Paul Maltby claims councils must first renew ageing infrastructure before realising the benefits of machine learning and automation
To realise the benefits of artificial intelligence and automation, councils must ensure craking legacy infrastructure is brought up to scratch, according to the chief digital officer of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.
Speaking today at an event hosted in London by innovation charity Nesta, Paul Maltby told an audience largely made up of local-government digital leaders that “you cannot build AI on legacy”. He invoked the spirit of the engineers who constructed a sewer network for London in the 19th century – transforming the city into a safer and cleaner place.
“We have to fix some of the underlying systems – I want us to be proud plumbers,” Maltby said.
Once the groundwork has been laid, the MHCLG digital leader sees a massive opportunity for councils to use data and AI to improve services.
“I think the potential in local government for this type of work is huge, and I do not think there is a lot going on already,” he added.
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Maltby and his team of digital professionals at the department have identified two key overarching goals. The first of these is growing local government digital skills through an approach that brings in not just senior managers and digital professionals, but the wider workforce as well.
“The first [goal] is around local government digital capability,” he said. “We are part of a network of people that have worked for years in this space – not just with top-down membership organisations, but with bottom-up organisations too.”
Maltby added: “We are all passionate about this, but we have to realise that, within our organisations, this is still a too-rarely understood issue.”
Part of this ambition will also involve central government helping its local counterparts improve design processes.
“I am particularly interested in what we will be doing centrally to work out digital service patterns so we can [enable] repeat uses,” Maltby said.
The MHCLG’s second major goal is centred on what the local government CDO terms “digital land”. In this area, the department wants to help councils get the most out of geospatial data to improve decision-making and service-delivery, while also boosting the economy.
He said: “We are working to improve the accessibility of that data – in the housing sector that data is blooming hard to find and then use to build services on. It is really hard to find things, even when they are on data.gov.”