Air quality monitoring: a role for citizen science?

Car exhaust

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), air pollution causes three million deaths each year, making it a bigger killer than the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and malaria combined. But while the number of malaria deaths globally has been halved since 2000, and HIV mortality has fallen 35% since 2005, the number of premature deaths due to air pollution is forecast to rise to more than six million by 2050.

In the UK, around 40,000 people are estimated to die each year due to respiratory and cardiovascular conditions caused by exposure to toxic substances in the air. The associated healthcare costs are in the tens of millions of pounds.

Increasing our understanding of air pollution’s impact

The ways in which air pollution statistics are reported and presented can be confusing.  As a result, many people do not always make the links between poor air quality and ill health.

Earlier this year, the Royal Society of Physicians’ (RSP) landmark report highlighting the impact of air pollution in the UK made a number of recommendations for improvement, including increased understanding of the health impacts of air pollution and better monitoring:

“We need better, more accurate and wider-ranging monitoring programmes so that we can track population-level exposure to air pollution. We also need to develop adaptable monitoring techniques to measure emerging new pollutants, and known pollutants that occur below current concentration limits. We must develop practical technology – such as wearable ‘smart’ monitors – that empower individuals to check their exposure and take action to protect their health.”

The pros and cons of compact air monitoring devices

A recent podcast from the United States National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) looked at the potential and limitations of next generation air monitoring devices. The programme underlined that the low-cost devices are a long way from the air quality monitoring stations used by government agencies that have to meet rigorous quality requirements and are operated by skilled technicians.

Many of the emerging devices have not been fully tested. For example, it’s not clear how they will react under extreme temperatures. In addition, it’s important for the operators of low-cost monitoring devices to have a statistical plan for collecting and sharing data, and to be able to interpret the numbers.

At the same time, smart technologies are still in their infancy, and there are some concerns that “the internet of things” may actually contribute to environmental pollution.

However, the NIEHS podcast observed that the compact air monitoring devices are useful for comparing levels of pollution in different locations, and they also have educational value in giving students first-hand experience of monitoring their environment.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency is working with developers of the new technologies to ensure that they meet required standards, and has also developed a toolbox for citizen scientists to provide information and guidance on new low-cost compact technologies for measuring air quality.

The Smart Citizen Kit

One example of these next generation gadgets is the Smart Citizen Kit, a compact monitoring device that measures the levels of air pollution, noise pollution and humidity in the vicinity of a home, school or office. The small box can be placed near a window and its sensors gather and submit data to a website that shares and compares data elsewhere, all in real time.

In 2014, The Waag Society – a Dutch institute for art science and technology – partnered with the Smart Citizen platform to conduct a pilot project using the Smart Citizen Kit in Amsterdam.

73 kits were installed at locations around the city, and participants were provided with helpdesk support during the trial. The project highlighted a number of operational and technical issues associated with the kits. Some of the equipment failed to work correctly, and there were problems in comparing data from different locations. While there is room for further development, the project’s success in engaging citizens to measure air pollution is a strong indicator that many people are keen to be directly involved in monitoring their own environment.

Air patrols

Closer to home, another innovative air quality monitoring device has taken flight. In March 2016, pigeons in London were fitted with lightweight sensors to monitor levels of nitrogen dioxide and ozone in the city. The air quality recorded by the sensors was sent to followers of the @PigeonAir Twitter account. The idea was the winning entry in a competition organised for the London Design Festival, and aimed to highlight the dangers of air pollution. Londoners are now being invited to wear the air quality monitoring devices to help build a real-time map of pollution across the city.

Final thoughts

In 2011, a parliamentary committee called for a public awareness campaign to drive air quality up the political agenda and inform people about the positive action they could take to reduce emissions and their exposure to these.  It’s increasingly likely that emerging smart technologies for measuring air quality may have an important role to play in raising public awareness about the insidious dangers of air pollution.


If you enjoyed this post you may be interested in our previous commentary on environmental issues:

Coming up for air: tackling the toxic pollution in our cities

The positive paybacks of clearing the airThe positive paybacks of clearing the air

World Health Organization Air quality release: UK focus

An all-round approach: could the circular economy help the world turn the corner on climate change?

Biodiversity in the UK – it’s not just about habitat protection but how we live our livesBiodiversity in the UK – it’s not just about habitat protection but how we live our lives

Digital technology in social work practice

Using social media in social work practice was the topic of conversation at a recent conference, held at the University of Stirling. With a delegate list including academics, researchers, practitioners and representatives from the public and private sectors the conversation topics were broad and wide ranging from how to use social media, what to avoid doing and how to integrate digital technologies and systems into everyday practice for social workers.

social media infographic photoPartnerships to deliver digital solutions

In March last year we told you about the partnership between a local authority and Idox who teamed up to deliver a digital case management tool to support the council social workers in their day to day practice. The ideas that were promoted during the conference not only emphasises the innovative nature of that partnership when it was developed, but also the continuing possibilities to pursue innovative digital solutions within local government to allow Idox to continue deliver efficient and positive outcomes for service users.

Avoiding social media pitfalls

Aside from poor infrastructure, like a lack of wifi, and seemingly impenetrable work computer firewalls, both of which came up regularly in discussions, one of the main reasons social workers did not use social media was fear, uncertainty and worry of the repercussions should something be posted or liked which was deemed inappropriate.

