiative didn’t become too labour intensive.

In the 2016 Budget, €60 million was set aside. By the time the process had finished, citizens had debated over 5,000 initial ideas, with 225 projects being chosen for funding.

Reykjavik City Council

Better Reykjavik was introduced to provide a direct link for citizens to Reykjavik City Council. The online platform enables citizens to voice, debate and prioritise the issues that they believe will improve their city. For example, Icelandic school children have suggested the need for more field trips.

In 2010, the platform played an important role in Reykjavik’s city council elections, providing a space for all political parties to crowdsource ideas for their campaign. After the election, Jón Gnarr, former Mayor of Reykjavik, encouraged citizens to use the platform during coalition talks. Within a four week period (before and after the election), 40% of Reykjavik’s voters had used the platform and almost 2000 priorities had been created.

Overall, almost 60% of citizens have used the platform, and the city has spent approximately £1.7 million on developing projects sourced from citizens.

Final thoughts

Crowdsourcing is more than just creating a flashy website or app. It’s a process which requires strategic planning and investment. If you’re planning your own initiative, seeking out good practice and learning from the experience of others is a great place to start.


This article was based on the briefing ‘The crowdsourced city: engaging citizens in smart cities’. Idox Information Service members can access this briefing via our customer website.

Robot cities: three urban prototypes for future living

This guest blog was written by Mateja Kovacic, Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Sheffield.

Before I started working on real-world robots, I wrote about their fictional and historical ancestors. This isn’t so far removed from what I do now. In factories, labs, and of course science fiction, imaginary robots keep fuelling our imagination about artificial humans and autonomous machines.

Real-world robots remain surprisingly dysfunctional, although they are steadily infiltrating urban areas across the globe. This fourth industrial revolution driven by robots is shaping urban spaces and urban life in response to opportunities and challenges in economic, social, political and healthcare domains. Our cities are becoming too big for humans to manage.

Good city governance enables and maintains smooth flow of things, data, and people. These include public services, traffic, and delivery services. Long queues in hospitals and banks imply poor management. Traffic congestion demonstrates that roads and traffic systems are inadequate. Goods that we increasingly order online don’t arrive fast enough. And the wi-fi often fails our 24/7 digital needs. In sum, urban life, characterised by environmental pollution, speedy life, traffic congestion, connectivity and increased consumption, needs robotic solutions – or so we are lead to believe.

In the past five years, national governments have started to see automation as the key to (better) urban futures. Many cities are becoming test beds for national and local governments for experimenting with robots in social spaces, where robots have both practical purpose (to facilitate everyday life) and a very symbolic role (to demonstrate good city governance). Whether through autonomous cars, automated pharmacists, service robots in local stores, or autonomous drones delivering Amazon parcels, cities are being automated at a steady pace.

Many large cities (Seoul, Tokyo, Shenzhen, Singapore, Dubai, London, San Francisco) serve as test beds for autonomous vehicle trials in a competitive race to develop “self-driving” cars. Automated ports and warehouses are also increasingly automated and robotised. Testing of delivery robots and drones is gathering pace beyond the warehouse gates. Automated control systems are monitoring, regulating and optimising traffic flows. Automated vertical farms are innovating production of food in “non-agricultural” urban areas around the world. New mobile health technologies carry promise of healthcare “beyond the hospital”. Social robots in many guises – from police officers to restaurant waiters – are appearing in urban public and commercial spaces.

As these examples show, urban automation is taking place in fits and starts, ignoring some areas and racing ahead in others. But as yet, no one seems to be taking account of all of these various and interconnected developments. So how are we to forecast our cities of the future? Only a broad view allows us to do this. To give a sense, here are three examples: Tokyo, Dubai and Singapore.

Tokyo

Currently preparing to host the Olympics 2020, Japan’s government also plans to use the event to showcase many new robotic technologies. Tokyo is therefore becoming an urban living lab. The institution in charge is the Robot Revolution Realisation Council, established in 2014 by the government of Japan.

Tokyo: city of the future (Image: ESB Professional/Shutterstock CC)

The main objectives of Japan’s robotisation are economic reinvigoration, cultural branding and international demonstration. In line with this, the Olympics will be used to introduce and influence global technology trajectories. In the government’s vision for the Olympics, robot taxis transport tourists across the city, smart wheelchairs greet Paralympians at the airport, ubiquitous service robots greet customers in 20-plus languages, and interactively augmented foreigners speak with the local population in Japanese.

Tokyo shows us what the process of state-controlled creation of a robotic city looks like.

Singapore

Singapore, on the other hand, is a “smart city”. Its government is experimenting with robots with a different objective: as physical extensions of existing systems to improve management and control of the city.

