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.


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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. 

Is technology really the answer to social isolation and loneliness?

Old man sitting on a benchBy Steven McGinty

As we head towards Christmas, the media is filled with images of families coming together and enjoying the festivities. However, the reality is that many people will not be spending the Christmas period with loved ones, and will be spending the festive season alone.

In April, Future Cities Catapult produced a report into the impact of social isolation and loneliness. They highlight that those experiencing social isolation and loneliness have an increased likelihood of developing health conditions such as dementia (1.9 times more likely) and depression (3.4 times more likely). In addition, there is a 26% increased risk of mortality.

The report also included findings from the Mormont Review, highlighting that in emergency situations social networks have a significant impact on recovery.

Individuals who are socially isolated are between two and five times more likely than those who have strong social ties to die prematurely. Social networks have a larger impact on the risk of mortality than on the risk of developing disease, in the sense it is not so much that social networks stop you from getting ill, but that they help you to recover when you get ill.

It’s this substantial impact on people lives’ – and the costs to the health service – which has led to many public bodies looking for ways to tackle social isolation and loneliness.

Technology-based interventions, in particular, are some of the most innovative approaches to addressing the issue that affects over half of all people aged 75 and over who live alone, as well as increasing numbers of young people. Below we’ve outlined some of the most interesting examples.

CogniWin

CogniWin provides support and motivation for older people to stay active and in employment by providing smart assistance and well-being guidance. It helps people to adapt cognitively with their work tasks through their interactions with a system (which collects information using an intelligent mouse and eye tracking software). A virtual Adaptive Support and Learning Assistant then provides feedback, which helps the older person adapt their working lifestyle or have the confidence to take up a part-time job or become a volunteer.

Casserole Club

Casserole Club is a social enterprise that brings together people who enjoy cooking and who often share extra portions with those who may not be able to cook for themselves. Founded by FutureGov and designed in partnership with four local authorities, the service uses its website to allow volunteers to sign up and search for diners in their area (most of which, are over 80 years old). Overall, there are 4,000 cooks nationwide, and 80% of diners highlight that they wouldn’t have much social contact without the Casserole Club.

Family in Touch (FIT) Prototype

The Family in Touch (FIT) prototype was developed by a team of Canadian researchers who noticed that elderly people in care homes and retirement communities often touched photographs in an attempt to connect with family members. Based on this, the team created a touch screen photo frame which sent a message to a relative to say that they were thinking of them. The relative was then able to record a video message, which could be viewed by the elderly person in the photo frame. It was found that elderly people appreciated the simple design and tactile user experience.

Final thoughts

These are just some of the innovative tools being used to tackle social isolation and loneliness. And although technology is not the whole solution, it can certainly provide new opportunities for projects seeking to provide friendship and support to those who feel disconnected.

Individually, we can also make a difference. Even just making a phone call to an elderly relative, sending a message to an old friend, or visiting a neighbour, can brighten up someone’s day.


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. 

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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Planning for the digital economy

The digital tech sector is the UK’s fastest growing sector.    Recent statistics show that it is growing as much as 50% faster than the wider economy.  In London alone, a new tech business starts up every hour.  Beyond London, digital tech clusters across the country are driving the economic resurgence of many cities and city regions.

The rapid growth of the sector means that its spatial footprint has become increasingly evident in towns and cities across the UK.  In May, the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) published guidance on how town planning can respond to and guide the future development of the digital economy.  It makes recommendations for planners in two areas:

  • how to encourage the growth of the tech sector in their local area; and
  • how to make best use of the opportunities provided by the tech sector for the planning system

What is the tech sector?

The digital tech sector is increasingly diverse, and there is no straightforward definition.  The 2016 Tech Nation report identified 16 different sectors, some of which include:

There are currently around 58,000 active digital tech businesses in the UK.  It employs 1.64 million people, and job growth is more than double that of other sectors.  Roles are generally highly skilled and well paid, compared to other sectors.  Indeed, the average salary is 44% higher than the national average!

