Robots, connectivity and digital skills: progress on digital in Scotland

Written by Jenni Davidson on 23 June 2017 in Features
Features

"At the end of the day, the services are all the same, so if you’re doing bins from Shetland to Glasgow to the Borders, we all do similar services"

In the film Robot and Frank, an elderly former thief with dementia is assigned a robot carer, resulting in madcap antics as he manages to persuade it to join him on a last crime spree.

A work of fiction, yes, but it’s not too far-fetched – apart, perhaps, from the resultant spike in pensioner crime.

In February this year a report by the Reform think tank suggested that 250,000 public sector workers could be replaced by robots by 2030.

Initially, this may be mainly those in customer service or information roles, such as receptionists and call handlers, but 2030 is not far off and a carerbot seems perfectly plausible too as advances in telecare mean some monitoring is already being done electronically, albeit, at the moment, with a human at the other end of the phone.

The report suggests that even doctors and nurses could be replaced by machines in some areas as they are more efficient at collecting information and could outperform humans at making diagnoses and some surgical procedures.

And the prediction of the Reform report is already becoming a reality, with Enfield Council having now introduced a robot, Amelia, with real-time voice recognition to answer queries online, by phone and in its offices.

Is this a threat or opportunity for the public sector? In these times of restricted budgets, digital and AI offers the potential for greater efficiency and reduced costs, but harnessing the potential without losing the human is the challenge, as well as keeping up with the pace of change.

Gone are the days when digital was handled by the IT department and the most anyone else was really expected to do was be able to use email and Microsoft Word.

Now it permeates everything and digital transformation is not so much a project as an ongoing state.

There is a struggle to keep up with the pace of change, with infrastructure, skills and security broadly the three areas of challenge. But work is afoot to address this.

The Scottish Government launched its glossy digital strategy, ‘Realising Scotland’s Full Potential in a Digital World’, in March.

The UK Government’s Digital Economy Act just made it onto the statute book before parliament was dissolved at the beginning of May for the election.

There were commitments too for mobile, in particular in the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement, where promises were made about 5G.

A new Scottish Government eHealth strategy is due before the end of the year.

The UK Digital Economy Act contains a mixture of legislation relating to provision of services, data sharing and combating crime.

It legislates for a universal service obligation for suppliers to provide broadband speeds of 10Mbs by 2020, less than the Scottish Government’s commitment for 30Mbs.

The act also allows for greater data sharing between government departments and other parts of the public sector, although it doesn’t specify what the privacy and technical safeguards will be for the sharing of that data, with a consultation expected shortly on that before final guidelines are published.

It also allows courts to give orders to disable phones they believe are being used for drug dealing, and requiring porn sites to verify the age of those accessing them, with the yet-to-be-named regulator able to fine sites up to £250,000 or five per cent of their turnover or block ISPs that don’t comply.

It introduces caps for mobile phone bills, tougher sentences for copyright infringement, the ability for public service broadcasters such as the BBC and Channel 4 to charge retransmission, and a ban on ticket touts using bots to buy up tickets.

It also gives Ofcom new powers to regulate the BBC and to make switching broadband provider easier.

The rush to get it through before the end of parliament curtailed some of the discussion on the detail and some have suggested it will need more work.

Liberal Democrat peer Chris Fox told the House of Lords: “We are closing the door on a fresh, shiny new bill which still smells of new paint, but, just as with my house, I cannot help thinking that we will be raising the floorboards on this issue time and again in parliaments to come.”

The key document on what will be happening in Scotland over the next few years is the Scottish Government’s digital strategy, which shows a commitment to more than is required in the Digital Economy Act in a number of areas.

It has pledged to reach 100 per cent of premises in Scotland with superfast broadband of 30Mbs by 2021 and is on track to reach 95 per cent coverage by the end of 2017.

However, an Audit Scotland report on superfast broadband last year highlighted that with the easier parts of the country done, it was the final areas that would be the most challenging.

Other key actions in the Scottish Government’s strategy are the launch of a digital growth fund, offering loans to businesses to retrain their staff in digital skills; developing a single sign-on for businesses to get online support and information; promoting the uptake of Cyber Essentials, a baseline cyber security programme; introducing a pilot in Edinburgh aimed at growing rapidly scalable businesses that can compete on a global stage (à la Skyscanner and FanDuel, presumably) and developing options to support the fintech (financial technology) sector in Scotland.

It also promises to make it easier for smaller businesses to take advantage of public sector procurement opportunities, something it is already putting into practice on a small scale with its CivTech accelerator programme, in which public sector bodies in Scotland such as SEPA or the NHS set open challenges to solve current issues and invite SMEs in particular to propose innovative solutions.