In Singapore, the techno-futuristic national narrative sees robots and automated systems as a “natural” extension of the existing smart urban ecosystem. This vision is unfolding through autonomous delivery robots (the Singapore Post’s delivery drone trials in partnership with AirBus helicopters) and driverless bus shuttles from Easymile, EZ10.

Meanwhile, Singapore hotels are employing state-subsidised service robots to clean rooms and deliver linen and supplies and robots for early childhood education have been piloted to understand how robots can be used in pre-schools in the future. Health and social care is one of the fastest growing industries for robots and automation in Singapore and globally.

Dubai

Dubai is another emerging prototype of a state-controlled smart city. But rather than seeing robotisation simply as a way to improve the running of systems, Dubai is intensively robotising public services with the aim of creating the “happiest city on Earth”. Urban robot experimentation in Dubai reveals that authoritarian state regimes are finding innovative ways to use robots in public services, transportation, policing and surveillance.

National governments are in competition to position themselves on the global politico-economic landscape through robotics, and they are also striving to position themselves as regional leaders. This was the thinking behind the city’s September 2017 test flight of a flying taxi developed by the German drone firm Volocopter – staged to “lead the Arab world in innovation”. Dubai’s objective is to automate 25% of its transport system by 2030.

It is currently also experimenting with Barcelona-based PAL Robotics’ humanoid police officer and Singapore-based vehicle OUTSAW. If the experiments are successful, the government has announced it will robotise 25% of the police force by 2030.

While imaginary robots are fuelling our imagination more than ever – from Ghost in the Shell to Blade Runner 2049 – real-world robots make us rethink our urban lives.

These three urban robotic living labs – Tokyo, Singapore, Dubai – help us gauge what kind of future is being created, and by whom. From hyper-robotised Tokyo to smartest Singapore and happy, crime free Dubai, these three comparisons show that, no matter what the context, robots are perceived as means to achieve global futures based on a specific national imagination. Just like the films, they demonstrate the role of the state in envisioning and creating that future.


Mateja Kovacic is Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Sheffield

This article was originally published on The Conversation website and has been republished with permission under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

Why the digital divide matters for children’s future prospects

By Steven McGinty

One of the biggest myths of modern times is that all children and young people are ‘digital natives’. That is, they have developed an understanding of digital technologies as they’ve grown up, rather than as adults. But this view has been heavily contested, with research highlighting that young people are not a “homogeneous generation of digital children”.

In the media, the issue is rarely given attention. Instead, news reports focus on the use of futuristic technologies in the classroom, such as East Renfrewshire Council’s recent announcement of their investment of £250,000 in virtual reality equipment. The less spoken truth is that many children and young people are leaving school without basic digital skills.

In 2017, the Carnegie Trust UK published a report challenging the assumption that all young people are digitally literate. They highlighted that as many as 300,000 young people in the UK still lack basic digital skills, and that although more are becoming digitally engaged, the division is deepening for those that remain excluded.

In particular, the report highlighted that vulnerable young people are most at risk, such as those who are unemployed, experiencing homelessness, living in care, in secure accommodation, excluded from mainstream education, or seeking asylum.

Research by the UK Digital Skills Taskforce has also found that many young people lack digital skills. However, an arguably more worrying finding from their study was that 23% of parents did not believe digital skills were relevant to their children’s future career success. This suggests that digital literacy is as much associated with socio-cultural values as to whether you are Generation X or Generation Y.

Similarly, the CfBT Education Trust examined the digital divide in access to the internet for school students aged five to 15. It found that children from households of the lowest socio-economic class access the internet for just as long as those from other backgrounds, but they are significantly less likely to use the internet to carry out school work or homework. As a result, the report recommended that interventions should not focus on improving access but rather ensuring that students are using technology effectively.

Further research by the CfBT Education Trust found that only 3% of young people did not have access to the internet, and suggested that schemes which provide students with free equipment are in danger of wasting resources.

Many believe digital skills are essential for academic success. This includes the House of Lords Select Committee on Communications, who in 2017 recommended that digital skills should be taught alongside reading, writing and mathematics, rather than in specialist computer science classes.

Research, however, is unclear on the digital divide’s impact on educational performance (for example, research has shown that smartphone use has no impact on education attainment). But teachers are concerned about their pupils, and in a 2010 survey 55% of teachers felt that the digital divide was putting children at a serious disadvantage.

However, there are organisations offering hope to young people. For instance, Nominet Trust’s Digital Reach programme is working with leading youth organisations to increase digital skills amongst some of the UK’s most disadvantaged young people. Vicki Hearn, director at Nominet Trust, explains that:

Digitally disadvantaged young people are amongst the hardest-to-reach and we need new models to engage with them to disrupt the cycle of disadvantage and exclusion. Our evidenced approach gives us confidence that Digital Reach will have a tangible impact on the lives of those who have so far been left behind.”