Location preferences

Digital tech, as a sector, thrives off well-planned spaces with access to good local infrastructure.  Tech firms and their employees tend to prefer easily accessible, walkable, multi-use districts. This results in the creation of ‘clusters’ of similar firms in central urban locations.

Clustering has a number of advantages for digital tech businesses – including easy access to large talent pools and the ability to network and exchange ideas face-to-face with local, likeminded businesses and employees – a key driver of innovation.

London, Manchester and the Greater South East have some of the largest digital tech clusters in the UK; however, the Tech Nation 2017 report mapped 30 significant clusters across the length and breadth of the UK – from Dundee to Exeter.

Facilitating the growth of the sector

The recent growth of the sector has already led to a number of economic policy responses, including the development of enterprise zones, innovation and business centres, and ‘innovation districts’.  The RTPI guidance also highlights a number of smaller-scale responses that can be utilised to attract and foster tech industry growth, including:

  • ‘de-risking sites’ by making sure that planning requirements are “practical, clear and known in advance of specific proposals coming forward
  • using public money for assembling and servicing sites that are more challenging
  • the provision of Wi-Fi in specific locations
  • making districts pedestrian and cycling friendly
  • leveraging Public Private Partnership models to build digital infrastructure

In addition to these responses, the RTPI makes three recommendations for planners on how they can create an environment that is attractive to digital tech firms.

First, it suggests that planners should monitor the local economy to get a sense of what local growth industries are.  Policies can then be adapted to local economic conditions.  Some local authorities already do this using company registration data.  For example, Camden Borough Council use this data to inform a quarterly ‘Business and Employment Briefing’.  It covers a range of measures, including business size and type, employment in the borough, commercial property, unemployment, worklessness and qualifications.

In order to attract and assist the growth of the digital tech sector, it is important for local planning teams to have a proper understanding of the sectors’ spatial preferences.  This is particularly important when drawing up local plans.  Therefore, the second recommendation made by the RTPI is that local authorities should employ someone to engage with local tech firms to find out how planning could help to better facilitate their growth. The roles of The Dublin Commissioner for Startups and the Amsterdam Chief Technology Officer are potentially interesting models for this.

Third, the RTPI recommends ensuring that there is sufficient housing, office space and transport infrastructure to meet capacity.  These three elements are the “fundamental ingredients for an economically and socially successful city”.  Without them, no amount of other interventions will attract firms to an area.

The Tech Nation 2017 report found that 30% of digital tech community members cited their local transport infrastructure as a ‘business challenge’.  Tech London Advocates report similar concerns, whilst also highlighting the challenges posed by digital infrastructure: “It has become increasingly clear that a fundamental challenge facing tech companies in London is infrastructure. The tech sector has grown so fast that the provision of office space and digital connectivity is having to play catch up”.

The digitisation of planning

The growth of the digital tech sector not only creates jobs and generates wealth; it creates opportunities for improved efficiency in other sectors too.  In planning, digitisation can free up time and resources, and create new tools for planners to utilise.  From the adoption of  geographic information system (GIS) software for mapping, to experimental trials of 3D modelling software and virtual reality in plan making and community engagement, technology has and continues to present a number of opportunities to improve the planning system.

Beyond planning, innovations in the digital tech sector aid the creation of ‘smart cities’ – where information and communication technology (ICT) and ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT) technologies are integrated to manage cities’ assets, with the overall aim of improving efficiency.  Examples of potential usage vary considerably, from supporting people with disabilities or chronic illnesses, to the provision of real-time traffic data, controlling streetlights and monitoring environmental data.

As such, a final recommendation made by the RTPI is to make use of local firms’ skills and resources to address cities’ infrastructural challenges.

Addressing inequality

Despite the rapid growth of the digital tech sector and its contribution to job and wealth creation, there is an increasing recognition that the benefits created by the sector can be insular and often do not spill over to the local economy.

Indeed, studies have found that the higher the share of tech employment in a city, the more income inequality there is.  On this basis, the digital tech sector has been criticised for its potential to create a ‘two-tier economy’.  There are also concerns about the gentrifying effects of digital tech clusters on local areas.  In London, for example, tech growth has increased the cost of living in some parts of the city, displacing smaller firms and lower income families.  It also poses a potential threat to innovation as startups are priced out of successful digital tech clusters.