The Scottish Government plans will also open up non-personal data held by the public sector, making it easier to access, trial digital voting solutions, work with the transport industry to deliver a single PAYG smartcard for transport across Scotland, move the public sector to the cloud where possible and introduce shared technology platforms with common approaches for publishing information and make or receive payments and a registers platform hosting registers of information.

These are just some of the many commitments.

The strategy is extremely wide-ranging, but does it deliver? Stuart Mackinnon of the Federation of Small Businesses wrote a review of what he described as the ‘Instagram digital strategy’, commenting that it “could be mistaken for a brochure for a phone shop, or knitwear outlet”, so does he believe that it is a case of style over substance?

“No, I think there’s a lot in the strategy to be commended, but the question is whether digital as a whole is high enough up the political agenda,” he replies.

“I also thought it’s a long and dense document and I wonder whether there’s a defined action plan and whether with government and the economy at large becoming increasingly digital, how do we not just talk about absolutely everything when we’re talking about our digital strategy.”

The document contains many action points, some pulled out into bulleted lists and others in the body of the text.

Mackinnon suggests this reflects the number of different government departments involved in putting it together, with digital impacting on all areas of government now, but that clear leadership is needed.

He says: “I think that somebody, from a governmental point of view, somebody needs to be in charge and naturally, we have Derek Mackay giving the foreword of that document and takes the lead with a lot of the big announcements associated with digital, but he’s a man with a lot of other responsibilities, most noticeably the Scottish Government budget and most recently the SNP’s general election campaign.

We know that other ministers, like John Swinney, like Fergus Ewing, like Fiona Hyslop, all also have an interest, but the question is, who’s driving this, who’s driving this forward?”

The primary focus for the small business community is infrastructure and a consultation on the commitment to universal superfast was due to be launched in quarter two but appears to have been delayed and Mackinnon is concerned about what that means for progress.

“That’s not yet been launched. Now, there has been a general election, which might have held things up, but there is a clamour for a timetable for some of this work and I think that similarly with the digital public services work, there hasn’t been as much progress on that front as we might like from that perspective, especially in relation to the business-facing public services and we know that this has come up in relation to the enterprise and skills review, and I think that that’s something that might come out of that review, but it would be nice to see maybe a tighter timetable.”

He welcomes, however, the acknowledgement that there have been issues with the focus on delivering “notional connectivity to postcodes, to green boxes, to areas rather than the experience of the user”.

He also points out that it is not only broadband speeds that are the issue, but also connection problems, although that is “not necessarily in the Scottish Government’s gift to address”.

With many businesses in Scotland SMEs, and half based in the home, premium business broadband is not necessarily within reach, so domestic standards become more important.

Mackinnon says: “What we see at present is that there’s one set of standards if you’re a domestic customer, there’s another set of standards if you’re a business customer, but the business products, generally speaking, are quite premium and that effectively excludes them for many microbusinesses, and with the business products come all sorts of guarantees about resolving faults and what we’re making the case for is that there is a wider variety of products that better suit the diversity in the business community.”

He adds: “Further, if you’re a freelance journalist or a home-based worker for a large business or a public sector worker that’s also home based, ensuring there’s a good level of service to those that work from the home is equally important.”

Mackinnon welcomes the Digital Growth Fund for skills, although he is concerned that smaller businesses may not have the capacity to access it, although “without the details, it’s difficult to make a judgement”.

However, he notes that much of the focus so far has been on addressing specialist digital skills through, for example, CodeClan, “which we are fully behind and we support moves to expand”, but less on the digital skills needs of the wider economy.

He says: “Anecdote suggests that a large number of our members don’t need coders, they don’t need people that can write software, but they probably need somebody that can use digital technologies to improve their business efficiency, to sell goods and services, to monitor their productivity, to do a bit of data analysis, and those are not degree-level skills, but they’re not super specialist, so we’re wondering if there’s a case to look at mid-level skills.

“And further, if the pace of change is accelerating, there’s a question about if there’s enough capacity in the skills system at large for those people who want to retrain while working, so if you’ve done a job for 20 years and suddenly your job changes rapidly, is the expectation that you have developed these skills in your own time, or is there enough provision for those who are working full time who want to update their skills? Is the onus on the employer to keep the skills of their staff up to date?”

One last area Mackinnon raises is mobile connectivity. He welcomes the commitments in the strategy to work in this “neglected” area, but questions whether it will deliver the blanket coverage everyone wants.

The Scottish Government published a mobile action plan in June 2016. In the Scottish Government strategy it promises to urge the UK Government to take an “outside-in” strategy for allocating spectrum for 5G to ensure that rural areas are covered before urban centres.

5G coverage is going to be particularly important in the future for the fully connected society and for the internet of things, smart devices that are connected to the internet.

Professor Tharm Ratnarajah of the University of Edinburgh is working on research into 5G at the moment. He explains: “5G is…to connect everything; it’s not only voice or data, it’s connecting everything like smart grid, or connected houses, or e-health, like connecting with hospitals and smart cars.