Final thoughts

Whether someone has digital skills or not is often a mix of their socio-economic class, cultural values, and even personality traits. However, if everyone is to prosper in a digital society, it will be important that all children and young people are encouraged to develop these digital skills, so they can utilise the technologies of tomorrow.


The Knowledge Exchange provides information services to local authorities, public agencies, research consultancies and commercial organisations across the UK. Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in policy and practice are interesting our research team. 

A digital identity crisis: is slow progress costing citizens and business?

A steel padlock on a brown wooden gate

By Steven McGinty

The government’s flagship digital identity programme, GOV.UK Verify, has not been short of problems lately. However, news that benefit claimants have been unable to register for the new Universal Credit (UC) because of problems using the service highlight that its failings are having real-world consequences.

In February, government statistics showed that only 30% of claimants were able to use GOV.UK Verify – well below the projected 80%. Further, research in the London Borough of Croydon found that even with one-to-one support only one in five people could prove their identity.

A history of problems

Problems were identified in the National Audit Office’s Digital transformation in government report in March 2017. The NAO found that the service, which was expected to simplify how citizens verified their identity to government agencies, had missed its initial launch date of 2012. Instead, only nine out of twelve services had been launched four years later in 2016.

Government departments who were expected to come on board have also thought twice. In December 2017, NHS England’s chief digital officer Juliet Bauer announced that they’d be developing their own digital identity system (although did suggest that GOV.UK Verify may be used for services which have less sensitive information). Similarly, HMRC announced last month that they will develop their own identity service – based on their 15-year-old Government Gateway Service – with rumours suggesting they have no confidence in the government’s solution.

With this backdrop, it’s unsurprising that Civil Service Chief Executive and Cabinet Office Permanent Secretary John Manzoni has brought in management consultancy McKinsey to conduct a review into how digital identity could work within the public sector.

Community Weekly’s Editor in chief, Bryan Glick, suggests this review could lead to a fundamental rethink and the introduction of ‘Verify Compliant’. He explains that:

Verify could become a brand name, rather than a product produced by GDS. That brand name will encapsulate a set of digital identity standards, for use across the public and private sectors. If you want to be part of the UK’s digital identity infrastructure, you need a product that is “Verify compliant”.

The impact of Brexit

David Bicknell, editor at Government Computing, suggests that Brexit preparations have pushed the transformation strategy – including GOV.UK Verify – off the agenda.

However, Government Digital Service (GDS) director general Kevin Cunnington has a different take on things. In his view, the GDS is continuing to deliver improved digital services, highlighting that GOV.UK Verify is available to local councils and is used by the Land Registry to support their new digital mortgage service.

Why the UK needs to tackle digital identity

People are increasingly using digital services to shop online, pay bills, and to interact with different levels of government. However, even though technology has dramatically changed, much of how people prove their identity is still paper based. For instance, paperless bank account holders still have to request paper documents to prove their address (possibly at an additional cost).

New industries such as the sharing economy, which includes the likes of Airbnb and Uber, rely on secure digital identity verification. Government has a responsibility to lead from the front and protect this ever-growing number of customers. For example, Airbnb customers across the world have experienced thefts from properties from criminals using false identification.

More generally, there has been a rise in identity fraud. According to fraud prevention charity Cifas, this now represents the majority of all fraud cases (approximately 56% in the first six months of 2017). An inability to verify identity is likely to have contributed to this increase.

In addition, many people are financially and socially excluded by a lack of photographic identification ID such as a passport or a driver’s license – particularly those from low income backgrounds or who have been in prison. This lack of ID can act as a barrier when applying for government benefits or financial services.

Gunnar Nordseth, CEO at digital identity provider Signicat, also argues that a failure to introduce a digital identity scheme could have serious consequences for the UK’s financial industry (especially the emerging fintech sector). He explains that GOV.UK Verify isn’t ‘fatally flawed’ but needs to be more ambitious, observing that:

Unlike other European digital ID schemes GOV.UK Verify is limited to the public sector, does not support financial services and is not interoperable with its continental counterparts.”

Final thoughts

Tackling the digital identity crisis won’t be easy. But recent statements acknowledging the challenges of GOV.UK Verify and the calling of a review suggest the Government Digital Service (GDS) are listening to concerns.

However, this time for reflection mustn’t last too long. Getting digital identity right has the potential to improve services for citizens, create efficiencies in government and business, and ensure the UK’s place as a world leader in the burgeoning digital economy.


The Knowledge Exchange provides information services to local authorities, public agencies, research consultancies and commercial organisations across the UK. Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in policy and practice are interesting our research team. 

If you found this article interesting, you may also like to read our other digital articles.

Disrupting cities: are tech firms to blame for rising inequalities?

