Local government and artificial intelligence: the benefits and the challenges

Photo by Jackson So on Unsplash

By James Carson

Artificial intelligence (AI) has come a long way since computer pioneer Alan Turing first considered the notion of ‘thinking machines’ in the 1950s. More than half a century later, advances such as natural language processing and translation, and facial recognition have taken AI out of the computer lab and onto our smartphones. Meanwhile, faster computers and large datasets have enabled machine learning, where a computer imitates the way that humans learn.

AI has already had important impacts on how we live and work: in healthcare, it’s helping to enhance diagnosis of disease; in financial services AI is being deployed to spot trends that can’t be easily picked up by conventional reporting methods; and in education, AI can provide learning, testing and feedback, with benefits both to students and teachers. And now, intelligent automation is being adopted by local government.

AI goes local

A decade of austerity has left local councils struggling to ‘do more with less’. The Covid-19 pandemic has presented additional challenges, but has also accelerated efforts by local government to find digital solutions.

AI offers local authorities the benefits of streamlining routine tasks and processes, freeing up staff to focus on higher value activities which deliver better services and outcomes to citizens. Intelligent automation could also have important economic impacts. IPPR has estimated that AI could save councils up to £6bn in social care costs.

When it comes to system and data updating, intelligent automation really comes into its own. From managing council tax payments to issuing parking permits, there are now digital solutions to the many task-driven processes that are such a major part of local government’s work.

Many local councils are also exploring the application of chatbots or virtual assistants. These technologies enable customer services to provide automated, human-like answers to frequently asked questions on subjects as varied as waste management, street lighting and anti-social behaviour. The time and cost savings from this kind of digital solution can be substantial. Newham Council in London deployed a multilingual chatbot to answer residents’ questions. Within six months, the technology had answered 10,000 questions, saved 84 hours of call time and generated cost savings of £40,000.

The challenges of AI in local government: getting it right

Earlier this year, a report from the Oxford Commission on AI and Good Governance identified the major challenges facing local authorities when considering AI.

Inaccurate or incomplete data can delay or derail an AI project, so it’s vital that data quality issues are addressed early on. The report highlighted a project where one local authority explored how predictive analytics might be used to help prioritize inspections of houses in multiple occupation (HMOs). Predictive analytics involves the use of historic data to predict new instances. But in this case the challenges of cleaning, processing and merging the data proved too intractable to produce successful predictions.

Another important step for local authorities is to clearly define the objectives of an AI project, providing a clear vision of the outcomes, while managing expectations among all affected stakeholders – especially senior managers. The report points to a successful project implemented by Manchester City Council which developed an integrated database that allowed them to automate record searches and build predictive tools. The project had a clearly stated aim of identifying troubled families to participate in the government’s payment-by-results programme. This approach gave the project a specific focus and an easily measurable assessment of success.

It’s also important for local councils and technology suppliers to work together, ensuring that suppliers are aware of local contexts, existing data and processes. At the same time, making full use of in-house expertise can help AI technologies work better in a local government setting. The Oxford Commission report explains that after the disappointing results from the previously mentioned HMOs project, in-house data scientists working in one of the participating local authorities developed their own solution.

Sometimes, councils will discover that AI is a good fit in some parts of their work, but doesn’t work in others. In 2019, Oxford City Council explored whether chatbots could help solve design problems in some of their services. The council found that, while waste and recycling enquiries could be easily handled by a chatbot, the complex nature of the planning service would have made it difficult to remove humans from the conversations taking place in this setting. That said, another council has found it possible to develop a chatbot for its planning applications.

At the same time, digitalisation is compelling councils to adjust to new ways of working, something discussed in a Local Government Association presentation by Aylesbury Vale District Council.

The future of AI in local government

Since we last looked at this subject, local government involvement in AI has increased. But there are still important governance and ethical arrangements to consider so that AI technologies in public services can achieve benefits that citizens can trust.

The Oxford Commission report set out a number of recommendations, including:

  • minimum mandatory data standards and dedicated resources for the maintenance of data quality;
  • minimum mandatory guidance for problem definition and project progress monitoring;
  • dedicated resources to ensure that local authorities can be intelligent consumers and capable developers of AI;
  • a platform to compile all relevant information about information technology projects in local authorities.

Final thoughts

Three years ago, MJ magazine described AI as a ‘game-changer’ for local government. The potential benefits are clear. AI can generate labour and cost savings, but also offers the promise of reducing carbon footprints and optimizing energy usage. But while residents may welcome greater efficiency in their local councils, many will have concerns about data privacy, digital inclusion and trust in the use of public data.

At its best, artificial intelligence will complement the services provided by local authorities, while ensuring that the all-important element of human intelligence remains at the heart of local government.


Further reading: more on digital from The Knowledge Exchange blog

Lift-off for the new space economy

Nearly Cloudless Scotland, As Seen From the ISS“Nearly Cloudless Scotland, As Seen From the ISS” by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

It may come as a surprise to learn that Scotland is on its way to becoming a space industry superpower. The country is home to over 130 space businesses, with a combined annual income of £140m. Glasgow is building more satellites than any other city outside Houston.

Scotland’s booming space sector was the focus of a webinar that was part of last month’s Digital Leaders Week.  Leading the event was Tom Soderstrom, former Chief Technology and Innovation Officer at NASA/Jet Propulsion Lab, and current Global Lead for Chief Technologists at Amazon Web Services (AWS).

Tom explained that Scotland’s increasing involvement in the space sector is part of a wider growth in the ‘space-for-earth’ economy, which includes telecommunications and internet infrastructure, earth observation capabilities and national security satellites.

The factors driving the new space economy

Falling costs for building and launching spacecrafts have attracted greater investment in the commercial space industry. Space hardware is cheaper because it has become much smaller – these days, a miniature satellite (or ‘cubesat’) is typically about the size of a shoebox.

