Technology to connect people
By Martin Malcolm,
Since the 2008 financial crisis, local government has been hit with steep budget cuts - and these have now been compounded by a ‘Covid burden’ of nearly £12 billion. That’s around the amount that’s spent on the police service each year. With people expecting services and experiences to be maintained and indeed improved, technology has been seen as a way to make services more efficient and effective. But how do we ensure that everyone can benefit?
"I was inspired by how the 'Peace Corps for geeks’ in the USA brought together business, government, and citizens to tackle community challenges with technology." – Luke Loveridge, Fellow
Government has an interesting challenge – it cannot choose its customers. Everyone is a user of government services, from birth to death and everything in between. So services need to be designed to be inclusive and accessible. New technology, on the other hand, is typically designed for and heavily influenced by early adopters - who may not represent the wider population or, indeed, vulnerable groups who could benefit most.
A good example from my Fellowship was in Boston, USA, where an app was developed and trailed to detect potholes so the city could better plan and focus its resources. This was a really clever idea, to crowdsource issues and target the roads that are most used, before people even report an issue. However, the trial revealed issues mostly in affluent areas of the city. As they dug deeper, the developers realised that the people who drove most and who downloaded the app mainly lived and commuted in the affluent areas of the city. Potentially this could exacerbate inequalities by diverting resources away from areas that might need it more. They eventually got the app installed on all public vehicles, to make sure the entire city was covered.
Code for America – a civic organisation in the USA - ran a programme that recruited top tech and product professionals from the likes of Google and other tech giants, to work with local government and cities and their communities on specific challenges. Inclusivity and accessibility were key, if not for citizens directly, then for the family, friends or professionals who help them.
I saw amazing examples and innovation across the USA. From helping to detect blight (abandoned homes), connecting communities to solve problems and share expertise, helping people to access the benefits they’re eligible for, to encouraging people to ‘adopt’ public infrastructure to provide early warning if something needed fixing.
The recommendations from my Fellow’s Report related to how we can include key elements of the Code for America Fellowship programme into the UK’s national and recruitment programmes for local government; how we could build upon local tech networks to create a group of volunteer civic innovators; and how certain co-created services from the USA could translate to the UK.
Since my Fellowship, there has been a surge in the UK in civic ‘hackathons’: joint research and small business challenges sponsored by local government and heavily involving citizens and community groups. I’ve been involved in many of these myself, from utilising open data in Bristol to engage cross-functional teams to create civic apps, to a large deployment of smart home technology in Leeds. There has also been huge progress with government design principles and the excellent work of the Government Digital Service.
The Fellowship inspired me to look at the horizon and understand how leading-edge technology can be developed with the people who need it most. I started to work on the ‘smart city’ agenda at Bristol City Council, and undertook a small research project in my own time with the RSA to explore how smart city and smart home technology can be used to make places healthier and inclusive.
These experiences ultimately led me to launch my first tech start-up, Homelink, which is now the leading smart home platform for large landlords. It provides insights and engagement with tenants on wellbeing, energy efficiency and maintenance. This is making a huge impact in people’s lives, and helping them with indoor air quality, saving money on bills (and carbon emissions) and making their repairs services much more preventative rather than reactive.
For information on our Fellowships in this theme, see "Our current themes”.
The views and opinions expressed by any Fellow are those of the Fellow and not of the Churchill Fellowship or its partners, which have no responsibility or liability for any part of them.
By Martin Malcolm,
By Saeida Rouass,
By Zara Todd,