By Steven McGinty

In cities across the world, there is growing unease at the impact of tech firms on local communities. In San Francisco’s Silicon Valley, “Google Buses” – the corporate commuter buses for Google staff – have been the subject of multiple protests by local activists, including the blockading of buses and displaying provocative banners.

The protesters’ main grievance? Housing. Researchers at the University of Berkley have found that rents close to bus stops used by Google employees are 20% higher than in other comparable areas.

It’s not just about Silicon Valley

In East London’s Tech City – home to both Google and Amazon – there have also been housing pressures, with property prices increasing by 13% in the two years to April 2017.

Further, The Economist has produced a map of London gentrification, showing that affluent young professionals are living in the inner-city, whilst poorer, often less educated ‘service workers’, are being pushed to the outskirts of the city. As Professor Richard Florida describes it “London is the archetypal example of a class-divided city”.

In Dublin, where Google and Facebook occupy 4% of all commercial office space, local activists have blamed tech firms for their housing crisis. Aisling Hedderman of the North Dublin Bay Housing Crisis Community, highlights that

“…we’re not going to see housing provided for families, but houses provided for single people and couples. And as long as people are willing to pay the high rents it’s going to keep driving up the rents

Tech firm Airbnb has also received a lot of attention for its impact on housing. Airbnb, who enable people to rent out their properties or spare rooms, has faced challenges in a number of cities. For instance, in November 2017, Vancouver introduced new regulations to stop businesses from offering short-term rentals through Airbnb and similar services. This means people can only rent out their principal property – which the city hopes will increase the availability of long-term rentals.

Technological change is nothing new

Edward Clarke, former analyst at the Centre for Cities, however, argues that the real problem for cities is not gentrification but poor city management.

In his view, urban neighbourhoods have always experienced periods of change, highlighting that Shoreditch’s status as a tech hub follows a long tradition of innovators moving to the area. And that research has shown that ‘new jobs’ (such as those in the digital and creative sectors) bring higher wages to an area, for the people working for these firms and in other sectors. Instead, Mr Clarke suggests there is a need to build more homes, and to consider developing on part of the Green Belt.

To alleviate these challenges, cities have started to recognise the need for closer collaboration. New York, Dublin, and London have all recruited tech leads to work with the tech sector. However, Joe Kilroy, policy officer at the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI), highlights that tech leads must have a remit that is wider than encouraging tech firms to move to the city. He explains:

Ideally the tech lead would liaise with city planners who can articulate the issues being faced by the city – such as housing affordability, infrastructure pressures, and skills shortages.”

Toronto and Kitchener, Ontario

In 2017, Toronto and its small town neighbour Kitchener announced plans to introduce a new transit line to ensure the city can cope with an expected influx of new tech workers.

It may be surprising to some that it’s not Toronto that’s the main tech player, but the region of Kitchener-Waterloo, home to the University of Waterloo and the birthplace of the Blackberry. It’s internationally recognised as a hub of innovation and prides itself on being different to Silicon Valley, viewing itself as more of a community than a series of business networks.

Local tech leaders acknowledge the importance of reaching out and working closely with local charities on issues such as affordable housing, as well as offering their skills to the community.

Final thoughts

Cities must ensure that the growth of the tech sector benefits everyone, and that sections of society aren’t left behind. However, big tech firms also have a role to play, and should become active participants in their communities, leading on areas such as education and skills and housing. Only then, will these tech firms truly prosper while having a lasting and positive impact on the surrounding communities.


The Knowledge Exchange provides information services to local authorities, public agencies, research consultancies and commercial organisations across the UK. Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in policy and practice are interesting our research team. 

Joining the digital revolution: social workers’ use of digital media

In January 2018, NHS digital published a report, which highlighted the accessibility and availability of digital platforms to help social workers with their job role. The research, which was compiled from survey data, sought to understand not only how social work could be supported through the use of IT and digital platforms, but also to assess the current level of usage and understanding of digital technologies among the current workforce. While more than half of survey respondents said they had access to a smart phone as part of their role, far fewer were actually able to access case notes and other necessary documents digitally from outside the office.

The survey found there was an appetite for greater and better use of digital media in day-to-day work, which practitioners felt would not only improve their ability to work more flexibly but could also be used to forge better relationships with people who use services. In some instances, respondents to the survey felt improved use of digital media may provide a way to communicate more effectively with those who had previously been unwilling to engage, particularly in relation to social work with young people. The research found that digital technology was used in a range of ways to build and manage positive relationships, particularly with service users, including:

  • communicating with them to gather specific data (as part of assessment);
  • delivering interventions (such as self-guided therapy or telecare); and
  • supporting team work (peer support and online supervision)

Questions around the use of social media

Earlier research around the use of digital media in social care more generally found that it is used in a variety of capacities, such as storing and maintaining records, communications and day-to-day tasks such as booking appointments and scheduling in visits. However, the use of digital technologies by social workers can at times extend beyond simply maintaining records and scheduling visits. Many felt that while digital media in some ways makes their job easier, in other ways it can add to the stress of an already difficult job role.