In recent years, the number and range of applications relying on satellite technology has rocketed. From smartphones and GPS devices to broadband access for developing nations, demand for space-based infrastructure has never been greater.

Data is another important driving force behind the new space economy. Scientists and governments need reliable data in order to understand how our planet is changing, and satellites can be used to take vital measurements of things like ice thickness coverage, deforestation, and ocean surface temperatures.

Cubesats are also used for monitoring shipping lanes, keeping a record of crop yields, and for protecting communities. Tom gave an example of an Australian company which uses satellite data for the early detection of wildfires, enabling emergency services to respond before lives and properties are put at risk.

Scotland’s place in space

Scotland is well placed to make the most of the booming space economy. According to Scottish Development International, operating costs for space companies are 40% lower in Scotland than elsewhere in the UK.

Another of the webinar participants, Professor Marion Scott from the department of mathematics at the University of Glasgow, highlighted the importance of Scotland’s skilled workforce. Nearly 20% of  all UK space roles are filled by Scotland’s 7,500 person strong talent pool. And Scottish universities have been quick to fill the gaps in different sectors by providing new courses, training and collaboration.

Meanwhile, Phil Cooper, AWS’ regional manager for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, pointed to the burgeoning reputation of companies in the Scottish space sector. AAC Clyde Space, for example, has become a market leader in providing spacecraft design, satellite operations and data delivery to governments, businesses and educational organisations.

But Scotland’s space boom is far from over. Phil forecasts that another 30 start-ups could be up and running by this time next year.

Another exciting prospect is the arrival of vertical launch capabilities. Five space hubs are currently under development around Scotland, and last year a site in Sutherland received planning permission from Highland Council to develop the UK’s first space port. By next year, it’s hoped that the vertical launch pad near Melness will send its first satellite into space.

Cosmic congestion: the problem of space junk

While there are lots of positives associated with the space economy, it’s not all good news. There are currently almost 7000 satellites orbiting the Earth, and the US National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) says that figure could double in 2021. As space becomes more congested, the problem of debris from old spacecraft and satellites has grown.

There’s a growing need for collaboration and internationally-agreed regulations to ensure that today’s satellites don’t become tomorrow’s space junk.

Tom Soderstrom highlighted research by Fujitsu, in collaboration with Astroscale, the University of Glasgow and AWS, to develop a proof of value to make space debris removal missions more commercially viable using its open innovation technology. The UK government has provided funds for this and other projects aiming to track space junk and monitor the risks of potentially dangerous collisions with satellites or even the International Space Station.

The space economy: tackling climate change

Environmental issues will be dominating the headlines later this year, when Glasgow plays host to the critical United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26). One of the questions raised at last month’s webinar was how Scotland’s space sector can address the Earth’s climate challenges.

Marion Scott explained that there is now a network of universities and research centres working together to consider some of the climate challenges in advance of the COP26 meeting. At the same time, Marion stressed the importance of earth observation data in helping assess the scale of the problem of climate change.

Phil Cooper agreed that data was vital, and highlighted a competition launched by the Satellite Applications Catapult and the Commonwealth Secretariat in April which aims to stimulate discussion around the development of new concepts relating to ocean sustainability, incorporating satellite data and technologies.

The only way is up: the future of the space economy

In 2019, the World Economic Forum reported that while heavyweights like the United States, China and Russia have the greatest number of satellites in orbit, more and more nations – including the UK, Canada, Germany, Argentina and Luxembourg – have been developing their own space programmes. The Economist recently highlighted the growing number of African countries joining the commercial space race – last month the tiny Indian Ocean island of Mauritius became the latest country to launch its first satellite.

At the conclusion of the webinar, Phil Cooper expressed great optimism about the future of the space-to-earth sector, which can involve not only scientists, but people working in manufacturing, digital, marketing and many other industries. And, as Tom Soderstrom observed, the opportunities being generated by the new space economy are almost unlimited:

“The space bubble will grow faster than even I can imagine!”


Further reading: more articles on innovation from The Knowledge Exchange blog

‘Bending the Curve’ of biodiversity loss – could Covid-19 be the catalyst for change?

dead forest pic

“The evidence is unequivocal – nature is being changed and destroyed by us at a rate unprecedented in history” (WWF)

The latest Living Planet report from the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) finds that 68% of the world’s wildlife populations have been lost since 1970 – more than two thirds in less than 50 years – with the most striking result a 94% decline in tropical subregions of the Americas. The report says this ‘catastrophic’ decline shows no signs of slowing. The cause – human activity.

Until 1970, the ecological footprint of the human population was less than the rate of the Earth’s regeneration. Explosive growth in global trade, consumption, population growth and urbanisation means we are now using more of the world’s resources than can be replenished:

“To feed and fuel our 21st century lifestyles, we are overusing the Earth’s biocapacity by at least 56%.” (WWF)

The environmental impact of human activity is hardly a new topic but the numerous warnings over the years haven’t had the desired effect of changing society’s trajectory. The stark warnings from recent reports including the 2018 IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) special report on the impacts of global warming, and popular programmes such as the Blue Planet II series which highlighted the devastating impact of pollution on the world’s oceans, have certainly helped heighten awareness and action has been taken across the world to address the climate emergency. Unfortunately, the progress made so far is not enough to reverse the current declining trends.

But the new report raises hope in that times of crisis new ideas and opportunities for transformation can arise and that the current Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic could perhaps be the catalyst for such change.

‘People and nature are intertwined’

COVID-19 has undoubtedly injected a new sense of urgency, emphasising again the interconnectedness of humans and nature. It has provided a stark reminder how unparalleled biodiversity loss threatens the health of both people and the planet.

Factors believed to lead to the emergence of pandemics – including global travel, urbanisation, changes in land use and greater exploitation of the natural environment – are also some of the drivers behind the decline in wildlife.