Rachel Wardell, the director of Services at Warwickshire council gave a talk on utilising Twitter in an appropriate way and outlined the “7 stages of Twitter” for new and advanced users. She suggested that Twitter was actually a great way for social workers, teams and managers to make connections and share best practice across the profession. She discussed how links initially forged on twitter by a follow or the sharing of an article developed into partnerships and trips to visit areas of best practice to observe and learn from fellow professionals.picjumbo.com_HNCK1814

However for many social workers, and their management teams, social media use can still be problematic, with the BBC reporting earlier in the year that there had been a rise in the number of council workers being punished for misconduct relating to social media. For social work teams the pressures and implications are even more significant. In discussion with Birmingham University’s Dr Tarsem Singh Cooner some of the delegates highlighted examples of colleagues who had been accused of bringing the profession into disrepute and some extreme instances where they had been removed from cases at the request of service users who had seen a post on their social media account which was not secured with privacy settings.

While most were keen to stress that these were individual mistakes and misjudgements there was still anxiety about the increasingly blurred boundaries between public and private, the importance of relationship building and personal experience for social workers interacting with service users, but the necessity to remain professional. The phrase ‘social workers are human too’ was used regularly by those advocating the use of social media and that councils should use a level of common sense and discretion when dealing with incidents involving staff and social media. However, the general consensus appeared to be that social media should be treated with caution:

  • use a separate work and personal account
  • use an alias
  • employ maximum privacy settings
  • don’t post anything that could potentially bring the profession or your conduct into disrepute
An example (from my own Twitter) of how Twitter can be used to document conferences and interact with professionals

An example (from my own Twitter) of how Twitter can be used to document conferences and interact with professionals

Making social work ‘appier

One of the big developments which has become increasingly popular as a tool to engage social work in digital technology is the creation of apps. Many of the conference discussions were on the benefits of using an app, how they can be utilised fully in their roles as training tools and information providers or how they can be used to encourage participation and communication in aspects such as feedback.

Anne Campbell from Queens University Belfast discussed the development of a series of information-based apps which focused on child development. Another app covered the knowledge of social workers and social care teams of drug and alcohol in substance misuse cases, including symptoms, street names for abused substances and the studies which use examples of substance misuse in social work and adult and child protection cases. She discussed the importance of using practitioners and service users to develop the app, to ensure it was fit for purpose and easy to use. She also highlighted the potential for her apps, which currently operate in a Northern Irish context, to be developed and diversified to account for differences in policy in Scotland, the Republic of Ireland and England and Wales.

Screenshot images of the apps

Screenshot images of the apps

There is a potential for software development in the future which would see more secure data files more easily accessible via personalised secure apps and document drop apps, which could be shared across a number of sectors, including health, social care and education. Delivering the digital infrastructure platforms to develop and successfully run integrated systems and sharing platforms such as these would require huge investment from local authorities, and would potentially provide the opportunity to work in conjunction with specialists, such as Idox, to develop software which is supportive, flexible and fit for purpose.

Apps

Iphone apps. Image by Daniel Go via Creative Commons

Using social media to create connections

The final part of the afternoon was characterised by case study style discussions, where speakers presented their own experiences, both positive and negative of using social media and stressed the importance of social media as a way to create connections. The connections spoken about included connections between practitioners, to create a more extensive community of best practice within the social work profession, connections between service users and social workers, many of whom feel more comfortable communicating via social media, and finally creating connections between service users to help them provide support to each other. This was something specifically highlighted by the team from Lothian Villas in East Lothian.

Lothian Villas have been using a closed, invite only Facebook group as a forum to interact with young people staying with them during a period in residential care. Members can post on the page, while others respond giving advice and reminiscing, much like a traditional family would do. That, according to Ewan McKay, is vital for allowing children who have come from care to build and maintain relationships and have happy memories of their childhood which can go on to shape how they behave as adults in the future. They can also then pass their memories and advice onto the children who are coming through the system after them.

Other groups spoke about the use of document sharing sites, digital presentation sites and networking sites like LinkedIn to create and document continuing professional development (CPD), a core part of social workers’ continuing improvement and the maintenance of standards.

 

The conference highlighted the massive steps forward which have been taken and the desire for drive and innovation in digital infrastructure to take public services, and their delivery onto digital platforms. This would allow for greater connectivity between professions such as social work and other service providers in health and education resulting in more efficient services, producing better outcomes for service users. Using digital platforms well, including apps, sharing websites and personal social networking sites such as Twitter will allow practitioners and local authorities to ‘join up’ services to promote more holistic, person-centred care at a local level while allowing professionals to build a network of best practice and document their own CPD. Digital media in social work practice could potentially be a key enabler in improving practice and generating positive outcomes for service users.


Our popular Ask-a-Researcher enquiry service is one aspect of the Idox Information Service, which we provide to members in organisations across the UK to keep them informed on the latest research and evidence on public and social policy issues. To find out more on how to become a member, get in touch.

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London’s digital skills shortage: a priority for the new Mayor

By Steven McGinty

London’s tech industry has become one of the key drivers of growth in the capital. Within the first  nine months of 2015 the industry raised approximately £1.1 billion; a substantial increase on the £911 million raised throughout 2014. Over the next 10 years, Oxford Economics research expects the sector to grow at a rate of 5.1% per year and to generate an extra £12 billion of economic activity. It’s predicted that this will create an additional 46,000 digital jobs.

However, the growth in London’s tech industry is not guaranteed. Although current London Mayor Boris Johnson claims there are more professional developers in London than in San Francisco’s Silicon Valley, a recent CBI/KPMG London Business Survey indicates that there is still a shortage of skilled professionals.

Jess Tyrrell, Associate Director for the Centre for London and Director of the Connecting Tech City Programme, explains that “the skills shortage has grown from an ‘issue’ to a ‘crisis”. She warns that unless London can develop its talent pipeline, its digital potential may never be realised.

