Coventry has a "very simple" geography. It is flat and there are no high buildings, meaning internet connection is strong throughout the city. Ward explained that this would make the city "perfect for 5G when it arrives." The ICT department is currently looking to bolster its 4G network and this will include deploying high signal boosters across the city and putting wireless repeaters on buildings and street furniture such as traffic lights and signs. The upgrades will future proof the system ready for 5G.
5G work is very conceptual at the moment, there are many different definitions in circulation. But we can probably agree on the fact that it will be a new set of telephony standards using a different radio spectrum which will afford greater capacity.
One big focus for the council's ICT department is transport management and Coventry is involved in several big projects on this front.
First, it is a member of a consortium for UK Autodrive, a big government-backed trial of self-driving vehicles. The project is being funded by Innovate UK (the operating name of the Technology Strategy Board) and will conduct trials of driverless vehicles throughout the country.
The project is being led by engineering and design firm Arup. Coventry council is also involved with UK CITE, or the UK Connected Intelligent Transport Environment. It has partnered with Highways England and other councils on the project to develop a framework for a wireless network that will manage a road infrastructure for semi-autonomous and eventually autonomous driving. Trials are due to take place on 40 miles of roads within Coventry and Warwickshire later this year.
Coventry is also contributing to the development of 'HoPE' or the holistic personal public eco-mobility scheme. This aims to encourage people to use public transport (rail, bus, and bike) rather than cars, by developing a smart ticketing system, a journey-planning website, and a mobile phone application that will let users plan and pay for multi-modal journeys. This project has been running since 2014 and will end this year.
Coventry is also working on a feasibility study called Catch to develop an app showing routing based on live feedback from transport networks. This journey planner will crowdsource opinion on the transport system and combine this with schedule, disruption and roadworks information to create a journey planner. This app will use behavioural economics to help people select their routes. The Transport for West Midlands consortium is leading the project which is expected to end in 2018.
The council is also developing real-time parking sensors across all its pay and display, electric vehicle, and disabled bays as part of a project called AppyParking. This will provide a free app and website allowing people to see when, where and at what time they can park. It will also show live availability of parking spaces. AppyParking is being tested across 11 of the UK's biggest cities, including Coventry.
Like other tech specialists, Ward thinks that developments in transport are big game changers. He argued that the nation's attitude towards car ownership will soon change drastically.
I believe that driverless cars will really change patterns of car ownership nationwide. People simply won't need to own a car when they can order a driverless vehicle on demand.
Monitoring pollution is another project for the council and Ward explained that there are pollution monitoring centres dotted around the city. The ICT department are currently measuring levels of Co2 and there are plans to coordinate this with traffic control systems. A logical next step will be to put diversions in place and promote other routes where pollution is problematic.
Ward explained that although this monitoring information is only used internally it could feed into a broader big data project over time. One way this could happen would be through liaison with the two city universities, Coventry and the University of Warwick. Warwick has a big data science faculty but collaborative work is currently in its infancy.
Online and other facilities
The council went live with a new self-service web portal called My Account in 2015. Citizens can use the service to view council tax and benefit information, as well as submit forms and book local waste services. The council is still moving services onto the site and this an "ongoing project" according to Ward.
We have seen really good uptake of the service, people seem very keen to interact with the council in this way.
The council is also working with a company called Assist Mi to deploy an app of the same name. The app helps disabled users ask service providers for help when shopping, eating out or using transport. It uses location-based technology and two-way messaging to enable the interaction.
The council is working on a project that will offer free public wifi around the Coventry city centre ring road by summer this year. It has also enabled joint working spaces in libraries by allowing council staff to log onto the wifi networks from the building. The same wifi is broadcast in hospitals throughout Coventry allowing social workers and other staff to access wifi there.
The council has just begun to use Microsoft Azure to host elements of its infrastructure and is working on an ‘extended proof of concept’ to determine whether moving more of its infrastructure would be cost effective. The council also uses third-party SaaS providers such as Salesforce to manage its business systems, about 30% of which are in the cloud. Like many councils it uses Office 365 for its email. It is currently moving fileshares to Office 365 Sharepoint.
Coventry Council retains a significant on-premise footprint but around 60% of its 120 proper systems and 30 critical systems are in the cloud. There is also an active programme of infrastructure consolidation which will reduce on-premise infrastructure further. It has begun this consolidation by creating a 'multi-agency safeguarding hub" which connects social workers, the police and health workers for the benefit of vulnerable people.
In terms of working with partners, Ward said he is keen to do so, and does have agreements with the DFE and DWP around benefits, but doesn't yet work with standards bodies or other councils, except on transport.
Traditionally local government has not been good at analysis of its own data, but there is a real opportunity here. The type of data being generated is useful but also shareable and other authorities and even international bodies could use it and their own data to enable improvements to health, transport and cost savings. There are no longer any technology boundaries, we just need to change our attitudes and processes.
Ward and Coventry City Council's IT department is making great strides around transport in particular and this work should help create affiliations with other technology bodies or companies. But the council should be careful not to undertake other projects (such as pollution management) singlehandedly. As Ward said, the data generated creates lots of opportunities for collaboration, and the council and others would benefit from communicating with other local authorities and public sector bodies around how they might collaborate to enhance the lives of their citizens.