The report emphasises that biodiversity loss is not just an environmental issue, but also a development, economic, global security, ethical and moral one. And it is also about self-preservation as “biodiversity plays a critical role in providing food, fibre, water, energy, medicines and other genetic materials; and is key to the regulation of our climate, water quality, pollution, pollination services, flood control and storm surges.”

As well the pandemic, a series of recent catastrophic events are used to underline the intrinsic links between human health and environmental health, including: Africa’s plague of locusts in 2019 which threatened food supplies, caused by the unusually high number of cyclones; extreme droughts in India and Pakistan in 2019, leading to an unknown death toll; and Australia’s most intense bushfire season ever recorded, made worse by unusually low rainfall and record high temperatures, as well as excessive logging.

Alongside this, the “extraordinary gains in human health and wellbeing” over the past century, including reduced child mortality and increased life expectancy, are highlighted as a cause for celebration but the study warns that the exploitation and alteration of the natural environment that has occurred in tandem threatens to undo these successes.

Biggest threats to biodiversity

Clearly, biodiversity is fundamental to human life and it is vital that the drivers of its destruction are addressed; and quickly.

Drawing on the Living Planet Index (LPI), which tracks the abundance of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians across the globe, using data from over 4,000 different species, the report identifies the major threat categories to biodiversity:

  • Changes in land and sea use
  • Invasive species and disease
  • Species overexploitation
  • Pollution
  • Climate change

It may be surprising to learn that climate change has not yet been the main driver of biodiversity loss. In fact, globally, climate change features lower on the scale of threats than the other drivers in almost all regions. Changes in land and sea use is the biggest proportional threat, averaged across all regions, at 50%. This is followed by species exploitation at 24% with invasive species taking third place at 13%. Climate change accounts for 6% on average.

However, the report warns projections suggest the tables are set to turn with climate change overtaking all other drivers in the coming years.

But all is not lost yet. The report argues that it is possible to reverse these trends and calls for action to do so by 2030.

Bending the Curve’

This year’s report highlights findings from significant new research, the Bending the Curve initiative, which uses pioneering modelling of different human behaviour scenarios aimed at restoring biodiversity. It argues that this has provided ‘proof of concept’ for the first time that we can halt, and reverse, the loss of nature while feeding a growing population:

“Bending the curve of biodiversity loss is technologically and economically possible, but it will require truly transformational change in the way we produce and consume food and in how we sustainably manage and conserve nature.”

2020 has certainly made the whole world stop and think. And it has provided an opportunity to reset humanity’s relationship with nature. Encouragingly, there has been widespread talk of a ‘green recovery’ from the pandemic and the British public have recently backed a “fairer, greener Britain” amid concerns the government might be rushing the country back to a ‘business-as-usual’ model.

Achieving a balance with nature will clearly require systemic change, as the Living Planet report shows. In the words of Sir David Attenborough, above all it will require a change in perspective”.


Read some of our other blogs related to the environment:

Follow us on Twitter to find out what topic areas are interesting our research team.

Knowledge from a distance: recent webinars on public and social policy

During the national lockdown, it’s been impossible for most of us to attend conferences and seminars. But many organisations have been harnessing the power of technology to help people share their knowledge, ideas and experience in virtual seminars.

In the past few weeks, the research officers at The Knowledge Exchange have joined some of these webinars, and in today’s blog post we’d like to share with you some of the public and social policy issues that have been highlighted in these online events.

The liveable city

Organised by the Danish Embassy in the UK, this webinar brought together a range of speakers from Denmark and the UK to consider how our cities may change post COVID-19, including questions around green space, high street recovery, active travel and density and types of residential living accommodation in our towns and cities.

Speakers came from two London boroughs, architectural design and urban planning backgrounds and gave examples of experiences in Newham, Ealing and Copenhagen as well as other more general examples from across the UK and Denmark. The seminar’s website also includes links to presentations on previous Liveable City events in Manchester, Edinburgh, Bristol and Glasgow.


What next for public health?

“Healthcare just had its 2008 banking crisis… COVID-19 has generated a real seismic shift within the sector and I don’t think we will ever go back”

This webinar brought together commentators and thought leaders from across the digital health and tech sectors to think about how public health may be transformed by our experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic and the significant shift to digital and online platforms to deliver care.

The speakers discussed data, privacy and trust and the need to recognise different levels of engagement with digital platforms to ensure that specific groups like older people don’t feel unable to access services. They also discussed the importance of not being driven by data, but using data to help us to make better decisions. The webinar was organised by BIMA, a community of businesses, charities and academia across the UK.


Green cities

This project, organised by the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA), included 3 webinars each looking at different elements of green infrastructure within cities, including designing and planning, assessing the quality of different types of green infrastructure and highlighting the positive impacts of incorporating more good quality green spaces for mental and physical health, as well as for environmental purposes.


Rough sleeping and homelessness during and after the coronavirus

Organised by the Centre for London, this webinar brought together speakers from across the homelessness sector within London, including St Mungos, the Greater London Authority (GLA) and Croydon Council to explore how the COVID-19 pandemic was impacting people who are homeless or sleeping rough in the city.

Each speaker brought insights from their own experiences supporting homeless people in the capital (so far) during the COVID 19-pandemic. They highlighted some of the challenges, as well as some of the more positive steps forward, particularly in relation to co-operation and partnership working across different levels of government and with other sectors such as health.

They also commended everyone involved for the speed at which they acted to support homeless people, particularly those who were vulnerable or at risk. However, concerns were also raised around future planning and the importance of not regressing back into old ways of working once the pandemic response tails off.


Poverty, health and Covid-19: emerging lessons in Scotland

This webinar was hosted by the Poverty Alliance as part of a wider series that they are hosting.  It looked at how to ‘build back better’ following the pandemic, with a particular focus upon addressing the long-standing inequalities that exist throughout society.

The event included presentations from Dr Gerry McCartney, Head of the Public Health Observatory at Public Health Scotland, Dr Anne Mullin, Chair of the Deep End GPs, and Professor Linda Bauld, Professor of Public Health at University of Edinburgh.