London Mayoral election

With so much at stake, it’s not surprising that the tech industry has become an issue in London’s mayoral election. One of the front runners, Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith, has promised that he’ll appoint a chief digital officer (CDO) to manage the city’s data and introduce a £1m “Mayor’s Tech Challenge” to encourage innovation. He has also voiced concerns at losing young tech professionals because of the cost of housing.

Labour MP Sadiq Khan (reported by YouGov to be currently leading the race) recently met with leaders of the industry body Tech UK. The organisation noted that Mr Khan was particularly interested in tackling the skills shortage and looking at how young Londoners could be better represented in the tech industry.

The Mayoral Manifesto for the Digital Economy

At the end of last year, the London Assembly Economy Committee published a manifesto identifying the main three challenges that the Mayor should seek to address. These were:

  • poor broadband connectivity for London businesses
  • a lack of gender and socio-economic diversity in the digital labour market
  • the significant shortage of skilled workers

The first challenge is self-evident. For a digital economy to be successful, it must be built on fast, reliable, access to broadband. Perhaps more interesting is the relationship between improving diversity and the skills shortage. Most notably, there is a strong argument that encouraging non-traditional groups – i.e. those who are not white, male and middle class – will help reduce the skills shortage.

Martha Lane Fox, co-founder of the lastminute.com (and an advisor to the UK government on rolling out broadband and digital services) is in favour of increasing diversity and believes that unemployed women should be trained to help address this skills crisis. In an article for the Financial Times, she states that:

Any company – or, more boldy, country – that dramatically improves its tech diversity will have enormous competitive advantage.

The Committee’s manifesto also makes a number of recommendations for the new Mayor. For example, it suggests that tech apprenticeships should be designed to give disadvantaged Londoners the best possible training, and that the Mayor could endorse the industry-led TechTalent Charter, which aims to increase gender diversity in the tech industry.

London’s Digital Future: The Mayoral Tech Manifesto 2016

In January, Tech UK, the Centre for London, and the Tech London advocates released their manifesto for the future London Mayor. Ben Rogers, Director of the Centre for London, states that:

The responsibility of the next Mayor is to ensure that London gets the best of the digital revolution.

Like the London Assembly’s report, the Tech Manifesto focuses on the current skills shortage, noting that 93% of tech firms believe the skills gap is having a direct negative impact on their business.

The manifesto argues that London must do more to mend its fractured talent pipeline. One suggestion put forward is to establish a Digital Apprenticeship Task Force within the first 100 days of the new Mayor’s term of office. Its purpose would be to improve the quality and quantity of higher and degree-level apprenticeships. The next Mayor, say the authors of the manifesto, should work with the tech sector to ensure that the apprenticeships are fit-for-purpose, and should be particularly focused on areas where demand for skills is greatest.

With the EU referendum on the horizon, it’s also interesting to note the emphasis on tech companies having the freedom to recruit talent from across the globe. The manifesto recommends that the next Mayor should be an advocate for providing clear routes for migrant workers under the Tier 2 skilled worker visa, and oppose any restrictions. It also suggests that the Mayor should work with London universities to investigate the possibility of a trial of the Post-Study Work Visa for occupations where there is a clear skills shortage.

Final thoughts

The shortage of tech skills is a global problem. However, it’s a challenge that London must address if its digital economy is to avoid a slowdown. A key priority for the next Mayor of London should be to develop the tech industry’s talent pipeline. In practical terms, this is likely to involve protecting the industry’s access to skilled migrant workers, to ensure London’s growth in the short term, alongside investing in London’s diverse population and encouraging the best and the brightest to seek out exciting tech careers.


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

Further reading: if you liked this blog post, you might also want to read our other articles on the digital sector.

Q&A with Mark Evans: “To make evidence effective you have to win the war of ideas”

Markfor posters

Mark Evans is the Director and Professor of Governance at the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis at the University of Canberra, Australia. In this interview with the Knowledge Exchange, Mark talks about how his research is used in policy development.

How can policy makers/practitioners benefit from developing their knowledge and use of evidence?

The more I’ve got involved in the practice of decision making and developing policies, the more I’ve seen the value of evidence. To make evidence effective you have to win the war of ideas. Politicians have their own sources of evidence – internal policy, preferred sources, media etc. – and ministers are enveloped by a whole range of sources. Good evidence has to find a way of being heard and cutting through this.

Civil servants are very skilled in committees and running processes and programmes effectively. They are good at technical solutions and responses, but not adaptive developmental issues, which require time. Their ability to engage and get to the hardest to reach groups within policy, was one of the key findings of our study. How do you cost programmes which take a long time and investment, and target groups experiencing significant marginalisation?

When people talk to you about evidence, research or knowledge, what do they most frequently raise as issues?

Real time evidence – which we can only do through open data. In Australia this is difficult as we don’t have national datasets to enable large scale analysis or comparison. The UK is far ahead of us in terms of data and its use in evidence. In the UK there is no shortage of data, but it needs to be more dynamic, whereas in Australia it’s not sufficient. Resources such as Euromonitor don’t exist in Australia, so we can’t compare or contrast issues or monitor impact. Spatial modelling is very influential due to this lack of data – simulated models for different areas are necessary as we don’t have the real data.

What are the mistakes people make when it comes to developing knowledge, things which you really need to avoid?

Not understanding the political dynamics leads to failure. Not understanding that knowledge is power, and assuming that what makes good evidence is what makes good understanding, are big traps to fall into. Just because you develop good evidence doesn’t mean it will be accepted.

