Could Norfolk be the next Netflix?

Hackathons are a way for Norfolk to drive digital innovation in adult social care. Gill Hitchcock reports on the council’s achievements and aspirations.

Pictured: Norfolk council’s innovation centre, showing the ‘home zone’ equipped with assistive technology and ’coffee shop’ to represent a flexible/mobile working location.

“As we speak, we have a group of entrepreneurs upstairs in our innovation centre designing solutions,” Geoff Connell, Norfolk County Council’s head of information management and technology, tells PublicTechnology.

One idea which is starting to blossom stems from a hackathon where Norfolk presented to a set of digital entrepreneurs its challenges in supporting isolated older adults and lone workers. 

It involves using LoRaWAN, a media access control protocol for wide area networks, to help the council cope with the dual challenge of less money and more demand for social care. Designed to allow low-powered devices to communicate with internet-connected applications over long range wireless connections, LoRaWAN could provide Norfolk with a cheap way of connecting sensors to support older people living alone.

Assistive technology, movement sensors included, is a major growth area for the council.

Connell says: “It is one of the key components of how we are helping people to live independently for longer. We’ve deployed assistive technology to about 7,000 homes already. At first the technologies were alarms. But, increasingly, it’s Amazon Alexa-type technologies and other things that are commoditised, so they are low costs and easy to integrate.”

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He adds: “This is an area where we expect to make savings on existing adult social-care packages, but also very much focused on self-funders and how we help them to keep themselves independent for longer.”

Sarah Rank, Norfolk’s head of business and technology for adult social services, says the council has an assistive technology worker who advises people on how this technology could help. And the authority is launching an extensive training programme for social workers to make sure they are fully aware of what this technology can do.

“We have opened a ‘smart flat’ in Norwich where social workers can go and see what kit is available,” Rank says. “Also, in part of our innovation centre we have created what looks like a person’s home and within that are assistive technologies for people to play with and think about how it can help individuals.”

Connell believes that, together with Hampshire, Norfolk is leading the way in using assistive technologies to help people to live independently in their own homes. 

Norfolk is unusual in having a political committee dedicated to digital innovation and efficiency, which drives the adoption of technology. And behind the committee is a digital strategy, published in early 2018, which sets out three main aims. 

First, ensuring residents have access to technologies and skills to get themselves online, and making sure the county has the right type of broadband and 4G coverage. Second, making sure council staff have the right digital equipment. Third, better use of data.

“I will give you a specific example of how we are using data to improve the way we deliver services,” Connell says. “To cope with winter pressures, we created an app called Bed Tracker. It allows care homes to give us real-time information about bed availability. Instead of making phone calls, it enables us to look in one place and understand availability. Bed Tracker has been around since 2017, but a second generation of this capability has been developed. We are not just using the data ourselves, but now sharing it with the care homes and hospitals.”

Norfolk is also working with the NHS to create a single care record. The idea is that there will be a shared view of individual records across the health and care systems. It uses Eclipse software, and Connell predicts that it will be available in the first half of 2019. 

The council’s Carers Matter Norfolk website offers online chat for carers. And its free carers app, meanwhile, helps families to jointly share care. Norfolk is exploring how Amazon Alexa can be used to help carers too.

Another example is geofencing, a technology that Norfolk is about to deploy for people with dementia. If an individual wanders somewhere unusual, the technology can alert a carer. And if someone is unsure where they are, they can use the technology to call a carer and it will show their location on a map. 

“The person can be reassured and guided back home,” Connell says.

For its staff, Norfolk has just introducing Liquidlogic’s technology to enable collaborative working. 

“We are pushing that to its limit to do things that nobody else has done, particularly with secure authentication and online self-service,” he adds. “Liquidlogic is using us as a reference site.”

Culture shift
The council is exploring robotic process automation – including anything from Microsoft Azure to Amazon chatbots – so that information can be pulled from a various websites to handle routine questions and processes around social care. 

Connell believes that benefits could include less administration. He says Norfolk is keen to upskill its administrative staff so they are relieved of routine work and have more time to support social workers. This, in turn, will enable social workers to focus on their professional roles, including spending more time with clients.

“Assistive technology is one of the key components of how we are helping people to live independently for longer. We’ve deployed it to about 7,000 homes already.”
Geoff Connell, Norfolk County Council

Often, the most difficult aspects of digital innovation are skills and culture, according to Connell. Norfolk has thousands of staff who must be helped to get the right digital skills and the confidence to use them. In adult social care this includes understanding the council’s new case-management system; an e-brokerage platform which, from this year, will enable Norfolk to communicate electronically with care providers; and operating touchscreen tablets as part of mobile working.

Meanwhile, Norfolk’s latest hackathon is continuing, drawing in people who want to redefine technology for public good, and others who are trying to develop a business, along with academics. What they have is common is ideas which could grow into useful digital solutions. To help the best ideas to blossom, the council will grant a small amount of funding. 

Connell describes his authority as “enlightened” because, despite tough financial times, it is still making ‘invest to save’ funds available.

“The council is in very good shape, but this is just the start,” he says. “If you look at digital disrupters and emerging technologies, they will either put us at risk of being the next Blockbuster, or enable us to be the next Netflix.”

Sam Trendall

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