A key message throughout was that while the immediate health impacts of the pandemic have been huge, there is an urgent need to acknowledge and address the “long-term challenge” – the impact on health caused by the economic and social inequalities associated with the pandemic.

It is estimated that over 10 years, the impact of inequalities will be six times greater than that of an unmitigated pandemic. Therefore, ‘building back better’ is essential in order to ensure long-term population health.


Returning to work: addressing unemployment after Covid-19

This webinar was also hosted by the Poverty Alliance as part of their wider webinar series on the pandemic.

The focus here was how to address the inevitable rise in unemployment following the pandemic – the anticipated increase in jobless numbers is currently estimated to be over three million.

The event included presentations from Kathleen Henehan, Research and Policy Analyst at Resolution Foundation, Anna Ritchie Allan, Executive Director at Close the Gap, and Tony Wilson, Director of the Institute for Employment Studies.

The webinar highlighted the unprecedented scale of the problem – noting that more than half of the working population are currently not working due to the pandemic, being either unemployed, furloughed or in receipt of self-employment support.

A key theme of the presentation was that certain groups are likely to be disproportionately affected by unemployment as the support provided by the government’s support schemes draw to a close later this year.  This includes women – particularly those from BAME groups, the lower paid and migrants – and young people.  So it’s essential that the support provided by the government in the form of skills, training, job creation schemes etc addresses this, and is both gender-sensitive and intersectional.


Supporting the return to educational settings of autistic children and young people

The aim of this webinar, provided by the National Autism Implementation Team (NAIT), was to offer a useful overview of how to support autistic children and young people, and those with additional support needs, back into educational settings following the pandemic.

Currently around 25% of learners in mainstream schools have additional support needs, and it is generally accepted that good autism practice is beneficial for all children.

The webinar set out eight key messages for supporting a successful return, which included making anticipatory adjustments rather than ‘waiting and seeing’, using visual supports, providing predictability, planning for movement breaks and provision of a ‘safe space’ for each child.  The importance of listening to parents was also emphasised.


P1050381.JPG

Ellisland Farm, Dumfries. “P1050381.JPG” by ejbluefolds is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Burns at Ellisland

Our Research Officer, Donna Gardiner has also been following some cultural webinars, including one that focused on the links between Scotland’s national poet and the Ellisland Farm site. The webinar was led by Professor Gerard Carruthers, Francis Hutcheson Chair of Scottish Literature at the University of Glasgow and co-director of the Centre for Robert Burns Studies.

Robert Burns lived at Ellisland Farm in Dumfriesshire between May 1788 and November 1791, and is where he produced a significant proportion of his work – 23% of his letters and 28% of his songs and poems, including the famous Tam O’Shanter and Auld Lang Syne.

The presentation looked at how Robert Burns was influenced by the farm itself and its location on the banks of the River Nith.  It also touched on his involvement with local politics and friends in the area, which too influenced his work.

It was suggested that the Ellisland farm site could be considered in many ways to be the birthplace of wider European Romanticism. The webinar also included contributions from Joan McAlpine MSP, who is chair of the newly formed Robert Burns Ellisland Trust. She discussed how to help promote and conserve this historic site, particularly given the impact of the coronavirus on tourism.


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An app a day … how m-health could revolutionise our engagement with the NHS

It seems like almost every day now we see in the news and read in newspapers about the increasing pressures on our NHS, strains on resources and the daily challenges facing already overworked GP staff.

Mobile health applications (m-health apps) are increasingly being integrated into practice and are now being used to perform some tasks which would have traditionally been performed by general practitioners (GPs), such as those involved in promoting health, preventing disease, diagnosis, treatment, monitoring, and signposting to other health and support services.

How m-health is transforming patient interactions with the NHS

In 2015 International Longevity Centre research found some distinct demographic divides on health information seeking behaviour. While 50% of those aged 25-34 preferred to receive health information online, only 15% of those aged 65 and over preferred the internet. The internet remained the favourite source of health information for all age groups younger than 55. And while not specifically referring to apps, the fact that many people in this research expressed a preference to seek health information online indicates that there is potential for wider use of effective, and NHS approved health apps.

A report published in 2019 by Reform highlighted the unique opportunity that m-health offered in the treatment and management of mental health conditions. The report found that in the short to medium-term, much of the potential of apps and m-health lies in relieving the pressure on frontline mental health services by giving practitioners more time to spend on direct patient care and providing new ways to deliver low-intensity, ongoing support. In the long-term, the report suggests, data-driven technologies could lead to more preventative and precise care by allowing for new types of data-collection and analysis to enhance understandings of mental health.

M-health, e-health and telecare are also potentially important tools in the delivery of rural care, particularly to those who are elderly or who live in remote parts of the UK. This enables them to submit relevant readings to a GP or hospital consultant without having to travel to see them in person and allowing them to receive updates, information and advice on their condition without having to travel to consult a doctor or nurse face-to-face. However, some have highlighted that this removal of personal contact could leave some patients feeling isolated, unable to ask questions and impact on the likelihood of carrying out treatment, particularly among older people, if they feel it has been prescribed by a “machine” and not a doctor.

Supporting people to take ownership of their own health

Research has suggested that wearable technologies, not just m-health apps, but across-the-board, including devices like “fitbits”, are acting as incentives to help people self-regulate and promote healthier activities such as more walking or drinking more water. One study found that different tracking and monitoring tools that collect and analyse health and wellness data over time can inform consumers of their baseline activity level, encourage personal engagement in health and wellbeing, and ultimately lead to positive behavioural change. Another report from the International Longevity Centre also highlights the potential impact of apps on preventative healthcare; promoting behaviour change and encouraging people to make healthier choices such as stopping smoking or reducing alcohol intake.