The most important first step is agreement around values and principles. The classic example in Australia would be the original agreement on the child support scheme:  ‘absent fathers should contribute’ was the fundamental principle and getting that agreement led to the introduction of the scheme.

What are the main issues facing policy makers in the next 5 years? What evidence will they need?

This may be peculiar to Australia, but the personalisation of politics and policies, is now impacting. The ‘Obama technologies’ approach of targeting messages to voters and the targeting of resources to particular groups, is on the rise, so policy is becoming individually relevant. If we know what people want, we can then move resources to target their needs. The evidence to help policy makers to do this successfully (i.e. generally the use of new technologies, big data, social media, getting real time data on preferences) is going to grow in importance and be in demand.

Key policy issues are ageing, the cost of care and pensions, funding the social security gaps and climate change. There is also a rise in the development of preventative health and generally the funding of higher education.

How do you think people will be carrying out evidence, research and knowledge development in five years’ time?

Technology, everyone always says technology! Normally there is a lag between the technology and its realisation in public policy – this was certainly the case up until recently.

Largely because there is an association between technology and productivity, there is an inverse relationship between use the use of consultants and productivity. There is only a productivity gain in the public sector in the digitisation of services and the consolidation of the use of technologies.

There is a presumption of localism in policy, but actually technology development is leading to more centralisation. This can be a positive thing for the availability and reliability of data, but negative for understanding very local issues.

If you had a ‘best-kept secret’ about research, evidence and knowledge, what would you recommend, and why?

An approach which is useful in thinking about the context of evidence and policymaking is to ask “I am in my ‘cockpit’ (desk, computer, books, advisors, people I know), but what is in your cockpit?” We’ve found that the more experienced policy officers all had mentors, all had experts, they knew about data, and could do policy relatively quickly. This contrasted with younger policy makers (the ‘Wikipedia policy makers’). Fast-track policy making is being done (ministers deciding and the policy maker sent off to write the evidence base) but if their ‘cockpit’ isn’t complete then the policy making can have holes.

Finally, what led you to a role developing knowledge institutions and focusing on research and evidence development? 

In 1999,  I established the international development unit at York, looking at post-war recovery study. It was just before Afghanistan and Iraq so we became the ‘go to’ place for it, and started to look at the interface between evidence and politics. Many were disregarding the evidence – it’s really all about jobs and poverty; people move towards radicalisation when they have no hope no future.

I came to Australia for the better relationship between government and academia, through the National School of Government.  I have been able to do things in Australia that I wouldn’t have been able to do in UK, bringing together theory and practice. The UK is good at collaboration, and I have taken that to Australia aiming to be the ‘collaborator of first resort’.


You can follow Mark on Twitter @MarkEvansACT and you can follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

Read some of our other blogs on the use of evidence in public policy:

Digital childhoods: what technology means for the development of children

By Rebecca Jackson

The recent advancement of technology in society has been fast and significant. Young adults who were children themselves less than 15 years ago have admitted that, even to them, the difference in ‘childhood’ as they remember it and how it appears to be today is stark. And for many older members of the public, the advances have made ‘childhood’ almost unrecognisable. The Scottish Universities Insight Institute is currently running a series of seminars looking at digital technology across the life course, one of which considered the role of technology in relation to young children.

Creative Commons,Ty, 2007

Image by Ty via Creative Commons

Common misconceptions

The debate around the use of digital technology by children is fraught with hearsay and sometimes distorted reporting of statistics in the mainstream media. This has resulted in confusion about what it means to be digitally literate, and an emphasis on the negative views that people have about children using technology.

These are some of the most common misconceptions as identified by a group of researchers from the Scottish Universities Insight Institute:

  • Digital technology is just laptops and computers: When many people refer to ‘digital technology’ they talk about laptops, tablet computers and desktops. In fact, the term covers a far wider range of devices and activities. This includes cameras, video games consoles, streaming music or listening to an mp3 player or iPod, using Skype or FaceTime to communicate, mobile phones, streaming videos on youtube and watching TV or DVDs.
  • Less affluent socioeconomic groups don’t have access to digital technology: While academics commented that their study showed there may not have been as many devices in lower income households, most still had access to mobile phones, televisions, the internet, a games console, an interactive toy, an mp3 player or IPod, camera or a tablet computer.
  • Children engaging with digital technology comes at the expense of ‘traditional play’: Studies have shown that, contrary to popular belief, children still have more access to, and spend more time playing with, ‘traditional toys’ such as dolls, cars, soft toys and outdoor equipment. The study also highlighted that children use digital experiences to inform their own imaginative play. They were observed acting out scenes or engaging with imaginary characters from films or television programmes and pretending to use laptops and mobile phones during play, rather than using them directly.
  • Children know more about digital technology than adults: Children don’t know anything until they are exposed to it – much of children’s exposure comes from parents and is representative of the use by other family members. A study also showed that if a child was completing an activity using digital technology (a video game for example) which they found too difficult or “fiddly” then this could deter them from using technology in the future.
  • Children using digital technology are more socially isolated and reclusive: This is a common stereotype which is normally directed at older children and adolescents. However children of all ages have been found to use digital technology as a facilitator of social relationships. This includes the use of websites like Facebook and Twitter, as well as the use of Skype and FaceTime to communicate with overseas relatives or friends.
Creative Commons,Antonio Thomás Koenigkam Oliveira, 2012

Image by Antonio Thomás Koenigkam Oliveira via Creative Commons

Blended learning

Many academics who study the impact of digitisation on children (or people in general) highlight the unhelpful nature of the “good/bad” debate.  As one researcher at a recent conference held at Strathclyde University stated: “Blended learning – a combination of digital and traditional learning – is best for children and their development; quite often in studies we have found that children do this naturally themselves.”

