How AI is transforming local government

Robot

By Steven McGinty

Last year, Scottish Local Government Chief Digital Officer Martyn Wallace spoke to the CIO UK podcast and highlighted that in 2019 local government must take advantage of artificial intelligence (AI) to deliver better outcomes for citizens. He explained:

“I think in the public sector we have to see AI as a way to deliver better outcomes and what I mean by that is giving the bots the grunt work – as one coworker called it, ‘shuffling spreadsheets’ – and then we can release staff to do the more complex, human-touch things.”

To date, very few councils have felt brave enough to invest in AI. However, the mood is slowly starting to change and there are several examples in the UK and abroad that show artificial intelligence is not just a buzzword, but a genuine enabler of change.

In December, Local Government Minister Rishi Sunak announced the first round of winners from a £7.5million digital innovation fund. The 16 winning projects, from 57 councils working in collaborative teams, were awarded grants of up to £100,000 to explore the use of a variety of digital technologies, from Amazon Alexa style virtual assistants to support people living in care, to the use of data analytics to improve education plans for children with special needs.

These projects are still in their infancy, but there are councils who are further along with artificial intelligence, and have already learned lessons and had measurable successes. For instance, Milton Keynes Council have developed a virtual assistant (or chatbot) to help respond to planning-related queries. Although still at the ‘beta’ stage, trials have shown that the virtual assistant is better able to validate major applications, as these are often based on industry standards, rather than household applications, which tend to be more wide-ranging.

Chief planner, Brett Leahy, suggests that introducing AI will help planners focus more on substantive planning issues, such as community engagement, and let AI “take care of the constant flow of queries and questions”.

In Hackney, the local council has been using AI to identify families that might benefit from additional support. The ‘Early Help Predictive System’ analyses data related to (among others) debt, domestic violence, anti-social behaviour, and school attendance, to build a profile of need for families. By taking this approach, the council believes they can intervene early and prevent the need for high cost support services. Steve Liddicott, head of service for children and young people at Hackney council, reports that the new system is identifying 10 or 20 families a month that might be of future concern. As a result, early intervention measures have already been introduced.

In the US, the University of Chicago’s initiative ‘Data Science for Social Good’ has been using machine learning (a form of AI) to help a variety of social-purpose organisations. This has included helping the City of Rotterdam to understand their rooftop usage – a key step in their goal to address challenges with water storage, green spaces and energy generation. In addition, they’ve also helped the City of Memphis to map properties in need of repair, enabling the city to create more effective economic development initiatives.

Yet, like most new technologies, there has been some resistance to AI. In December 2017, plans by Ofsted to use machine learning tools to identify poorly performing schools were heavily criticised by the National Association of Head Teachers. In their view, Ofsted should move away from a data-led approach to inspection and argued that it was important that the “whole process is transparent and that schools can understand and learn from any assessment.”

Further, hyperbole-filled media reports have led to a general unease that introducing AI could lead to a reduction in the workforce. For example, PwC’s 2018 ‘UK Economic Outlook’ suggests that 18% of public administration jobs could be lost over the next two decades. Although its likely many jobs will be automated, no one really knows how the job market will respond to greater AI, and whether the creation of new jobs will outnumber those lost.

Should local government investment in AI?

In the next few years, it’s important that local government not only considers the clear benefits of AI, but also addresses the public concerns. Many citizens will be in favour of seeing their taxes go further and improvements in local services – but not if this infringes on their privacy or reduces transparency. Pilot projects, therefore, which provide the opportunity to test the latest technologies, work through common concerns, and raise awareness among the public, are the best starting point for local councils looking to move forward with this potentially transformative technology.


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General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR): 10 things business needs to know

 

European Union flag with a padlock in the centre.

By Steven McGinty

On 25 May 2018, the data protection landscape will experience its biggest change in over 20 years.  This is because the European Union’s (EU) General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) will come into effect for all member states. The regulation, which has been described as ‘ambitious’ and ‘wide-ranging’, introduces a number of new concepts, including the high profile ‘right to be forgotten’ – a principle established in a case involving technology giant Google.

Below we’ve highlighted ten of the most important points for business.