A lot of the anxiety concerning digital technologies centres around social media. In the most positive of ways, it can be a core platform to allow service users to communicate, and make the social work team appear more accessible to people who may feel uneasy communicating in more formal ways. However, significant challenges around ethics and practice remain. Repeated instances of social workers being reprimanded have made some social workers wary of using social media platforms. In September 2017 HCPC published guidance which encourages practitioners to continue to use social media, but to seek advice and help if they are ever unsure. The guidance suggested that social media, if used responsibly, could support professionals to raise the profile of the profession and network with others nationally and internationally.

Supporting confidentiality and security

For many social workers and social work supervisors many of the challenges around using digital media centre on the necessity for confidentiality and security of information. While much of social work practice within offices is digitised with regard to record and case file keeping and report writing, security issues concerning remote access to files is one of the major challenges. In many cases until digital security can be assured, it will be difficult for social workers to work fully remotely and flexibly without some travel back to the office. GDPR also raises some interesting questions for the profession with regards to storing and accessing data.

An opportunity to improve information sharing and partnership working

It is well recognised that the use of digital media provides an opportunity to improve efficiency and partnership working within social work. If used effectively and supported well, it can allow information to be stored, shared and accessed across a range of different services, which can be particularly useful for increased health and social care integration. However, challenges in practice remain – including the ability of social workers to remotely access notes and information, the need to align working and IT systems, and the ability to access and read data in a number of formats across a number of devices. Research stresses the importance of risk management and appropriate training for staff so that they feel comfortable and confident using media platforms.

A welcome change in the profession?

For many within the profession, the rise of digital platforms as a way to engage with service users and provide increased support and flexibility for social workers themselves has been a positive development. It is a great leveller and can encourage service users who feel comfortable to engage in a much more transparent way with social workers. However, NHS Digital research shows that there are still significant challenges. Overcoming these to successfully integrate digital platforms and interfaces into social work practice has the potential to revolutionise not only how social workers engage with service users, but how they themselves conduct their work. Improved collaboration with other services, increased flexibility, and increased capacity for completing and recording continuing professional development and training to improve practice are just some of the potential fruits of social work’s digital revolution.


Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

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How data leaks can bring down governments

Swedish Parliament building

By Steven McGinty

In July 2017, the Swedish Government faced a political crisis after admitting a huge data leak that affected almost all of its citizens.

The leak, which dates back to a 2015 outsourcing contract between the Swedish Transport Agency and IBM Sweden, occurred when IT contractors from Eastern Europe were allowed access to confidential data without proper security clearance. Media reports suggested that the exposed data included information about vehicles used by the armed forces and the police, as well as the identities of some security and military personnel.

The political fallout was huge for Sweden’s minority government. Infrastructure Minister Anna Johansson and Interior Minister Anders Ygeman both lost their positions, whilst the former head of the transport agency, Maria Ågren, was found to have been in breach of the country’s privacy and data protection laws when she waived the security clearance of foreign IT workers. In addition, the far-right Sweden Democrats were calling for an early election and Prime Minister Stefan Löfven faced a vote of no-confidence in parliament (although he easily survived).

However, it’s not just Sweden where data leaks have become political. Last year, the UK saw several high-profile incidents.

Government Digital Service (GDS)

The UK Government’s main data site incorrectly published the email addresses and “hashed passwords” of its users. There was no evidence that data had been misused, but the GDS recommended that users change their password as a precaution. And although users did not suffer any losses, it’s certainly embarrassing for the agency responsible for setting the UK’s digital agenda.

Scottish Government

Official documents revealed that Scottish Government agencies experienced “four significant data security incidents” in 2016-17. Three out of four of these cases breached data protection legislation.

Disclosure Scotland, a body which often deals with highly sensitive information through its work vetting individuals’, was one organisation that suffered a data leak. This involved a member of staff sending a mass email, in which email addresses could be viewed by all the recipients (a breach of the Data Protection Act).

Murdo Fraser, MSP for the Scottish Conservatives, criticised the data breaches, warning:

These mistakes are entirely the fault of the Scottish government and, worryingly, may signal security weaknesses that hackers may find enticing.”

Hacking parliaments

In the summer of 2017, the UK parliament suffered a ‘brute force’ attack, resulting in 90 email accounts with weak passwords being hacked and part of the parliamentary email system being taken offline. A few months later, the Scottish Parliament experienced a similar sustained attack on parliamentary email accounts. MPs have suggested Russia or North Korea could be to be blame for both attacks.