Examples of this which were given was a child acting out a scene from the Disney film Frozen with soft toys, once they had seen the film on the television. Others could include printing out characters from films or TV shows to colour in with pencil or crayon, and children using a camera to capture memories or take photos of things which are interesting to them while outside playing or on a walk.

kid-taking-photos-with-cheap-digital-camera

Image by Photoflurry via Creative Commons

Same moral objections, different context

The technology may be different, but the moral questions are the same ones that have been plaguing innovations and inventions for hundreds of years. The arrival of comics, the transmission of radio (which was once thought to be toxic for children to hear), the spread of ideas promoted by television, even the electrification of homes, have all been met with some level of trepidation by the general public. Fears about digital technology and the normalisation of its use in everyday life will, academics feel, eventually be surpassed by a new technology which we can panic over instead.

Use in education

This is one of the more contentious issues for many teachers and local authorities. There are questions about the extent to which digital technologies should be integrated in to the curriculum, particularly in the early years, and the role of the teacher in relation to digital learning. It is also clear that teacher enthusiasm and training in using digital technology is important to ensure that children get the most out of digital teaching.

Some schools have trialled bring your own device to school initiatives, although the reception given to these has been mixed. Many schools and teachers also make use of interactive whiteboards and on-line portals to set homework and to give children access to resources. There has been a suggestion that children and teachers should work with software developers to produce more apps, programmes and effective digital learning resources.

In Scotland, integrating digital elements to the curriculum has been improved by the transition to the Curriculum for Excellence. However, some schools still struggle with a lack of resources and have to continue to make use of an “ICT slot” in order to allow children to be able to access technology on a one-to-one basis.

The general consensus among education practitioners towards digital technology appears to be positive however, with many schools using online channels to communicate with pupils and parents. Some classes have blogs which the children are encouraged to contribute to, and others have utilised online web chats to twin with schools abroad in a  modern-day pen pal set up.

Creative Commons, Kathy Cassidy, 2006

Image by Kathy Cassidy via Creative Commons

A right to digital literacy?

Another issue being discussed by academics and policy makers is the idea of a right to digital literacy. In the view of many, digital learning should be integrated into everyday traditional learning to equip children with digital skills. Failing to prepare children, some academics argue, would inhibit their ability to contribute effectively in a digitised world.

It is clear that the debate around digital technology and child development will continue, and there is a need for both further study and better communication of research findings to the wider public.


Read our other recent blogs on children’s policy:

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Season’s readings: looking back on a year of blogging, and looking forward to 2016

Time Passing shutterstock_88253254

We’ve almost reached the turn of the year, a good moment to pause and reflect on what the Knowledge Exchange has been blogging about in 2015.

We’ve covered a wide range of subject areas, from education to the arts, health to housing. With over 160 blog posts since January, there’s too much to fully consider in this short review, but some of our featured blog posts are worth revisiting.

 A global view of digital government

Throughout the year, Steven McGinty has been taking readers on a world tour of technology, reporting on the application by and impact of digital technologies on governments at home and abroad.

In January, Steven looked at the potential and pitfalls of data sharing and linking up UK government databases. Later in the year, he highlighted public sector tech trends, including using technology to open up government and improve democracy. And Steven has also reported on digital government developments in Estonia, Norway and Singapore.

 Planning matters

The Knowledge Exchange started life as The Planning Exchange, and we still maintain a strong interest in planning issues.

In May, Morwen Johnson highlighted the increasing interest in contemporary strategic planning as a delivery solution to complex problems. Morwen noted that an RTPI policy paper had advocated a strengthening of strategic planning to secure greater co-operation with respect to development and to facilitate city regions.

In September, Rebecca Jackson reported from the annual Scottish Planning and Environmental Law conference in Edinburgh, which covered the theme of “the changing landscape of planning”.

 Eventful posts

Rebecca joined the Knowledge Exchange in August 2015 and immediately hit the ground blogging. She’s been out and about reporting from events and covering topics as diverse as co-production in the criminal system, child neglect, wellbeing and resilience, and citizenship and identity.

 Learning to work, working to learn

Rebecca also reported from the Scottish Learning Festival, and during the year our blog has featured a number of other posts on education, skills, training and employment.

In July, Heather Cameron looked at the continuing challenge of enabling young people from disadvantaged areas to access higher education.

Stacey Dingwall described the issues raised in a report from the UK Commission for Education and Skills, which suggested that young people are facing a ‘postcode lottery’ when searching for work experience. And in September, Stacey highlighted our Knowledge Exchange briefing which focused on the crucial importance of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) skills in the UK.

Stacey’s post was also a useful reminder that, as well as blogging, we also gather evidence, data and research to produce briefings on key topics, such as change management, green infrastructure and new approaches to housing later in life.

 Save the day

Throughout the year, we’ve tried to observe significant days in the calendar by blogging on related topics.

  • To mark International Women’s Day, Donna Gardiner wrote about the barriers facing female entrepreneurs
  • On the International Day of Older Persons, I blogged about the economic opportunities of ageing
  • On World Food Day, I highlighted the problem of food waste, and what’s being done to tackle it

Special themes

We also blogged on three selected themes in 2015: cities; elections; and evidence-based policies:

  • In March Rebecca Riley considered the role of cities in the knowledge economy, while in April Morwen reported from a conference looking at smart cities in a critical light.
  • Rebecca also highlighted the importance of research and evidence for policy makers in a Knowledge Exchange White Paper, published in March.
  • In May, Stacey described her experience as part of the Idox Elections team in helping to deliver the company’s postal vote management system for the UK general election.