Clearly addressing these issues poses some significant challenges for policymakers.  Last year, the RTPI made a number of recommendations in this regard, including helping local people to develop the skills needed by local tech companies.

Successful planning

The digital tech sector has enormous potential to enhance economic growth.  Through its ability to create the optimal conditions for the digital tech sector to thrive, planning can help to encourage this growth.  Understanding local economic trends, consulting with digital tech businesses about their needs, and ensuring that local infrastructure has the capacity to meet these needs, are vital to successful planning for the digital tech sector.  At the same time, ensuring that this growth is sustainable and benefits wider society are key challenges for planners.

Denmark’s digital ambassador: should the UK be following suit?

 

By Steven McGinty

On 26 January, the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that they would be appointing the world’s first ‘digital ambassador’ to act as the nation’s representative to major technology companies, such as Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon.

At a conference on the future of the Foreign Service, the Foreign Minister, Anders Samuelsen, explained that:

Denmark must be at the forefront of technological development. Technological advances are making such a great impact on our society that it has become a matter of foreign policy. I have therefore decided to announce the appointment of a digitisation ambassador.

In a follow up interview with Danish newspaper Politken, Mr Samuelsen expressed his belief that multinational technology giants “affect Denmark just as much as entire countries”. He highlighted the examples of Apple and Google whose market values are so large that if they were countries they would only narrowly miss out from inclusion in the G20 – the global forum for cooperation between the world’s 20 major economies.

As a result of this economic strength, together with tech firms’ impact on the everyday lives of citizens, Mr Samuelsen argues that the technology sector should be treated as a form of ‘new nation’, which Denmark must develop closer relationships with.

Cooperation between nation states and the technology sector

Technology companies are becoming involved in activities that were once reserved for nation states. For example, Mr Samuelsen’s Liberal party accepts donations in Bitcoin – an online currency which challenges the state’s role as the only issuer of legal tender. And Microsoft have signed a partnership agreement with the French Ministry of Education to provide teacher training, in order to prepare teachers for running special coding classes.

The technology industry argues that it is better placed than national governments to provide effective digital services, at cheaper prices. In terms of national security, computer engineering expert and academic, Jean-Gabriel Ganascia, argues that this is probably the case. Mr Ganascia highlights that Google and Facebook have vast image databases that enable them to use facial recognition software far better than any national security service. Therefore, countries have started working with technology companies on a variety of crime and public safety issues.

Citizens are also spending greater amounts of time on social media platforms. In an interview with The Washington Post, Mr Samuelsen stated that more than half of the world’s data has been created in the past two years (much of this from major platforms such as Facebook). This trend has implications for the privacy of citizens and the spreading of false information, a phenomena that has been labelled ‘fake news’. These issues are fundamentally important for citizens and nation states, and are likely to increase cooperation between countries and the technology sector.

Australia’s Ambassador for Cyber Affairs

Although Denmark will be the first country to introduce a digital ambassador, another government has made a similar appointment. In January, Dr Tobias Feakin was appointment as Australia’s Ambassador for Cyber Affairs. His role focuses on cyber-security, but also includes issues such as censorship and promoting internet access. At this stage, it’s unclear whether Dr Feakin will have direct contact with technology companies and whether this relationship will involve discussions over economic issues such as taxation.

Is a digital ambassador necessary?

Not everyone, however, is buying into the appointment of a government representative focused solely on digital issues. Technology journalist, Emma Woollacott, believes that it’s a ‘terrible idea’.

According to Ms Woollacott, Denmark already has a good relationship with technology companies, highlighting that Facebook has recently announced plans to build a new data centre in Odense, creating 150 new permanent jobs. These views may have some merit, as Mr Samuelsen has confirmed that the deal between the Foreign Ministry and Facebook was the result of three years of behind-the-scenes work.

Ms Woollacott also argues that Denmark is setting a worrying precedent by equating a private company to a nation state.  In her view, the importance of the technology sector could have been acknowledged through hiring knowledge staff, rather than granting it a ‘unique political status’.