Home testing kits for conditions such as bowel cancer and remote sensors to monitor blood sugar levels in type 1 diabetics are also becoming more commonplace as methods to help people take control of monitoring their own health. Roll-outs of blood pressure and heart rhythm monitors enable doctors to see results through an integrated tablet, monitor a patient’s condition remotely, make suggestions on changes to medication or pass comments on to patients directly through an email or integrated chat system, without the patient having to attend a clinic in person.

Individual test kits from private sector firms, including “Monitor My Health” are now also increasingly available for people to purchase. People purchase and complete the kits, which usually include instructions on home blood testing for conditions like diabetes, high cholesterol and vitamin D deficiency. The collected samples are then returned via post, analysed in a laboratory and the results communicated to the patient via an app, with no information about the test stored on their personal medical records. While the app results will recommend if a trip to see a GP is necessary, there is no obligation on the part of the company involved or the patient to act on the results if they choose not to. The kits are aimed at “time-poor” people over the age of 16, who want to “take control of their own healthcare”, according to the kit’s creator, but some have suggested that instead of improving the patient journey by making testing more convenient, lack of regulation could dilute the quality of testing Removing the “human element”, they warn, particularly from initial diagnosis consultations, could lead to errors.

But what about privacy?

Patient-driven healthcare which is supported and facilitated by the use of e-health technologies and m-health apps is designed to support an increased level of information flow, transparency, customisation, collaboration and patient choice and responsibility-taking, as well as quantitative, predictive and preventive aspects for each user. However, it’s not all positive, and concerns are already being raised about the collection and storage of data, its use and the security of potentially very sensitive personal data.

Data theft or loss is one of the major security concerns when it comes to using m-health apps. However, another challenge is the unwitting sharing of data by users, which despite GDPR requirements can happen when people accept terms and conditions or cookie notices without fully reading or understanding the consequences for their data. Some apps, for example, collect and anonymise data to feed into further research or analytics about the use of the app or sell it on to third parties for use in advertising.

Final thoughts

The integration of mobile technologies and the internet into medical diagnosis and treatment has significant potential to improve the delivery of health and care across the UK, easing pressure on frontline staff and services and providing more efficient care, particularly for those people who are living with long-term conditions which require monitoring and management.

However, clinicians and researchers have been quick to emphasise that while there are significant benefits to both the doctor and the patient, care must be taken to ensure that the integrity and trust within the doctor-patient relationship is maintained, and that people are not forced into m-health approaches without feeling supported to use the technology properly and manage their conditions effectively. If training, support and confidence of users in the apps is not there, there is the potential for the roll-out of apps to have the opposite effect, and lead to more staff answering questions on using the technology than providing frontline care.


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Future proofing Scotland’s road network

How can we ensure Scotland’s roads are fit for the future? That was the challenging question facing a panel of experts at this year’s Traffex Scotland exhibition. The exhibition – held for the first time at the SEC in Glasgow – attracted a large number of contractors, consultants, manufacturers and suppliers involved in the design, management and maintenance of Scotland’s roads and bridges.

Future-proofing the roads network was one of several seminars at the exhibition covering highway maintenance and development. The speakers on the panel were: Eddie Ross and Andy Thomson from BEAR Scotland (which maintains Scotland’s roads), Mark Arndt from Amey (a leading supplier of consulting and infrastructure support services both in the UK and internationally) and Evan Ferguson from Scotland Transerv (which manages and maintains more than 600 kilometres of trunk road and motorway network across South West Scotland).

The panel highlighted the challenges facing road maintenance engineers in assessing the current state of Scotland’s road network, and agreed that one of the key factors driving successful future development was to gain an understanding of the travel habits of the future. Gathering and sharing data will form the backbone of this understanding, enabling traffic managers to model, monitor and control the effects of travel as well as reducing congestion.

But the basics of road maintenance will always apply. Scotland has a diverse road network, and while trunk roads in the north of the country are often single carriage, requiring considerable improvements, elsewhere the challenges relate to capacity. Maintaining those roads, developing them for the future and ensuring minimum disruption to travellers and the economy are all exercising the minds of traffic engineers.

The climate and the weather are also important drivers of change. The panel wholeheartedly agreed that water is the road engineer’s enemy, and the increasingly wet weather experienced by Scotland can often lead to disruption for travellers.

The Scottish Government’s recent consultation on its National Transport Strategy highlighted extreme weather events, such as 2018’s “Beast from the East”, which cost the UK economy at least £1 billion per day as gridlocked roads, along with no trains and no buses meant many workers were unable to access employment.

The Traffex panel welcomed the National Transport Strategy as a good first step in future-proofing Scotland’s roads network. It highlights the need to enhance the resilience of the transport network, to enable new transport projects and policies to deal effectively with the predicted changes in climate and to adapt existing networks to allow for increased rainfall and extreme temperatures.

The panel also discussed some of the technological advances that are set to revolutionise travel patterns in the coming years. One notable development is the emergence of autonomous vehicles (AVs).

AVs need roads without impediments, and therefore need clear and well-maintained road surfaces, as well as road markings that are kept at high standards. At the same time, the ways in which AVs use roads may be different from conventional traffic, and this will have significant effects on the resilience of road surfaces.

Electric vehicles also herald profound changes to our roads, with implications for road pricing and infrastructure.

With only 20 minutes to cover the future of Scotland’s roads, the panel had their work cut out. But they ended, as they began, by stressing the need to understand the travel habits of the future. There was widespread agreement that the travelling public will be open to innovations such as AVs and electric vehicles, but will also expect improvements in connectivity options, including cycling and public transport.

Our road engineers will have a vital role to play in maintaining the roads network, while being flexible and open to new developments to keep Scotland moving.


Idox Transport delivers bespoke, cost-effective solutions to support strategic and localised transport control. Innovative services and solutions enable complete management across all forms of transport, supporting the safe and efficient movement of people and vehicles – whatever the end goal. To find out more, please contact the Transport team at transport@idoxgroup.com

Closing the race attainment gap: a new report aims to help universities move forward

Image: Universities UK

On the face of it, the UK’s university sector is an international success story. UK universities attract global talent, valuable income and investment, produce world-leading research, generate hundreds of thousands of jobs, and improve people’s everyday lives in countless ways. Britain’s universities are also more racially and culturally diverse than ever before.