The year to come

Much of 2016 is still a calendar of unforeseen events. But some dates have been pencilled into the diary, and may well feature in the Knowledge Exchange blog next year.

Elections will take place on 5 May for the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Greater London Assembly and for 128 local authorities in England. On the same day, there will be mayoral elections in London, Bristol, Liverpool and Salford and elections for Police and Crime Commissioners in England and Wales.

In the summer, the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro will no doubt generate discussion on the legacy of London 2012.

Among the selected themes we’ll be focusing on in 2016 are cities and digital transformation. Meanwhile, ongoing issues are likely to continue making the news: the struggle facing local authorities to meet increasing demands with fewer resources; further devolution of powers from central government; climate change; health and social care integration; and the affordable housing shortage.

And it’s looking likely that by this time next year the people of the UK will have made their decision on whether to remain in or leave the European Union.

We’ll be scrutinising these and other developments, trying to make sense of them and keeping our readers posted on new research and evidence.

From all of us in the Knowledge Exchange, we wish you a Merry Christmas and a happy, healthy and prosperous 2016.


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

The next big thing in management and organisational development … why your organisation should be considering reverse mentoring

A jigsaw of a handshake being completed ny two hands.

Think of the modern workplace and a number of features may spring to mind: technological innovations, flexible and remote working, to name a few. However, a more social factor is also at play: the multigenerational workforce. For the first time in history, it is now feasible that a workforce could comprise employees from four different generations, i.e. the World War II Generation (born 1929-1945), Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964), Generation X (born 1965-1979) and Generation Y/Millennials (born after 1980).

The characteristics of a generation

In 2012, Ashridge Business School identified that Generation Y (Gen Y) has grown up in an environment that is very different to previous generations. Additionally, their survey of managers from around the world found that Gen Y:

  • comes to the workplace with different skills;
  • is motivated by different things;
  • thinks differently about learning and development; and
  • approaches work relationships differently.

As noted by Steve Regus, writing for HR magazine in 2012, Gen Y also take a less hierarchical attitude towards work, and place a high importance on mentoring and feedback. The trick, according to Regus, is for organisations to utilise the strengths of this diverse workforce to their advantage, by creating opportunities to learn from each other.

The technological benefits of reversing

One way that some organisations have approached this is through reverse mentoring. Rather than following the usual path of older, more senior employees being assigned a newer colleague to mentor, reverse mentoring (unsurprisingly) sees younger or newer employees sharing their knowledge with company stalwarts. An early champion of this strategy in the 90s was Jack Welch, then CEO of General Electric. Welch recognised the importance of capitalising on the skills of the company’s younger employees, and instigated an initiative that saw older employees learn how to use Netscape. Today, reverse mentoring is commonplace in global companies including Microsoft and Cisco.

Technology is an area in which reverse mentoring is particularly valuable. Having grown up in an age of constant technological change and development, Gen Y are ideally placed to offer insight into how technological innovation can benefit an organisation and its processes. Crucially, technological innovation has also opened up the possibility of working more flexibly, something that is highly valued by Gen Y employees. Senior employees who have taken part in reverse mentoring programmes have also highlighted gaining an insight into the potential benefits of flexible working as one of the positive outcomes of developing a mentoring relationship with a younger employee. Thus, opening up this dialogue between generations can potentially diffuse conflict between the traditional 9-5 generations and the less hierarchical Gen Y.

A two-way street

In practice, reverse mentoring has been found to be less ‘teaching an old dog new tricks’ and more of an exchange of information and experience. At General Electric, one of the most basic benefits for the young mentors was simply the ability to gain contacts in the upper echelons of the company. The mutual benefits of the relationship can also be seen in terms of the insight it offers each party. The older participant gains in terms of gaining new perspectives on the company’s industry, and the thinking of its workforce, while the younger gains a better understanding of the company’s strategies and objectives, and becomes better placed to recommend actions or technologies that may support these.

Reverse mentoring – how to do it

In 2013, Boston College’s Sloan Center on Aging and Work published an evaluation of the implementation of a reverse mentoring initiative by The Hartford, a leading US insurance company. The company’s CEO had identified a need for the company to become more confident in its use of digital technologies, particularly social media, and recognised that its younger employees were best placed to drive this forward. Following a successful initial pilot that went onto become a national initiative within the company, The Hartford highlighted the following factors as crucial to the success of any reverse mentoring programme:

  • the creation of a project timeline;
  • identifying the business objectives – link the reverse mentoring programme to what the business is trying to achieve as far as possible;
  • ensure that mentors are fully informed of what mentees are expecting to get out of the exchange;
  • making sure the initiative has clear agendas and timelines;
  • using the mentor role as a way of keeping younger employees motivated; and
  • encourage both mentors and mentees to be open to the relationship and gaining new knowledge, and to respect that each other approaches learning differently.

The final point is echoed by the majority of companies who have used reverse mentoring within their organisation. Initially, Cisco had issues around more senior employees adapting to younger employees’ more informal way of working. As they, and other reverse mentoring adoptees have discovered, though, the key is commitment to the programme, in recognition of the value it can bring to the business.


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Further reading: if you liked this blog post, you might also want to read Heather Cameron’s post on how entrepreneurship drives growth in the UK.

eGov Singapore: award winning leader in digital government

By Steven McGinty

“Singapore leads in all dimensions of digital readiness and scores high in economic competitiveness, citizen engagement as well as public sector productivity.”