However, Professor Jan Stentoft, who researches the insourcing of technological production to Denmark, believes creating the ambassadorial post is a good idea. He explains:

We have much to offer these companies, but Denmark is a small country, and we obviously need to make ourselves noticed if we are to attract them to the country.

Marianne Dahl Steensen, CEO of Microsoft Denmark, also welcomed the creation of a digital ambassador position, but did acknowledge that the company ‘can hardly be equated with a nation’.

Should the UK introduce a digital ambassador?

By introducing a digital ambassador, Mr Samuelsen is taking a pragmatic approach to ensure Denmark is a key player in the international digital economy, as well as attempting to manage the impacts of an increasingly digital society.

Although appointing an ambassador for the technology sector poses philosophical and ethical questions, the UK should closely monitor how this new role develops and the potential benefits (and challenges) it brings for Denmark. In particular, if the new role is able to improve dialogue between technology companies and the security services on matters such as privacy, or help address the sector’s need for digitally skilled workers, then maybe introducing a digital ambassador is something worth exploring.


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Moving into the 21st century … the challenges and opportunities of digital culture

art gallery, kelvingrove glasgowBack in December, I attended the International Symposium on Evaluating Digital Cultural Resources at the newly refurbished Kelvin Hall in Glasgow.

The day provided an opportunity for researchers and professionals with an interest in culture and heritage in Scotland to come together to consider how digital technologies are transforming the sector. Key questions addressed included what digital culture means in practice, and how to demonstrate the benefits for both professionals and the public who experience culture and heritage in galleries, libraries, museums and other cultural spaces.

Whose ‘culture’ is it anyway?

A number of the studies presented during the day argued that making a collection ‘digital’ does not necessarily make it accessible. In some instances “preserving” collections by digitising them can actually make sources less accessible to members of the general public than if they had been kept in “hard copy” – raising the question of who exactly the material is being preserved for.

Is it for the benefit of researchers and archivists of the future? Or is the aim to present heritage and culture in a new way, preserving it, but in a way which makes it more engaging to the general public?

Questions were raised about public access, digital copyright, online availability, online cataloguing and digital databases – sometimes collections can remain as hidden as they had been before they were digitised, due to paywalls or complicated and over-elaborate online archives.

And it was clear throughout the day that delegates and speakers were wrestling with the notion of “ownership of digital cultural resources”. One example highlighted was that of Scotland’s Sounds, an audio archive of recordings which is held in the National Library of Scotland. These are resources captured in communities, donated by people and groups who want their local heritage to be preserved.

However, when it is held in a collection within a national institution, decisions about these resources are centralised with curators. They decide which elements of the collection should be exhibited and when. And they design the layout of the collection and the edited versions of recordings. Is the power of creation taken away from the original creators in this process? And does “going digital” actually make the resources, while preserving them, more inaccessible to local people who could be daunted by the prospect of visiting a national institution or may not be able to travel.

Researchers from the online archive database project ENUMERATE found that only 3-4% of digitised cultural heritage collections are available through Wikipedia (which is the world’s 7th most viewed website). What is the point, they asked, of investing in digitising if collections are as inaccessible as they were before?

This also ties in with the question of who the intended audience is. Publicly funded museums and galleries are increasingly asked about their “audience reach”. Digitising colections and making resources findable by anyone in the world may increase website visits and page hits but does this have the same value as engaging with targeted or local communities? It depends on the mission of the heritage organisation and what they view success to be.

Justifying spend and showing value

Project managers at the conference reported that they were facing a constant struggle to fund online developments. And in many cases, in the period of time from commissioning to implementation the technology and expectations moves on again.

Demonstrating value and impact are central to securing and reporting on how funds are spent in relation to digital collection projects. Funding bodies like the Heritage Lottery Fund have a set of deliverable requirements which should be included in funding bids in order to exemplify good and sustainable use of funding, particularly in relation to digital projects. This includes creating resources which have a long life span (the favoured format is online PDF uploads, although they are trying inhouse to diversify their content); creating projects that will preserve heritage and benefit communities; and creating projects which have ambition and are easy to use, while also contributing to the organisation’s wider digital infrastructure and outcomes plan (which may also include interactive exhibitions and the provision of public Wi-Fi).