But a recent report has shone a spotlight on fundamental barriers to racial equality at UK universities, indicating that a student’s race and ethnicity can significantly affect their degree outcomes. The Universities UK (UUK) / National Union of Students (NUS) report highlights significant gaps in attainment between white students and their black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) peers, finding that 81% of white students graduated with first and upper second class honours in 2017/18, compared to just 68% of BAME students. That’s an attainment gap of 13%.

The report echoes findings from the Office for Students (OfS), the independent regulator for higher education in England. Earlier this year, the OfS reported stark gaps in achievement for black students, and also found that higher numbers of BAME students were dropping out of university before completing their courses.

Why are BAME students not doing as well at university compared with their white counterparts?

The UUK/NUS research identified four factors that are contributing to the attainment gap:

  1. Varying degrees of satisfaction among different student groups with the higher education curricula, and with the user-friendliness of learning, teaching and assessment practices.
  2. Relationships between staff and students and among students: a sense of ‘belonging’ emerged as a key determinant of student outcomes.
  3. Recurring differences in how students experience higher education, how they network and how they draw on external support were noted. Students’ financial situations also affect their student experience and their engagement with learning.
  4. The extent to which students feel supported and encouraged in their daily interactions within their institutions and with staff members was found to be a key variable.

 How universities can improve outcomes

As part of its research, UUK and NUS engaged with students, the higher education sector and external organisations to identify the most significant steps needed for success in reducing attainment differentials:

  1. Strong leadership – university leaders and senior managers need to demonstrate a commitment to removing the BAME attainment gap and lead by example.
  2. Having conversations about race and changing the culture – universities and students need more opportunities to have open, meaningful and constructive conversations about race, racism and what is causing the attainment gap.
  3. Developing racially diverse and inclusive environments – A greater focus is needed from across the sector, working with their students, on ensuring that BAME students have a good sense of belonging at their university, and an understanding of how a poor sense of belonging might be contributing to low levels of engagement and progression to postgraduate study.
  4. Assess the existing mix of data and evidence used to understand the causes of the attainment gap – The sector needs to take a more scientific approach to tackling the attainment gap, gathering and scrutinising data in a far more comprehensive way than currently, in order to inform discussions among university leaders, academics, practitioners and students.

The report also provides a checklist to help university senior leaders to move forward with their own strategies. Among the actions on the checklist are:

  • consider whether coaching, development opportunities or programmes are needed to give leaders the confidence to talk about race and take a leading role in opening conversations.
  • consider mechanisms for recognising (and perhaps rewarding) staff and students who press for the removal of racial inequalities.
  • take responsibility for ensuring that appropriate resources are dedicated to removing the attainment gap, including for any appropriate tailored interventions, research and expertise in data analysis.

Learning from what works

Another important recommendation in the report is that universities should share and learn from evidence of what works and what does not. Case studies throughout the report demonstrate that higher education institutions across the country are trying to close the attainment gap:

The University of Manchester and the university’s students’ union have been working in partnership with Manchester Metropolitan University and the University of Birmingham to deliver a Diversity and Inclusion Student Ambassador Programme to tackle the causes of differential outcomes for BAME undergraduate students and those from low socio-economic groups. Key features include creation of safe spaces, where students and staff can engage in open dialogue on inclusive learning and teaching environments, academic support and well-being; and training student ambassadors to safely challenge racism, microaggressions and discrimination.

Intercultural awareness workshops have helped students at Glasgow Caledonian University to develop a better understanding of different cultural norms and values. The programme provides a baseline for first-year students to develop their understanding and recognise the unconscious bias that exists within global academic, social and working environments. It has already won a Student Engagement Award and been shortlisted for an NUS Scotland 2019 diversity award.

The University of Arts London has developed a data dashboard – the academic enhancement model (AEM) – which gives accessible information to course teams about all aspects of the student experience and differentials. The AEM is a cross-university approach to removing attainment differentials, based on agreed data thresholds for attainment and student satisfaction scores. Courses that fall below these thresholds work with AEM leads to create co-designed AEM support packages. The approach has contributed to UAL’s success in tackling attainment issues: in 2018, the university saw a 4.9% reduction in its BAME attainment gap.

Closing the gap, reaping the rewards

The report has united universities and students in highlighting the race attainment gap, understanding the reasons behind it and tackling the problem.

Baroness Amos, director of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), who co-led the report, said: “Our universities are racially and culturally diverse, compared to many other sectors, but we are failing a generation of students if we don’t act now to reduce the BAME attainment gap. Amatey Doku, NUS vice-president for higher education, added that for far too long universities had presided over significant gaps in attainment between BAME students and white students. “From decolonising the curriculum to more culturally competent support services, many students and students’ unions have been fighting and campaigning for action in this area for years.

Now that the issue has been raised, it’s up to universities to take action so that all students – whatever their background – are given every opportunity to reap the many rewards that higher education can bring.


If you’re interested in developments in higher education, take a look at our recent blog posts on the subject:

Gardens of the dead: cemeteries as spaces for nature

The cemetery is an open space among the ruins, covered in winter with violets and daisies.Percy Bysshe Shelley, Preface to Adonais (1891)

Percy Shelley’s description of the Protestant Cemetery in Rome perfectly illustrates how the cemetery, often negatively associated with death and decay, can in fact be a place where nature flourishes.

In this blog post, we highlight some of the great work being done to promote and conserve biodiversity in cemeteries, and the wider benefits of this.

Cemeteries as ‘green oases’

The importance of cemeteries as urban green spaces is often overlooked.  Relatively untouched by surrounding urban development, cemeteries often act as green oases, providing a range of important natural habitats for many different – and often rare – plant life and animals.