“The one very interesting application people are talking about is driverless cars, a smart car…If you are downloading something from the internet, we need a high data rate, but if we are talking about driverless cars, we need a very reliable communication, we are not supposed to make any mistakes or errors in this communication so…we need a quick response, as quick as possible.

“The different applications have different requirements. The driverless cars will need a lower latency and a very high reliability.

“If we are downloading some movies we can tolerate a little bit of delay and things like that, so the 5G expectation is connecting everything, smart car, entertainment, e-health, connecting houses, smart grid, etc. Here, what we are aiming is to give our users fibre-like experience”

Ratnarajah has concerns about future funding because of Brexit and would like to see support from government for research.

“I think obviously funding research, funding to the universities and funding some pilot trials like businesses and universities together, having some demonstrations, we need to do these as well.

“Funding is one thing that the government can do and also the spectrum. Allocating a usual spectrum to 5G, the government can also do that.

“They are the ones making the policies, what spectrum is allocated, so for the 5G services they can speed up these processes of allocating spectrums to 5G service.”

But it’s not just national government that has been planning strategically for digital change. In a major move for councils, in September last year, 27 councils set up a shared digital office, with Martyn Wallace appointed as chief digital officer and Colin Birchenall as chief technology officer.

They now have an office and a beta website, with the final version due to go online within the next week or so.

That team is now about to expand, too, with Jacqueline Martin from East Renfrewshire Council coming on board as senior business analyst as well as supporting the leadership programme.

They will also have a programme manager for services and foundation on secondment from Angus Council later this month, a procurement specialist working in conjunction with Scotland Excel from the start of July and a project management officer available on loan from the Improvement Service, and the loan of a customer experience person from the Scottish Government as well.

But the biggest piece of work has been agreeing a programme with the board and 29 councils currently involved. Only Clackmannanshire, Moray and Inverclyde are not part of the shared programme, which will go live in July.

A long list of 50 possible tasks was reduced to 18 in three categories: digital leadership, covering the culture and skills needed; digital service, covering service redesign; and digital foundations, covering things like cloud hosting, mobile and flexible working.

They held a partnership forum in April, which was all of the councils and member partners, such as the Scottish Government, Improvement Service, Scotland Excel, the NHS.

At this, participants ranked the tasks into four quadrants based on the level of benefit and time they would take to implement and signed up for which ones they wanted to take part in and which of the projects they were keen to lead.

They are currently finalising who is doing what. Such was the interest that Wallace says they were fighting over who would get to do which ones, and because everyone wanted to take part in digital leadership, that part of the programme has been organised into regions.

“It was great. It was just brilliant. Because we actually had them all signing up for everything, so it was a really, really good response in that respect. And we had a good buzz in the room and a good camaraderie, so it worked well,” he says.

Digital leadership will look at what the workforce will look like in the future and work back and fill in the gaps in the skills in the council, and how the rise of AI will mean staff need to be redeployed into different areas.

What do we need to address now when that revolution starts to kick in in local government, is a key question.

He mentions he is keen to see ‘council in the home’, something similar to the Amazon Echo, where people could access information and council services such as which bins go out when through a voice-controlled device.

Wallace is keen to get to work in myth busting around areas such as cloud hosting, use of Office 365 and mobile and flexible working, where there are differing attitudes between councils.

He says the “other one that was key was data, the value in data, so people get it, people don’t…but it’s just trying to understand why do we collect what we’ve got…why do you need to know someone’s inside leg measurement in some cases. You don’t need that level of detail. What do you need to do your job? Why do you need it? And how do you move it forward?”

A nineteenth task has actually been added specifically around data and data sharing. It’s the creating of what is called a digital place, where data from different bodies can be shared.

Wallace explains: “A digital place is basically a hub where council data can work together with other platforms, so we’re basically a public sector ecosystem so datasets from local gov link with datasets from Scottish gov link with police, fire, third sector…it’s basically how do we interpret things the same way.”

By combining data from different sources, this could help to identify, for example, vulnerable people or troubled families.

There’s much to be done in terms of working together – Wallace mentions the example of some in health and social care having to carry two laptops to access the different NHS and council systems – but has there been opposition to the new way of working?

“No. At the end of the day, the services are all the same, so if you’re doing bins from Shetland to Glasgow to the Borders, we all do similar services.

“Yes, we have geographic differences, yes, we have connectivity differences, yes, we have political differences – in terms of who runs the council – but fundamentally, the services are all the same and I think talking to the councils since we started, what, seven months ago now, they all seem to get it and I think they see the beauty of collaboration is key here.

“I mean, SOLACE and SOCITM are on my executive board and they’ve absolutely backed this and that is why the digital office was formed, it’s because we need to collaborate, we cannot do this on our own.”

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