A unique opportunity to bring history and culture to life for new learners

When bidding for funding, cultural heritage organisations will often claim the project will support learning within their communities. However, many write this in their “digital strategy” without really knowing what it could or should mean in practice. How schools and other learners can engage with digital cultural projects is important not only to showing their value but to developing the collections in the future, making them representative or the interests and desires of their local communities.

Technology-enhanced learning was something which many delegates raised as one of the major potential benefits of digitising collections. In addition to the benefits for planners (particularly erosion and building management specialists) and the tourism industry (through virtual reality city tours which show what an area looked like hundreds of years ago) delegates stressed that one of the primary aims of digital collections was to make it easier for material to be used as a tool for learning. An example given at the conference was the REVISIT project which was run in Glasgow and focused on the British Empire Exhibition of 1938 which took place in Bellahouston Park in Glasgow. The project created a 3D visualisation of over 100 buildings from the exhibition. The modellers worked from dozens of small-scale drawings, hundreds of photographs and many maps to recreate the 3D virtual Empire Exhibition as well as mapping roads, pathways and other transport systems in the area. These were then uploaded to an online repository, with accompanying text, where they could be viewed and “explored” using navigation tools.

bee-image

Image of the 3D recreation of the 1938 British Empire Exhibition, Glasgow

The aim of the project was to create a permanent resource for the exploration, research and public exhibition of the Empire Exhibition of 1938 in the context of Scottish and UK social and architectural history. Researchers used a variety of archived material, newspaper articles, photos and interviews with people who attended the exhibition to create the interactive map. They then invited local school children to use the resources to inform their learning on the topic through a series of guided workshop sessions and interactive group activities. The 3D maps were a learning resource but also a tool to generate discussion and questioning about the period and the exhibition itself.

Measuring the “impact of digital” in cultural spaces

One of the most interesting sessions of the day involved input from the V&A in London. It highlighted how mapping and analytics, as well as a more functional understanding of users and visitors to the museum, can be used to help during digital planning. The way that consumer research around digital cultural resources is done can help refine digital programmes in an efficient and cost effective way.

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Kati Price from the V&A led a discussion on the creation of new digital platforms and how important understanding user preference can be in design and functionality of digital resources in a museum setting. She highlighted their use of agile methods to test the usability and effectiveness of some of the new digital content produced by the V&A, including new audio guides. In terms of measuring outcomes in digital strategies, she stressed the importance of being flexible with your evaluation methods but also to consider what are you measuring, when in the process are you measuring it, and why and to what end are you measuring it.

Summing up

The day provided useful insight into the challenges and opportunities of digital for cultural and heritage organisations.

It highlighted the adaptability of cultural spaces to digital environments, and the value and benefit to collections of “going digital”. It also identified some potential directions for the future, such as 3D printing to create replicas and Virtual Reality platforms to create more immersive and interactive learning spaces.

It is clear, however, that if the cultural heritage sector is to make the most of what could potentially be game-changing technology, museums, libraries and other organisations need to work closely with communities to make sure they remain connected to their heritage and do not get left behind by this digital revolution.

Cultural spaces need to be mindful of potential exclusion and work to promote digital engagement, skills and education to allow people to access and contribute to the future growth of digital collections in Scotland and the UK.


Reading Room (an Idox company) is one of the UK’s leading digital agencies and has extensive experience working with museums and libraries on award-winning digital projects. Clients include the British Library, Arts Council England, The National Archives, and Durham Council (Durham at War archive). If you’d like to talk to us about how we can help your organisation with developing your digital strategy, contact info.uk@readingroom.com

Slow by default: achieving digital transformation in the complex world of local government

City Hall, London

By Steven McGinty

Bringing local government into the 21st century is fraught with well documented challenges. In 2015, the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) carried out a survey into local government leaders’ views on digital transformation. The research identified six key barriers to digital adoption:

  • Legacy systems and ICT infrastructure
  • Lack of development funds
  • Unwillingness to change / non-cooperation of colleagues
  • Lack of in-house digital skills
  • Culturally uncomfortable for the organisation
  • Supplier inflexibility

However, there have been signs we are heading in the right direction. LocalGov Digital, a network of digital practitioners in local government, published a common approach for delivering services – an issue we discussed on our blog in June. Their hope is that this new standard (known as the Local Government Digital Service Standard) will support the sharing of good practice and lead to better public services.