MPs sharing passwords

In December 2017, the Information Commissioner warned MPs over sharing passwords. This came after a number of Conservative MPs admitted they shared passwords with staff. Conservative MP Nadine Dorries explained:

My staff log onto my computer on my desk with my login every day. Including interns on exchange programmes.”

Their remarks were an attempt to defend the former First Secretary of State, Damian Green, over allegations he watched pornography in his parliamentary office.

Final thoughts

The Swedish data leak shows the political consequences of failing to protect data. The UK’s data leaks have not led to the same level of political scrutiny, but it’s important that UK politicians stay vigilant and ensure data protection is a key priority. Failure to protect citizen data may not only have financial consequences for citizens, but could also erode confidence in public institutions and threaten national security.


The Knowledge Exchange provides information services to local authorities, public agencies, research consultancies and commercial organisations across the UK. Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in policy and practice are interesting our research team. 

Scotland eyes a youthquake with online voting: here are some tips from past pilots

Image: PA Images via the Conversation UK

This guest blog was written by Toby S James, Senior Lecturer in British & Comparative Politics, University of East Anglia.

One achievement for 2017, as the year came to an end, is that it has added a new word to the English language: youthquake. The idea is that previously silent and apathetic young people have awoken to exert their democratic influence on the electoral process.

Despite a 401% increase in usage of the word, a real youthquake is yet to happen. Voter turnout among 18- to 24-year-olds at the 2017 general election saw an upswing from 2015, but still only half (54%) voted. Participation in other types of elections remains much lower. Huge proportions of young people are also missing from the electoral register. There is therefore still a major gap in levels of electoral participation in Britain.

Now the Scottish government has published plans to reform how Scottish parliamentary and Scottish local elections are run, including an idea that many think will bring in younger people – internet voting.

The Scottish parliament recently gained new powers over how Scottish parliamentary elections and electoral registration are run. In its consultation document it wants to “explore and trial the potential of electronic voting solutions to” increase voter participation. The proposals for changes are impressively ambitious and more wide-ranging than those currently being considered by the UK government.

Internet voting has many supporters, who see enormous potential for improving voter participation among young people. It’s a sensible line of thought. There are many reasons why people don’t vote or engage with the electoral process, but a considerable amount comes down to basic convenience. We are busy. Registration and voting procedures that fit snugly with our everyday lifestyle will enable us to take part. Processes that are long-winded, archaic and bureaucratic will clink with routines, giving us just an extra reason not to vote. Young people are tech-savy and mobile phone ready. So why send them to the village hall to vote?

What we already know

The reality so far, however, is that internet voting hasn’t yet proved capable of bringing about a major awakening. Those with a long memory may remember that the UK actually piloted remote internet voting in 2002, 2003 and 2007 at a local level. In some areas, citizens could cast their vote from any personal computer with an internet connection using personalised information provided on their polling card.

This was part of a broader set of pilots introduced by New Labour which also included postal voting, telephone voting, SMS voting, digital TV voting and even supermarket voting alongside good old fashioned polling stations which began in 2000.

One lesson from these pilots, drawn from my my evaluation, was that it was actually all-postal elections that could have the biggest effect on turnout. This involved sending a postal vote to citizens automatically instead of asking them to go to the polling station. In the first year of pilots (2000), all-postal voting took place in wards in seven local authorities, and turnout rose in every instance on the previous year. In Gateshead, turnout jumped up from 26.4% in 1999 to 57.3% with all postal elections.

Drawing lessons about the the effects of internet voting were difficult because it was offered to citizens in pilots alongside many other ways of voting. This was a major design flaw with the pilots that shouldn’t be repeated in Scotland, if it goes ahead. Only one new voting method should be trialled in each pilot area so that we can see what effect it has.

A clear message, however, was that internet voting was much more frequently used when it was available up until the close of the poll – in many pilots it was unavailable on election day itself. This should therefore be made possible as part of any future pilot.

Subsequent international work doesn’t provide much evidence that internet voting considerably boosts voter turnout either. Estonia became the first country ever to use internet voting in binding national parliamentary elections in 2007. But again, there is no evidence of a major surge in youth turnout.

Concerns about cyber-security would probably make use at a UK-wide election a non-starter. But over ten years since the first UK pilots, there is a strong case for experimenting with new pilots of internet voting at the local level, where the motivations to hack an election are much lower, and the number of non-voters is much greater. Central and local governments have a responsibility to make voting as convenient as possible – and smart phones are much more widely available today than they were in 2003.