Indeed, as the 2000-01 Select Committee Report on Cemeteries observes:

Cemeteries support a wide range of habitats, including relict grasslands, heath, ancient and secondary woodland, scrub, hedges, ponds and flushes, as well as more artificial features such as high maintenance lawns, stands of trees, ornamental flower beds, and shrubberies. In addition, buildings, monuments, tombs and headstones, made from a variety of rocks, can provide support for lichens, mosses and ferns, as well as providing geological interest. A large number of rare species of trees, plants, fungi, invertebrates, reptiles, birds and mammals are found in cemeteries. Cemeteries are often designated as local Wildlife Sites, and sometimes as Nature Reserves.

Green space such as that provided by cemeteries, churchyards and other burial sites is important for a number of reasons.

From an environmental perspective, green space can help to address the negative effects of climate change, including the catastrophic decline in the number of insects. And from a human perspective, research has consistently shown the health and wellbeing benefits of access to green space.

Thus, cemeteries have an important role to play in both supporting the environment and promoting the health and wellbeing of local people.

Case study: Glasgow Necropolis

The Glasgow Necropolis is an impressive example of a Victorian garden cemetery, designed to be both inspiring and aesthetically pleasing.

Today, it is the second largest greenspace in the centre of Glasgow and provides a diverse range of habitats for wildlife, including sandy slopes, ivy-covered rock, wooded areas and unmown areas of grass and wildflowers.

The Friends of Glasgow Necropolis is a charity staffed entirely by volunteers dedicated to the conservation of the cemetery.

As well important monument conservation and restoration projects, and hosting walking tours to engage and educate the public, they also work to support the cemetery’s role as a space for nature.  One key aspect of this is recording and monitoring the flora and fauna within the cemetery.

Recent surveys have found that the Necropolis supports over 400 species of animals – including a variety of species of birds, bees, butterflies, insects and spiders, as well as deer, foxes, squirrels and rabbits, and a variety of other small mammals. Some of these species are particularly rare, including the aptly-named hoverfly, Eumerus funeralis.

There is also a wide diversity of plant life.  In total, 180 species of flowering plants and trees have been recorded in the Necropolis, and there are also at least 15 species of lichens – including one rare species (Lecania cyrtella).

Other key projects have sought to actively enhance the biodiversity of the cemetery – such as the creation of a wildflower meadow, planted with the help of local school children, and the creation of the ‘Green Man’ – a 3D grass head sculpture, in collaboration with the Glasgow School of Art, Glasgow City Council, Dennistoun Community Council, Dennistoun Conservation Society and Foundation Scotland.

There are also plans underway to create a ‘tree map’ for the Necropolis – a visual representation of the different tree species that exist within the cemetery grounds.

Engaging local communities

Across the UK there are a number of examples of other grassroots projects working to promote, conserve and engage local communities in cemeteries’ rich natural heritage.

Some notable examples include:

There have also larger-scale projects and campaigns to promote the role of cemeteries as havens for wildlife.

Caring for God’s Acre is a charity working to “support groups and individuals to investigate, care for, and enjoy burial grounds”.

For a week in June each year, they run a national ‘Love your Burial Ground’ campaign, which encourages people to connect with and celebrate their local churchyards, cemeteries and burial grounds through a variety of local events.

They are also responsible for running the ‘Beautiful Burial Grounds Project’ – a £600,000 Heritage Lottery Fund project that aims to “inspire, engage and support interest groups, communities and individuals to learn about, research and survey the natural, built and social heritage of their local burial grounds”.

The project includes collecting, collating and disseminating data on the importance of burial grounds for biodiversity, providing training events on recording biodiversity and disseminating a variety of resources such as short films, toolkits and pop ups to encourage communities to value their burial grounds as refuges for wildlife.

The Green Flag Award scheme has also been involved in the promotion of cemeteries as spaces for nature.  The scheme “recognises and rewards well managed parks and green spaces” and at present, over 80 cemeteries have received this award, including Tipton Cemetery in Sandwell, and the new Dumbarton Cemetery – the first cemetery in Scotland to be awarded a Green Flag.

Challenges to address

There are of course a number of challenges to be addressed if the full potential of cemeteries as green spaces are to be realised.

Firstly, there is a lack of data on the plant and animal species that exist within cemeteries.  This lack of ecological awareness can mean that sometimes burial ground management and maintenance can be well-intentioned, but inappropriate or damaging.  Thus, projects to record species – such as those conducted by the Friends of Glasgow Necropolis and other cemeteries’ friends groups – are incredibly important.

There is also a need to find an appropriate balance between allowing nature to flourish and ensuring that the cemetery remains accessible.  For example, there have been complaints that long grass around headstones can make it difficult for some people to visit family graves.  The Select Committee Report on Cemeteries notes that: “conservation must not be confused with neglect. A neglected cemetery does not become a haven for flora and fauna.”

Health and safety is another key consideration.  Unstable memorials can cause serious – and sometimes fatal – injuries.  Any project operating within cemeteries needs to be aware of this risk, particularly if it involves children or young people.  The Scottish Government recently published guidance for local authorities on inspecting and making safe memorials and headstones.

Other potential barriers to the use of cemeteries as green spaces include the lack of onsite facilities, such as toilets and bins, physical constraints, such as steep stairs, lack of vehicle access/wheelchair access, and concerns about visitor safety and anti-social behaviour.  These issues, however, are not insurmountable – for example, the Friends of Glasgow Necropolis have recognised these accessibility concerns and raised funds from grant applications to resurface many of the paths on the lower levels of the cemetery to make it easier for people with mobility problems to get around.

‘Living places’ that inspire

It is worth remembering too that cemeteries were set up not just to bury the dead but to stir the Muses among the living.” Fiona Green, a landscape historian, quotes John Strang‘s Necropolis Glasguensis (1831)

Cemeteries are not just for the dead.  They are in many ways ‘living places’ – havens for a range of plant and animal species in the midst of urban housing and development.  They also have an important role to play in the wider community, providing opportunities for local people to connect with and be inspired by nature.