In addition, many councils are involved in pilot projects and introducing new services.  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.

Over the past year, commentators have provided their views on what’s holding back digital transformation in local government. Below we’ve highlighted some of these.

Digital inclusion

At a TechUK event in November, Labour councillor for Harrow Council, Niraj Dattani, argued that councils should ‘aim for digital first and think about digital exclusion later’.

He suggested that if local government focused too much on the 15% of people who can’t access services, then, ultimately, nobody will have access to better services. In his view:

It’s better to serve the 85% than serve nobody at all

Theo Blackwell, Labour councillor for Camden Council, supported this view, and although he acknowledges there are legitimate digital exclusion concerns, he argued this should not limit innovation. In his blog article, ‘Scaling digital change for better public services — reflections on UK local government digital strategies’,  Mr Blackwell also expresses his fear that council leaders are setting the pace of digital transformation by their digital inclusion priorities.

However, it’s likely that organisations who advocate greater digital inclusion, (such as the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) – who have challenged local authorities to improve accessibility), would disagree with this approach.

Interestingly, Mr Dattani emphasises that digital exclusion cannot be solved by one service or one local council, but requires cross-government collaboration.

Local leadership

Stephen Curtis, head of The Centre of Excellence for Information Sharing, has suggested that public sector leaders are ‘holding back digital revolution’. He explained that 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.

Similarly, a council chief executive has suggested that the public sector lacks people with the necessary skills to lead digital transformation. He highlighted that in many cases, anything to do with digital is given to the head of IT. As such, digital projects are often poorly planned and systems which are not fit for purpose are being digitised, when a radical rethink of a whole service is needed.

National leadership

In the March 2015 Budget, former Chancellor George Osborne confirmed that there would be a role for the Government Digital Service (GDS) in helping local government achieve their digital transformation ambitions (the success of which is up for debate). However, in Philip Hammond’s most recent Autumn Statement, there was no mention of local government.

In a recent blog article, Theo Blackwell, argues that this omission should be corrected in the upcoming Government Digital Transformation Strategy and the 2017 Budget. In his view, central government, including the GDS, have an important role to play in supporting local government. He also highlights that a coherent digital strategy has not been included in any of the agreed devolution deals.

Fear over job losses

One of the major challenges highlighted for implementing artificial intelligence (AI) is the fear over a reduction in jobs.  However, Richard Sargeant, Director of ASI Data Science, suggests this isn’t necessarily the case. In his experience, AI will usually be used for tasks that are repetitive and that most staff members don’t enjoy. Staff can then be re-targeted to areas of work best suited to people, such as human interaction, making complex decisions or thinking creatively.

Security concerns

High profile data breaches – such as the 13,000 email addresses stolen from Edinburgh City Council’s database in 2015 – are one of the main concerns for local government.

However, Martyn Wallace, new chief digital officer for 28 of Scotland’s local councils, argues that local authorities need to move away from their negative thinking on this issue. Although he acknowledges the potential harm which could come from a data breach, he emphasises the need to focus on the facts and to take an ‘appropriate view’. For him, if you have appropriate security measures, then there is no reason why security fears should limit your digital progress.

Final thoughts

Although digital change requires overcoming a variety of challenges, such as those highlighted here, the opportunities they present have the potential to create efficiencies and provide better public services. Achieving digital transformation won’t be easy, but, by building partnerships with central government and the private sector, local councils are more likely to make a success of it.

Despite the prospect of Brexit and ongoing budgetary pressures, investing in digital transformation is not an option for local government, but a necessity.


Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. If you found this article interesting, you may also like to read our other digital articles. 

