But cost savings are not the main focus of the Essex IT team. In fact the project lead, CIO David Wilde, regards any lazer-like focus on cost as entirely wrong headed. He argues that IT has the potential to transform the lives of citizens and, as such, this should be its aim. Wilde said:
IT is not about saving money, it is an enable. Investment in IT can unlock efficient services that reduce the social care bill and help alleviate the costs of dysfunction such as crime, transport and joblessness. Well applied technology can iron out failure.
These sentiments and aims are laudable and the council has been working hard to make them a reality. Its big IT project, Smart Essex, is the vehicle for progress, and work being done for Smart Essex resembles work done in smart cities like Copenhagen or Barcelona. There are five strands to the project and they all aim to improve the lives of citizens.
Underpinning much of the work is the Next Generation Access program which will provide superfast broadband to the entire county. It has cost £52 million to date and phase 2 (of 3) of the programme is currently underway. This phase will help to connect over 120,000 properties and provide 95% of the county with 5G broadband. The program has helped converge voice, video, wired and wireless technologies.
One key element of Smart Essex is Smart Movement, a programme that aims to help ease congestion in the county. Wilde says:
One way of managing movement is to provide superfast broadband so that people can work from home and conduct virtual meetings. We are also encouraging logistics firms to use data to better manage their fleet. We can monitor congestion points and times and inform these companies when travel will be problematic.
Dynamic congestion charging, via RFID can also help deal with bad traffic. Incentives are another solution that Wilde is considering and these might include reducing the cost of park and ride schemes into London and around Chelmsford at particularly busy times of the day.
Much of the Smart Movement work is still in the conceptual stage, but the council is currently developing a travel app with automotive supplier Visteon (a company famous for work on car dashboards) and Essex University to join up traffic data using Twitter, Highways Agency feeds and other sources to help people navigate the best route from A to B. Wilde said:
It is not that different from a traditional sat nav, but these are often slow or using out of date information. Our app will be dynamic and informed by data related and important to local businesses and people.
The council is also running local pilots. One currently operating in Maldon uses collated data to provide alternative transport options for citizens. Wilde says:
People tend to think they need to take the bus whenever they want to get from A to B but if provided with the right information they might be able to make the same journey using health transport, neighbours or other commuter vehicles.
An app making use of this latent travel information will be up and running by May or June this year, according to Wilde. The council is working with Futuregov on the project.
Smart Places is another element of Smart Essex and focuses on building efficient housing or spaces underpinned by digital technology. The Essex population will grow by 130,000 over the next 15 years and the county needs to build new homes to accommodate this. An Essex house design guide, which the council provides to house builders, will be reviewed over the next 12 months to include a chapter on digital technology.
In the north of the county a garden settlement of between 3,000 and 7,000 is being planned around digital management systems including CCTV, transport, and smart street lighting (such as LED street lamps which activate only when movement is detected). All houses will have superfast broadband. The settlement might also benefit from solar energy being put on a local grid. Much energy is lost in transit so the battery storage will be built into the complex itself.
Wilde explains that the council is actively encouraging particular types of business into the county with companies that make use of 3D printing being particularly welcome. Aston Martin and BAE systems currently produce car and airplane parts in this way, and the energy saving benefits are impressive. He says:
3D printing saves on energy because it is much easier to transport raw material, you need far less storage space and the labour intensive process of prefabrication is significantly reduced. Essex council also runs awareness and education schemes with local business about the benefits of technology.
To encourage the best companies into the area the labour force needs to be equipped with tech skills and the council is helping to ensure this. One recent initiative was money provided by the council to expand facilities for adult-learning of STEM subjects at Braintree College.
Streamlined public services
Similarly, technology can help streamline public services by reducing the buildings required and bringing siloed services together. One way of doing this is by creating community hubs using tech enabled co-location. For example Colchester Library has been designed as ‘multi-function’ environment using government-as-a-platform to enable community learning. It is also set up to allow public service providers (such as the fire service) to work out of the space too. Wilde said:
Initiatives like this allow us to rationalise public buildings, help provide joint services and free up land which can help with housing.
Smart Lives is an initiative being run with help from the NHS that uses technology to help provide elderlyor vulnerable people with the security to be able to live at home for longer. This will be done via monitoring sensors, panic buttons, telecare and telehealth services. These schemes are already being trialled or in use. But Wilde is particularly interested in providing these services as a package. He says:
I would like to see healthcare provided in the same way that Sky provides their media services. A premium package might include regular medical check ups, opportunity for social interaction, optical care, access to a chiropodist, or even provision of local hairdressers.
The service would be provided with one billing mechanism, and part of the bill would be covered by the state. This package won’t be available for a year or two yet though because although the services need to be simplified for use on this sort of system.
The Smart Essex programme, with its focus on digital and improving the lives of citizens, is a impressive display of innovative problem solving. As the population ages, traffic volume grows, and austerity continues to bite, tech experts like Wilde are using the tools at hand to address these issues in a meaningful way. Let’s hope other local government IT departments start to roll up their sleeves and follow suit.