These are the words of Ng Wee Wei, Managing Director (Health & Public Service) at Accenture, in Singapore. He made this statement on the day Singapore was ranked number one for digital government, in a comparative study carried out by Accenture.

However, this is just one of the many accolades won by Singapore. Other notable successes have included:

In my latest article on digital government around the world, we’ll take a look at how this island city state has become a global leader and what can be learned from their experience.

E-government policy development

In the 1970s the Singapore government realised that they were unable to compete with the larger labour-intensive economies. As a result, they identified ICT as a way of improving economic performance, particularly through increasing labour productivity, making processes leaner and more efficient, and delivering better services to customers.

In 1982, the government launched the Civil Service Computerization Program (CSCP). The programme’s main objective was to enhance public administration through the effective use of ICT. This involved developing new business processes, automating work functions and reducing paperwork for greater internal operational efficiencies. In essence, it provided the foundation for subsequent e-services.

Throughout the 1980s and the 1990s the government started to develop the programme. For instance, the National Information Technology Plan (NITP) was introduced to support cross agency collaboration. This led to the creation of “TradeNet”, an application that enabled exchange of documents between the private sector and various government agencies.

As Singapore entered the new millennium, the e-Government Action Plan (2000-2003) (eGAP 1) was launched. This was the first of what the government now calls the ‘eGov masterplans’.  It set out the aim that:

All government services that can be delivered electronically shall be delivered through electronic means”.

The second e-Government Action Plan (2003-2006) emphasised improving the customer experience, connecting citizens with each other and fostering collaboration between government agencies.

The third, iGov2010 Masterplan (2006-2010), had a strong focus on integrating government services, making sure that processes cut across agencies. In addition, increasing the e-engagement of citizens was also a key objective, particularly in fostering greater bonds within different communities, such as young people.

Most recently, the government introduced the eGov2015 Masterplan (2011-2015), which outlined the vision of collaboration between the government, the private sector and the people through digital technologies. There was also a recognition that the government should act as a platform provider to encourage greater co-creation of new e-services.

Key features of eGov Singapore

  • SingPass

Singpass (Singapore Personal Access) was introduced in March 2003 and enables citizens access to government e-services, from over 60 government agencies via a single platform. In total, there are 3.3 million registered users, with transactions increasing from 4.5 million in 2003 to 57 million in 2013. The system provides a high level of security for users, as well as removing the need for agencies to develop and administer their own.

In July 2015, an Enhanced SingPass was introduced. It included improvements such as the option to customise the SingPass ID, mobile-friendly features, and stronger security capabilities. However, the updates proved to be so popular that on their initial release the website was temporarily inaccessible due to high traffic.

  • data.gov.sg

data.gov.sg was launched in June 2011 and is Singapore’s first stop portal for publicly available government data, as well as applications developed using government data.  The portal has increased to over 8,700 datasets (covering a range of themes, from business and the economy to housing and urban planning), with contributions coming from over 60 government agencies.

The government has introduced schemes such as ideas4apps Challenge and Harnessing Data for Value Creation Call-for-Collaboration (CFC) to encourage the creative use of government data. One example from the portal’s showcase is FixMyStreet, an app which allows citizens to report, view or discuss issues with public facilities, such as litter and broken lifts.

  • eCitizen

eCitizen was introduced in 1999 and is the 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).

In 2013, the eCitizen portal was recognised for “Outstanding Achievement” in the Government category of the Interactive Media Awards. It beat 137 other nominees to the award, which evaluates entries based on: design; content; feature; functionality; usability; and standards compliance. Since the portal’s redesign in 2012, there has been a 65% increase in visitors, with significant improvement in the success rates of searches (up to three times).

 What key lessons can countries learn from Singapore?

In the book, National Strategies to Harness Information Technology: Seeking Transformation in Singapore, Finland, the Philippines, and South Africa, Jeannie Chua outlines the key lessons that other countries can take from the Singaporean experience. This includes:

  • Stable political leadership

Singapore has had the same political party in charge of its Cabinet since 1959. This high level of political stability is rare, unlikely to occur in most countries and not necessarily desirable for democracy. However, it does highlight the importance of some level of continuity for progressing a digital agenda, whether that’s within the same government or across different government administrations.

  • Industry collaboration – getting the private sector to do more

The use of government intervention to create opportunities for the private sector and providing effective working partnerships has been very successful in Singapore. This ‘catalyst’ role has encouraged innovation and supported the creation of a successful ICT industry.

  • The willingness to innovate and take risks

Singapore’s willingness to adopt technologies at an early stage has proved to be a success.  For instance, the National Library of Singapore adopted RFID (radio-frequency identification) technology, the use of radio waves to automatically identify people or objects, even though it was relatively untested at the time.

 Final thoughts

Singapore has been successful at creating a strong foundation for e-government and is deserving of all its accolades. The success has been built on a combination of factors including political willingness and economic policies. However, what has also been important is the country’s ability to learn from each stage in its development.

As the country moves forward, key issues such as cybercrime and privacy concerns will have to be addressed. In 2014, there was a security breach involving 1,560 Singpass accounts. A year later, the government introduced a new central government agency for cybersecurity operations. It’s hoped that this central agency will be able to bolster the country’s critical ICT infrastructure.

It’s these measures, and its ability to act swiftly, that will hold Singapore in good stead for the future. This is maybe the real lesson for those looking to emulate Singapore’s e-government success.