Directly effective

The GDPR is ‘directly effective’, which means that the regulation becomes law without the need for additional domestic legislation (replacing the Data Protection Act 1998). However, member states have also been given scope to introduce their own legislation on matters such as the processing of personal data. This may result in some EU states having more stringent rules than others.

Sharing data and monitoring

It also seeks to increase the reach of EU data protection law. Not only will EU-based data controllers and processors fall under the scope of the GDPR, but its authority will also extend to any business which either processes personal data or monitors the behaviour of individuals within the EU.

This will impact businesses who transfer data outside the European Economic Area (EEA). It will be their responsibility to ensure that the country the data is being transferred to has adequate levels of data protection. The most prominent example of this issue was the US Safe Harbour scheme, which was intended to protect European individuals whose personal data is transferred between the EEA and the USA. In 2015, the European Court of Justice ruled that this scheme had ceased to provide a valid legal basis for EEA-US transfers of all types of personal data. It has now been replaced by the Privacy Shield.

Transparency and consent

Greater obligations have been placed on business with regard both to seeking consent for use of personal data and providing detailed information to individuals on how their personal data is being used. The GDPR requires that consent notices are ‘unambiguous’ – not assumed from a person’s failure to respond – and that consent is sought for different processing activities. Law firm, Allen and Overy recommends that businesses review their notices to ensure they are fit for purpose.

Personal data/ sensitive data

Article 4(1) of the GDPR includes a broader definition of ‘personal data’ than previous legislation. It states that any information relating to an individual which can be directly or indirectly used to identify them is personal data. Specifically, it refers to ‘online identifiers’, which suggests that IP addresses and cookies may be considered personal data if they can be easily linked back to the person.

Enhanced rights

New rights and the enhancement of existing rights will require some businesses to improve the way their data is stored and managed. These rights include:

  • Data portability – Business must ensure that individuals can have easy access to their personal data in case they want to transfer their data to other systems.
  • Strengthening subject access rights – Individuals can now request access to their data for no cost and it must be responded to within 30 days (this is a change from the current legislation which requires a £10 fee and there is 40 days to respond).
  • Right to be forgotten – Individuals can request that an organisation delete all the information they hold on them (although this would not apply if there was a valid reason to hold that data).
  • Right to object to processing – Individuals have the right to object to the way an organisation is processing their data.
  • Right to restrict processing – Individuals have the right to request that the processing of personal data is temporarily stopped. This may be invoked whilst a right to object request is being investigated.

Personal data breach

Businesses have an obligation to report breaches to their national regulator, such as the Information Commissioners Office (ICO) in England.  The GDPR requires that notice must be provided “without undue delay and, where feasible, not later than 72 hours after having become aware of it.” This may be challenging for some businesses, particularly if the incident is discovered at the end of the working week.

Failure to comply with GDPR

The regulation introduces two levels of fines. Less serious offences under the regulation will be liable for a fine of up to €10,000,000 or 2% of global turnover – depending on which is highest. However, for more serious breaches, such as a breach of an individual’s rights or a breach during international transfers, a business may be held liable for up to €20,000,000 or 4% of global turnover.

In addition, individuals are also given the right of redress, and those who have had their rights violated may seek to receive compensation. This has led digital marketers to suggest that GDPR could be the next PPI – a practice where insurance was mis-sold to customers, which resulted in a large number of successful claims against financial institutions.

Privacy by design

Technology businesses should also consider data protection at the initial design stage of product development. This could involve adopting technical measures such as pseudonymisation – the technique of processing personal data in such a way that it can no longer identify a particular person. Additional measures, such as policies and programmes, would also show a national regulator’s commitment to compliance with the GDPR.

European Data Protection Board (EDPB)

A new body has been created to issue opinions and to arbitrate between disputes that arise with national regulators.  The board will be made up of heads of national regulatory bodies (or their representatives) and the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS), who govern the data processing activities of EU institutions. The opinions expressed by this board may have important implications for data protection legislation.

Impact of Brexit

Evidence suggests some businesses may be delaying taking action until they see the results of the Brexit negotiations. This possibly explains the research by cloud security firm, Netskope, which found that 63% of UK workers have never heard of the GDPR. Similarly, research by Veritas Technologies, a leading information management firm, has found that 54% of organisations have not ensured they will comply with the new GDPR.