And hopefully, after reading about the many ways in which people across the country are getting involved with nature at their own local burial grounds, you may be similarly inspired.


If you’ve enjoyed this blog, take a look at some more posts on the subject of biodiversity:

Digital Leaders Week: Digital government – looking beyond Britain

 

Image: Digital Leaders

This week, the Knowledge Exchange blog is marking Digital Leaders Week with a look back at some of our digital-themed blog posts from the past, and focusing on more recent digital developments.

Our blog has often taken an international view of digital transformation, looking for lessons that might be learned from cities and countries around the world that have been leading the way in making the most of digital technologies in society.

Singapore is one country that has been blazing a trail in digital readiness, and in October 2015, we reported on the city-state’s efforts to ensure that more and more government services could be delivered electronically.

Among the earliest innovations was eCitizen – a first-stop portal for government information and services:

“When the portal was first introduced it pioneered the concept of cross-agency, citizen-centric government services, where users transact with ‘one government’ (the ability to access several government services via the one website).”

That was impressive enough, but, as the Smart Nation website explains, Singapore has continued to explore how digital innovation can improve citizens’ lives. From assistive technology and robotics in healthcare and environmental news updates to autonomous vehicles and an app linking parents and schools, Singapore’s digital revolution is transforming the way its citizens live, work and play.

Closer to home, Estonia has been leading the way on digital government. Our blog post from August 2015 reported on the country’s pioneering approach:

“In Estonia, digital has become the norm, and most government services can now be completed online. They have managed to find a way of creating partnerships between the government, a very proactive ICT sector and the citizens of Estonia. As a result, the country of just 1.3 million people has become a leader in digital government.”

The article went on to highlight some of the key elements in Estonia’s approach to digital government:

  • An ID card (installed on a mobile phone), providing every citizen with secure and instant access to online services such as internet banking and public transport.
  • A national register providing a single unique identifier for all citizens and residents in Estonia.
  • Estonian government services, including verification of citizens’ identities, enabling them to vote in e-elections. Once a voter’s identity has been verified, the connecting digital signature is separated from the vote. This allows the vote to be anonymous.

In 2017, Wired magazine called Estonia “the most advanced digital society in the world.” And with good reason:

“Estonians have complete control over their personal data. The portal you can access with your identity card gives you a log of everyone who has accessed it. If you see something you do not like – a doctor other than your own looking at your medical records, for instance – you can click to report it to the data ombudsman. A civil servant then has to justify the intrusion. Meanwhile, parliament is designed to be paperless: laws are even signed into effect with a digital signature on the president’s tablet. And every draft law is available to the public to read online, at every stage of the legislative process; a complete breakdown of the substance and authorship of every change offers significant transparency over lobbying and potential corruption.”

Our blog noted that there were lessons for the UK to be learned from the Estonian experience:

“…it’s clear that when government, the private sector and citizens come together, it is possible to create a society that is digitally connected.”


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Digital Leaders Week: Digital transformation in local government

Image: Digital Leaders

Today is the start of Digital Leaders Week, a celebration of the opportunities and challenges for the digital transformation of Britain’s businesses, public services and society.

Here at the Knowledge Exchange blog, we’ve been taking a keen interest in digital developments in both the public and private sector. To celebrate Digital Leaders Week, we’re revisiting some of our digital-themed blog posts from the past, and bringing you up to date on current developments.

Several articles on our blog have highlighted the potential of digital technologies as drivers of internal transformation and improved service delivery in local government.

In May 2016, we looked at the benefits of digital for local authorities, noting that research by Nesta and the Public Service Transformation Network had suggested local councils could save £14.7 billion by moving all transactional services online and digitising back office functions. This echoed the findings of Policy Exchange, which reported that £10 billion could be saved by councils making smarter use of data and technology.

But another article on our blog also pointed to some of the reasons why local government was struggling to develop digital strategies, including limited infrastructure, red tape and funding issues:

“In theory, providing technical solutions to local government services should provide long term efficiencies. Yet, in an era of constrained budgets, finding the initial capital for digital projects can be challenging. Leaders in councils trying to fund social care services and schools may not view digital as a priority.”

Further blog posts have indicated that some councils are overcoming the barriers to digital change:

“For example, Cambridge City Council have launched Cambridgeshire Insight, a shared research knowledge base which allows over 20 public and third sector organisations to publish their data and make it freely available. We have also seen 18 councils coming together to collaborate on a project which aims to keep electoral registers up-to-date, potentially saving £20 million a year.”

Today, more councils are embracing the challenges and opportunities of digital. A good example comes from Adur & Worthing Councils, which believes that digital inclusion can greatly improve the lives of local people. Among the digital services now offered by Adur & Worthing is an online payments facility. In addition, online access points enable residents to get up-to-date information on important issues such as council tax, recycling, public transport and cultural events.

Another example is Nottingham City Council’s workflow management app, introduced to replace an inefficient paper-based system:

“The new app allows staff from customer services, highway inspectors and response teams to enter faults, such as potholes or damaged street lights, directly into the system. It then automatically allocates the fault to the relevant inspector and, once the work is completed, digitally signs it off. The council has reported that the app has created £100,000 in savings in less than one year.”

However, we’ve also underlined that there’s more to digital transformation than getting the technical aspects right:

“With digital transformation, technology is less important than the vision and leadership provided by senior officials. Encouraging data sharing across organisations, empowering employees, and importantly, investing in digital services, are just some of the key ingredients.”

It’s clear that digital transformation is a journey, not a final destination, and we’ll continue to report on the ways in which local government is embracing digital technologies for the benefit of councils and citizens.

Our next Digital Leaders Week blog post, on Wednesday, looks at digital developments in Singapore and Estonia.


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