Enjoy this article? Read our other recent blogs relating to the digital economy:

IDOX Plc announced on 8 October 2015 that it had acquired the UK trading arm of Reading Room Ltd. Reading Room, founded in 1996, is a digital consultancy business with a focus on delivering websites and digital services that enable its customers to make critical shifts into digital business and client engagement. It has an international reputation for its award winning and innovative approaches to strategic consultancy, design, and technical delivery.

The UK digital economy: how can the government support digital businesses?

By Steven McGinty

Last month, the House of Commons Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) Committee launched an inquiry into the UK’s digital economy. Iain Wright MP, the Chair of the Committee, explained that:

Digital technology is rapidly changing the economic landscape in which firms operate. Nothing short of a digital and tech revolution is taking place, with new entrepreneurs and business models emerging and existing businesses having to adapt quickly to keep pace.”

The inquiry will focus on three areas:

  • Government actions affecting businesses in the digital economy;
  • how to maximise the opportunities and overcome challenges in the sector;
  • how the sector can contribute to improving national productivity.

The BIS Committee is asking for submissions from those involved in the digital economy, including digital businesses and companies hoping to benefit from technology.

 Why should the government support the digital economy?

Innovate UK expect that, by 2015, the UK digital economy will account for 10% of GDP. Tech City UK report that the sector employs 1.5 million people (about 7.5% of the total workforce); although this is expected to increase by 5.4% by 2020. In 2013-2014, 15% of all the companies formed were digital businesses. Most were based outside of London (74%) and nearly all were SMEs (98%). The majority (90%) of digital companies expect revenues to grow within the next year.

Technology clusters

Technology clusters play an important role in the UK’s digital economy. There are 21 clusters across the UK, with expertise ranging from software development to marketing and advertising. The majority of digital businesses consider themselves part of a cluster (65%). Bournemouth has the fastest growing digital cluster, with a 212% increase in the number of companies formed since 2010. Its specialism is digital marketing and advertising.

This growth suggests specific focus should be given to technology clusters. Tech City UK found that a third of digital companies highlighted access to funding as a challenge, particularly outside of London and the South East.  One suggestion offered by Tech City UK is that businesses need to take advantage of European funding where possible.

Other forms of support could include: providing fast and accessible broadband; access to a pool of skilled employees; suitable workspace, particularly in the South East; and business and mentoring advice.

Digital Economy Strategy 2015-2018

At the beginning of the year, Innovate UK set out a strategy to support UK businesses in getting the most out of digital technology. It sets out five main objectives:

  • Encouraging digital innovators
  • Focusing on the user
  • Equipping the digital innovator
  • Growing infrastructure, platforms and ecosystems
  • Ensuring sustainability.

Within the strategy, actions are put forward for how these goals will be achieved. For instance, to ensure sustainability, Innovate UK would work closely with UK research councils to encourage cross-disciplinary academic collaboration and help connect it to real-world business needs. If even some progress is made with each of these objectives it would be hugely beneficial for the UK digital economy.

Innovation centres – the Digital Catapult

The Digital Catapult is a national centre that aims to accelerate the UK’s best digital ideas to the marketplace, in order to create new products, services and jobs. It was established in 2014 by Innovate UK and is based in the Knowledge Quarter in Kings Cross. There are also three local centres in the North East and Tees Valley (NETV), Brighton, and Yorkshire.

The Digital Catapult centres focus on the challenges associated with: closed organisational data; personal data; creative content; and the internet of things (IoT). The centres are involved in a number of projects, including IoTUK, which has been launched as part of a £40 million government investment in the internet of things (the use of networks to allow the exchange and collection of data from everyday objects, such as fridges). The programme aims to increase the adoption of high quality IoT technologies and services throughout business and the public sector.

Regina Moran, CEO at Fujitsu UK&I, notes that:

The IoT has the potential to turn ideas in a hyper-connected world into fully realised digital services but it has challenges ahead and it’s encouraging to see the Government investing in its development.”

 Regulation

The Prime Minister, David Cameron, has managed to convince the European Commission (EC) to review the VAT regime for tech start-ups, arguing that it punished British entrepreneurs. The regime, which was implemented in January, forced companies to pay tax in every country they traded in rather than their headquarters. It also eliminated a £81,000 threshold for which companies have to register for VAT duty.

However, the Commission has recognised that this was adversely affecting small businesses. Therefore, measures such as the reintroduction of the VAT threshold and a single registration scheme for cross-border taxes, will be included in the Commission’s consultation.

The UK government’s approach shows a commitment to providing a competitive business environment and a single European market in digital services. It’s likely that most digital businesses would support the government’s approach.

Concluding remarks

The upcoming BIS Committee inquiry will provide an opportunity to reflect on the government’s approach so far. Although evidence confirms that the digital economy has been growing, there may be areas that the UK is failing to capitalise on. In a highly competitive globalised economy, it’s important that the UK exploits any strategic advantage, ensuring that innovative ideas are brought to the market quickly.

The inquiry will also provide an opportunity for a dialogue between the government and the private sector. This increased collaboration can only be good news for the UK’s digital businesses.

Here at Idox, we take an active interest in the future of the digital economy and eagerly await the Committee’s findings.


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

Enjoy this article? Read our other recent blogs relating to the digital economy:

IDOX Plc announced on 8 October 2015 that it had acquired the UK trading arm of Reading Room Ltd. Reading Room, founded in 1996, is a digital consultancy business with a focus on delivering websites and digital services that enable its customers to make critical shifts into digital business and client engagement. It has an international reputation for its award winning and innovative approaches to strategic consultancy, design, and technical delivery.