Highlighting policy and practice: research briefings from The Knowledge Exchange

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So far this year, our team of Research Officers in The Knowledge Exchange have researched and written more than 30 policy and research briefings on a diverse range of subjects, from housing and planning to technology and training. Written in a clear and concise style, each briefing brings together examples of recently published evidence, alerts readers to new and continuing developments and signposts sources of further information. New briefings are available exclusively to members of our Information Service, and the choice of topics is driven by what our members are asking us about.

Today’s blog post offers a flavour of just some of the topics we’ve been covering during the year.

Housing

In many parts of the UK, people are struggling to buy or rent affordable housing. One consequence is a rise in homelessness. Our briefing – Delivering solutions to tackle homelessness – describes the complexities involved in defining homelessness, and the subsequent difficulties in measuring the scale of the problem. The causes of homelessness are no less complex, and the briefing lists some of the factors that lead to people finding themselves on the street, such as eviction, unemployment, health problems and relationship breakdowns. It also highlights approaches to tackling homelessness, such as social impact bonds and homeless health peer advocacy.

Planning

Closely related to housing is the role of planning in ensuring that individuals and families not only have adequate homes, but the infrastructure and services needed to support communities. One of the significant developments in this area has been the UK government’s policy on devolving more powers (including planning) to England’s cities and regions. Our briefing – Devolution of planning powers to city-regions – explains that each devolution deal agreed between the UK government and local authorities is tailored to the local area. In the West Midlands, for example, a directly-elected mayor will be given planning powers to drive housing delivery and improvements.

The briefing notes that, while there is widespread agreement that devolution of planning powers to local areas is a positive step, there is also concern that local areas won’t be able to deliver what they need to in terms of planning without control of expenditure, much of which is still retained by central government.

Technology

Our “Ideas in Practice” series of briefings presents case studies of projects and initiatives that have tackled a range of social issues, often resulting in reduced costs or improved efficiency. Our smart cities briefing on MK: Smart outlines a technology-led urban innovation project in Milton Keynes that aims to improve the town’s key infrastructure in areas such as transport, energy, and water. One of MK:Smart’s success stories is its Smart Parking initiative, which has encouraged drivers to use limited parking spaces more effectively, as well as providing the council with a better understanding of parking behaviour.

Another technology-focused briefing looks at the increasing development of “serious games” in the domains of planning, education, health and cultural heritage. Serious games in the policy field have borrowed elements from the video games sector, such as virtual reality, simulations and digital game-based learning. As well as improving skills and engagement among individuals, serious games have been used as a powerful way of introducing new concepts to the public, and providing people with an understanding of different points of view. The briefing showcases some examples of the application of serious games, including ‘B3— Design your Marketplace!’ which created an immersive and playful environment to encourage citizens to give their views on the design of a marketplace in Billstedt, a district of Hamburg.

Education, training and skills

A number of our briefings this year have focused on the all-important areas of education, training and skills. The Ideas in Practice briefing on science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) education considers key trends and practical applications. Among the initiatives highlighted in the briefing is Third Space Learning, which connects primary schools in England and Wales with maths specialists via one-to-one online sessions.

In August, we published a briefing focusing on the impact of outdoor learning on educational attainment. It includes information on the implementation of the Forest School initiative in the UK, which places emphasis on children having contact with nature from an early age. The briefing highlights evidence that pupils with the highest connection to nature have been found to perform better in exams, and notes the positive impact on the attainment of those from deprived backgrounds.

Crime

Our briefing on urban gang crime highlights some of the ways that local authorities and organisations have sought to tackle the problem. One of the case studies focused on the exploitation of young women by gangs in Manchester. Delivered by women who have survived gang exploitation, it provides one-to-one support, allowing both mentors and victims to create lasting relationships and networks of support which help them as they transition from life within a gang. In 2013, the project won the Women in Housing award for best community/ training project for its work in rebuilding women’s lives.

Further information

This is just a taster of the variety of subjects addressed in The Knowledge Exchange’s policy and research briefings. A fuller list of briefings is provided here, and members of the Idox Information Service can keep up-to-date with newly-published briefings via our weekly Bulletin.