Platforms for the people

Tom Baker says new platforms for delivering government services will only reach their full potential through collaboration  between users and providers.

Platforms are only as effective as the communities which use them. Look at Facebook, Wikipedia, Twitter and eBay as examples – what would these be without their users?

It’s the process of co-creation that denotes a successful platform; users generating their content to engage with friends, colleagues, even public services and increasingly to run their own businesses.

The progress made by the Government Digital Service has been impressive, creating true platforms, including and now Verify.

Built around the citizen, these services are rightly heralded. The concept of Government as a Platform (GaaP) is an exciting one, but one that will only really come to its fullest fruition when we see more co-creation.  

At a recent Parliamentary ICT Forum (Pictfor) meeting, I spoke alongside Chi Onwurah MP, co-chair of Pictfor and shadow Cabinet Office minister.

She was adamant that her constituents cared more about local matters – from schooling to dog fouling – than those on a national scale. Could this mean that people, community groups and civic enterprise would engage more with platforms built to address local issues?

Local opportunities for platforms

In my own experience as a local government CIO, I have seen the city of Sunderland create an online platform that enabled the provision of identity, ticketing and payment services.

In Norfolk, I have seen the creation of another online platform built to serve 100,000 students and teachers based on open source technologies.

I have looked on as cities such as Leeds have led the way in developing platforms for Health and Wellbeing.

So, while some reports have pointed towards a perceived reticence of local government to use GaaP services, clearly, this isn’t reflective of what’s actually happening on the ground – at a local level.

Responding to our challenges will require collaboration between people, communities, social and civic enterprise, SMEs, the private sector, academia and government.

But while it’s no secret that local public services are under intense pressure, the use of platforms – if implemented correctly – could be the innovation that helps to reduce that pressure and unlock new opportunities.

BT is supporting two powerful initiatives, Bradford’s Digital Health Enterprise Zone and the MK:Smart programme.

The former focuses on connected health solution development and the latter trials and developments around the Internet of Things at a city scale, focused on transportation and utilities.

Fundamental to both of these partnerships is the involvement of citizens, SMEs, local public services and academia building on common services and blueprints for innovation.

For the first time, digital platforms offer the chance of collaboration between people and organisations that should provide the jolt of disruption needed to address much of our existing siloed delivery and thinking.

While efficiency savings are on the radar of local decision makers, it’s important that we see digital platforms not just as a mechanism to reduce costs.

Platforms offer cities and regions an opportunity to think about the nature of delivery itself. To do this we need to focus on the user base of platforms not just their construct.

The role of platforms in addressing our biggest challenges

We’re living longer – which is great – but more of us are developing long term health conditions which account for 50% of GP visits and 70% of in-patient stays.

The cost to the NHS and other service providers – already extreme – will continue to rise.

Despite hospital visits and in-patient stays, the vast majority of people with long term conditions still clearly spend most of their time at home.

With 71% of us owning a smart phone and 29% a tablet – and with the continued progress of superfast broadband rollout – we’re faced with a dawning new paradigm, of connected solutions and services. What role then for the digital home in our future platforms?

We’re entering unchartered waters, with pressures on public services, advancement in technologies, devolution and an aging population.

Huge challenges mean big opportunities: where will we see the centre emerging for the connected health economy?

Which city, cities or regions will emerge as the destination of choice for start-ups wanting to enter this market? The size of a potential global market place is huge.

Are we seeing competition between cities even now? Those that win the race will need to offer cohesive collaboration between city partners, access to ‘living labs’, strong academic input, skills and most importantly access to markets, at scale.

While we are seeing real innovation emerging through the collaboration of citizens, SMEs, local authorities, the NHS and academia, there remains in this the most sensitive of areas: the issues of trust, consent and security.

There also exists the challenge of scaling solutions ensuring that we build open platforms to harness innovation and the ability to respond to the needs users and grow the businesses of the future.

Already, a huge amount has been delivered, but a true platform takes time to build and grow. If done correctly, I believe that GaaP and advances in ‘connectedness’ have the potential to revolutionise the way that we deliver future services.

Tom Baker is smarter cities lead at supplier BT Global Services

Colin Marrs

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