The lessons from internet voting experiments so far suggest that there are many other reasons why people don’t vote, however. These could be easily addressed with other measures, such as voter registration reform and civic education. Last year, the All Party Parliamentary Group on Democratic Participation proposed 25 measures to improve voter registration across the UK, such as the use of automatic voter registration. 2017 was also the year in which we discovered that electoral administrators had been cutting voter outreach work to engage young people due to financial austerity. There are therefore many other less headline grabbing reforms which could help to generate a youthquake.


Toby S James is Senior Lecturer in British & Comparative Politics, University of East Anglia.

This article was originally published on The Conversation website and has been republished with permission under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

Toby’s research has been externally funded by the British Academy, Leverhulme Trust, AHRC, ESRC, Nuffield Foundation and the McDougall Trust. He has written commissioned policy reports for national and international organisations and given invited evidence to Parliamentary committees. He is currently a Fellow to the UK All Party Parliamentary Group on Democratic Participation and Advisor to the Law Commission’s Review of Electoral Law. He is also on the Scientific Board for Electoral Expert Review.

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The year that was: looking back on a year of policy and practice on The Knowledge Exchange blog

Before bidding farewell to 2017, there’s just time to reflect on some of the issues we’ve been covering in The Knowledge Exchange blog during the past twelve months. There’s been no shortage of subjects to consider, from health and social care and devolution to  universal credit and town planning.

Missing EU already?
Of course, the major issue dominating policy in the UK this year has been Brexit. In July, we reviewed a new book by Professor Janet Morphet which assessed the UK’s future outside the European Union. While not claiming to have all the answers, the book provides a framework for making sure the right questions are asked during the negotiation period and beyond.

One important consideration concerning Brexit is its potential impact on science, technology and innovation. In August, we noted that, while the UK government has been making efforts to lessen the concerns of researchers, anxieties remain about funding and the status of EU nationals currently working in science and technology roles in the UK.

Home thoughts, from home and abroad
Throughout the year, we’ve been looking at the UK’s chronic housing crisis. In May, we considered the potential for prefabricated housing to address housing shortages, while in August, we looked at the barriers facing older people looking to downsize from larger homes. In October, we reported on the growing interest in co-housing.

The severe shortage of affordable housing has had a significant impact on homelessness, and not only in the UK. In April, we highlighted a report which documented significant rises in the numbers of homeless people across Europe, including a 50% increase in homelessness in France, and a 75% increase in youth homelessness in Copenhagen.

One European country bucking this trend is Finland, and in July our blog looked at the country’s success in reducing long term homelessness and improving prevention services. Although the costs of Finland’s “housing first” approach are considerable, the results suggest that it’s paying off: the first seven years of the policy saw a 35% fall in long term homelessness.

Keeping mental health in mind
A speech by the prime minister on mental health at the start of the year reflected growing concerns about how we deal with mental illness and its impacts. Our first blog post of 2017 looked at efforts to support people experiencing mental health problems at work. As well as highlighting that stress is one of the biggest causes of long-term absence in the workplace, the article provided examples of innovative approaches to mental illness by the construction and social work sectors.

A further post, in August pointed to the importance of joining up housing and mental health services, while in September we explored concerns that mobile phone use may have negative effects on the mental health of young people.

Going digital
Another recurring theme in 2017 was the onward march of digital technologies. In June, we explored the reasons why the London Borough of Croydon was named Digital Council of the Year. New online services have generated very clear benefits: in-person visits to the council have been reduced by 30% each year, reducing staffing costs and increasing customer satisfaction from 57% to 98%.

Also in June, we reported on guidance published by the Royal Town Planning Institute on how planners can create an attractive environment for digital tech firms. Among its recommendations: planners should monitor the local economy to get a sense of what local growth industries are, and local authorities should employ someone to engage with local tech firms to find out how planning could help to better facilitate their growth.

Idox in focus
Last, but not least, we’ve continued to update our readers on new and continuing developments at the Idox Information Service. Our blog has featured articles on the Research Online, Evaluations Online and Ask-a-Researcher services, as well as the Social Policy and Practice database for evidence and research in social care. We were proud once again to sponsor the 2017 RTPI Research Excellence awards, and highlighted the winning entries. And following an office move, in September we explored the fascinating history behind the building where we now do business.

Back to the future
2018 is already shaping up as an important year in policy and practice. One important issue exercising both the public and private sectors is preparing for the General Data Protection Regulation. The Knowledge Exchange blog will be keeping an eye on this and many other issues, and the Idox Information Service, will be on hand to ensure our members are kept informed throughout 2018 and beyond.

Thank you for reading our blog posts in 2017, and we wish all of our readers a very Happy Christmas and a peaceful and prosperous New Year.


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Delivering digital transformation: the mixed successes of the Government Digital Service

By Steven McGinty

It’s been a period of change for the Government Digital Service (GDS) since losing influential Executive Director Mike Bracken in 2015. Since then, the service has experienced a string of high profile departures, leading many commentators to suggest that the much-lauded GDS could soon be coming to an end.