However, it would be very surprising if the UK did not ‘mirror’ the protections offered by the regulation, particularly considering the UK’s significant input to the new legislation. Digital minister Matt Hancock has also confirmed that the UK government intends to fully implement the GDPR.

Final thoughts

If businesses already have policy and procedures in place to meet the requirements of the Data Protection Act, then they should have a solid foundation to comply with the GDPR. In many ways, the new regulation simply provides a clear framework for delivering good practice in data protection.

However, all businesses will need to take action to ensure compliance with the GDPR. Otherwise, the financial penalties (as well as reputational damage) of a breach could have serious consequences for their business. And this is not just an IT issue. The whole organisation, starting from board level, must show a willingness to understand the legislation and implement procedures that protect the fundamental rights of individuals.


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 data-related articles

Supercouncils: questions raised about new powers for England’s combined authorities

town hall photo

Image: James Carson

Just over a year ago, Manchester began blazing a trail for devolution in England. Ten local authorities in the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) signed a deal with George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, for the transfer of powers in areas such as transport and skills from central to local government.

Since then, the English devolution bandwagon has picked up speed. After the general election in May, the newly-elected Conservative government introduced a Cities and Devolution Bill , creating a framework for the transfer of powers to the regions, and making provision for directly elected mayors.

During the summer, the Chancellor invited cities, towns and communities across the UK to submit their own devolution proposals, and by September 38 submissions had been received (including a number from Scotland and Wales).

Meanwhile, further deals have been announced, giving greater autonomy to local authorities in Sheffield, Cornwall, the North East of England and the Tees Valley. In November, two further deals were announced for the West Midlands and Liverpool.

As its momentum gathers pace, questions have arisen over the nature and implications of devolution for England’s cities and regions.

The devolution time frame

In October, a survey for Local Government Chronicle (LGC) highlighted concerns about the devolution timetable. 69% of the 45 chief executives and deputies responding to the survey indicated that the seven-week timeframe given to put a proposal together had been too tight. Of those councils which had not submitted a bid, 38% said they could not arrange a partnership with another authority, while 8% said they could not convince politicians in their area to agree.  However, the survey also indicated that 15% of councils were holding back on bids to see how other authorities fared first.

Accountability, transparency, public involvement

Some of the key governance issues surrounding devolution were considered in a report by the Centre for Public Scrutiny.

The report was critical of the secrecy of the deal-making process, noting that details were only being released when agreements had been reached:

“Local people – anyone, indeed, not involved in the negotiations – need to understand what devolution priorities are being arrived at and agreed on. Increased public exposure in this process will lead to a more informed local debate. At the very least, the broad shape and principles of a bid for more devolved powers should be opened up to the public eye.”

The report argued that governance arrangements for the work that combined authority areas will be doing in future need to satisfy three conditions:

  • Accountability: decision-makers must clearly take responsibility, and engage with those seeking to hold them to account (non-executives, the public, and others)
  • Transparency: it must be clear (to professionals, elected councillors and the public) who is making decisions, on what, when, why and how
  • Involvement: a commitment to public involvement should be seen as central to good governance.

Directly elected mayors

In 2012, plans to replace local council cabinets with directly elected mayors were rejected by voters in nine English cities, including Manchester, Newcastle, Sheffield and Leeds.

However, the government has insisted that devolving powers to English regions is now conditional on the inclusion of directly elected mayors. In May the chancellor explained why he thought this was so important:

“It’s right people have a single point of accountability; someone they elect, who takes the decisions and carries the can. So with these new powers for cities must come new city-wide elected mayors who work with local councils. I will not impose this model on anyone. But nor will I settle for less.”

George Jones, Emeritus Professor of Government at the London School of Economics, has asserted that the concentration of power in one person is undesirable:

“…the advantage of collective leadership is it enables exploration of policy from different perspectives. Colleagues can consider possible impacts of policy in a variety of contexts, spotting pitfalls ahead and the consequences for different people and groups. A single person is unlikely to represent the diverse complexities of a large urban, metropolitan or county region area better than can collective leadership.”

The journey to greater autonomy for England’s regions has only just begun, but it’s already clear that the path to devolution will not be straightforward.


Read more about English devolution in our previous blogs:

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