However, in the November 2015 Spending Review, then Chancellor George Osborne announced that the GDS would receive an extra £450 million over four years – a significant increase on their previous budget of £58 million per year.

Chancellor Osborne highlighted that these additional funds would help fuel a “digital revolution” in central government, and in particular create one of the most digitally advanced tax administrations in the world.

But has new funding – and possibly the public show of support – led to a digital revolution?

In the beginning….

In 2011, the GDS was formed to implement the ‘digital by default’ strategy – a key proposal of UK Digital Champion (and founder of lastminute.com) Martha Lane Fox’s report into the delivery of online public services.

The GDS’s first major project, GOV.UK, has in many ways proved to be a success. Launched in 2012, the publishing platform brought together over 300 government agencies and arm’s length bodies’ websites within 15 months. Replacing DirectGov and Business Link alone has saved more than £60m a year. Early testing showed GOV.UK was simpler for users, with 61% completing tasks on the new Business Link section; compared to 46% on the old website.

GOV.UK has also been viewed as an example of best practice, with GDS team members supporting countries such as New Zealand with their own digital government efforts.

However, it’s not been entirely without its controversies. In October 2016, the Welsh language commissioner accused the UK government of weakening Welsh language services, explaining that provision on the site had “deteriorated astonishingly” since the introduction of GOV.UK. A recent GDS blog article has also identified challenges in making content accessible for users. For example, 73% of the content on GOV.UK is looked at by fewer than 10 people per month.

Government as a platform

A major theme of the GDS’s work has been the introduction of a platform approach to digital government – principles proposed by technology guru Tim O’Reilly. In 2015, Mike Bracken set out a new vision for digital government, highlighting the need to create:

“A common core infrastructure of shared digital systems, technology and processes on which it’s easy to build brilliant, user-centric government services.”

GOV.UK is one such service.

But the concept has gone on to inspire new services such as GOV.UK Verify – a platform which enables citizens to prove who they are when using government services. This common service was a world first and is being used by organisations such as HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) and the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA).

Additionally, GOV.UK Notify – a service which sends text messages, emails or letters – was introduced in January 2016. It helped support the Valuation Office Agency (VOA) transition some of their services to online only, as it provided them with the ability to send thousands of notifications at the one time.

National Audit Office

On 30 March 2017, the National Audit Office (NAO) published a report into the government’s track record on digital transformation.

The report concluded that the GDS had an early impact across government, successfully reshaping the government’s approach to technology and transformation. However, Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, also observed that:

“Digital transformation has a mixed track record across government. It has not yet provided a level of change that will allow government to further reduce costs while still meeting people’s needs. To achieve value for money and support transformation across government, GDS needs to be clear about its role and strike a balance between robust assurance and a more consultative approach.”

In particular, the NAO highlights concerns over the GOV.UK Verify programme. The service has proven difficult to adopt for some departments, which has led to the GDS allowing the use of alternate identity services. According to the NAO, this significantly undermines the business case for GOV.UK Verify, and provides a poorer experience for users on government websites.

The Institute for Government

Influential think tank, the Institute for Government (IfG), has recently published two reports on the progress of digital transformation.

In October 2016, the report ‘Making a success of digital government’ estimated that the UK Government could save up to £2 billion by 2020 – through efficiency savings – by creating better digital services. Major digital transformation successes were also highlighted, including the online registration to vote by 1.3 million people by May 2016, and the introduction of a new digital road tax system (removing the need for paper disks).

In terms of the GDS, the IfG expressed similar views to the NAO:

“We found that GDS has played an important role in bringing new digital capability into government. But, in the absence of a new digital strategy, its role is unclear. GDS needs to re-equip itself to support a government that now has rapidly developing digital capability, and high ambitions for change.”

In February 2017, the government published a new digital transformation strategy, including attempting to clarify the ‘evolving’ role of the GDS.

However, this hasn’t stopped the IfG making several new recommendations for the GDS in their latest digital government report. These include:

  • clarifying the GDS standards and distinguishing between standards and guidance;
  • re-examining the role of the Government Gateway – an identity assurance platform – and of GOV.UK Verify;
  • taking a more active role in the digital services market, such as designing the Digital Marketplace for different users; and
  • creating a store for Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) to encourage their use throughout the public sector.

Final thoughts

The GDS has played a vital role in creating a new vision for digital government. However, evidence has suggested that over recent years the pace of change has slowed, with key initiatives such as GOV.UK Verify facing a variety of challenges.

In the coming years, it’s likely that the Brexit negotiations will be top priority for politicians and many government departments. It will be important that the GDS works with these departments and looks to prioritise services that are vital for managing the Brexit process.


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