Interview: Simon Haston, head of IT and transformation at Aberdeen City Council, explains how its digital backbone can support communities and business, and the importance of its City Region Deal
Transformation is about a lot more than what happens inside his local authority to Simon Haston. The head of IT and transformation at Aberdeen City Council says there are three elements to his job: leading the transformation within the council; leading the digital city agenda; and aligning this with the effort to build the digital capability of the surrounding region.
“It’s about council, city, region and how they interplay with each other,” he says.
In conversation with UKAuthority it becomes clear that his focus extends beyond that of many council IT chiefs, as he talks about Aberdeen’s efforts to create a digital infrastructure for its local communities and prepare for an economic future less dependent on the oil industry.
A big driver is the City Region Deal, agreed between the city council, Aberdeenshire Council and Opportunity North East – the private sector economic development group for the region – which has received funding from the Scottish and UK Governments.
Haston has a £25 million pot for investment in digital focused on four key areas: connectivity, below and above the ground; how data can be used to stimulate the local economy and in social applications; innovation, aimed at supporting the digital economy; and boosting skills in north-east Scotland.
“It’s not just the council, it’s about how all the regional players play together,” he says. “There is a strong regional push around the digital agenda; one of the strongest I’ve seen.”
He points to the potential for enabling the private sector to tap into the ultrafast fibre to the premise network that supports the council’s buildings, and says it could also work with applications such as the platform used for the council website.
“As part of the regional deal we looked at connectivity throughout the region which, considering the city’s economic status, has not been great. So that’s the major focus for us; how we bring the region up connectivity-wise.”
The council has mapped coverage to nearly all the streets and premises in the area and now has two areas of focus: how to provide ultrafast connectivity to business centres; and filling in the blank spots, of which there are many in the region.
“We’ve costed it and it’s almost using public sector money to promote growth, stimulating a mixed economy so there are multiple providers, and how we look at the mixture between a city and rural need. It’s all wrapped up in the City Region Deal business case and we have a clear view of what we have to do.”
The main commitment is to gigabit fibre to the premise as a backbone, provided by the Scottish Wide Area Network and infrastructure supplier City Fibre, with the council as the anchor tenant. The first phase is nearly complete, having involved the infrastructure being rolled out over the past year.
Phase two will involve an extension into key areas of the county, and into the future will include an increased emphasis on 5G mobile as the networks become available.
There is another aspect to the effort in encouraging community groups to make more use of the infrastructure with the council’s support. Haston points to the provision of free WiFi, not just in the city centre but in some community hubs, and the creation of engagement platforms funded by the council but run by people in the community.
“We have quite strong community groups who are becoming digitally savvy and want to do stuff,” he says. “The portals could be unique platforms or shared, where they can communicate with each other and engage. We put in the fibre and WiFi infrastructure and connectivity, but they will develop the applications.
“We are keen that the community takes ownership, but we will fund it and provide the technical support in setting up websites and developing applications.
“We’re fairly embryonic in it and have to look at the role of the council, so we don’t have to own everything but facilitate and broker it. For instance, the communities have open free access to WiFi, and can now look at what they can use it for.
“We put it in, provide the funding for their engagement, and if they need it can provide funding for them to develop stuff. Nothing’s imposed on them.”
One community has set up a portal, which Haston describes as “fairly immature”, but the council is working with the group to develop its capabilities.
“The big challenge for them is sustainability,” he adds. “A lot of them will invest time and expertise, but have to look at how they can create a sustainable model where it’s not so dependent on one or two people.”
To this end, he council is looking at working with a media group, the name of which is currently under wraps, to develop a single community engagement platform that could be used across the city.
Smart cities role
Aberdeen also has a significant role in the Smart Cities Scotland programme, which has received £10 million pounds in European Regional Development Funding matched by £14 million from the seven cities themselves. It is taking a lead in the development of a joint open data platform for Scotland, with the procurement currently at tender stage and the system expected to be in place during the summer.
“The cities will have individual responsibility for the data but it will be a joint platform they can play into,” Haston says. A short term benefit could be in local communities using open data for their own applications, and in the longer term it could provide a more controlled environment for private and public sectors and community groups to share data that is not open.
“I think the potential is massive,” he says. “The platform to be procured is purely an open data platform, but the next iteration could be for other types of data sharing. It’s an interesting component of developing regional data pools however we want to use them.
“One of our commitments is for community dashboards. It’s about how we provide communities with rich data on issues such as economics, crime, traffic air quality and how they can use it.
“We have just put in some air quality monitoring centres that can produce live data, and we can ask how we can expand that and make the data available to communities.” He stresses, however, that this will require a network of sensors that are scheduled to be installed over the next year.
In addition to all this, Haston has an internal transformation to deliver, based on the Being Digital strategy agreed by the council in September of last year.
He says it contains plenty that will be familiar from initiatives in other local authorities, but that there are two major elements: a customer experience platform, and master data management, on which it has been working with Aberdeenshire Council. But there are also more ambitious plans to look at what Aberdeen could do with technologies such as the internet of things and artificial intelligence.
“We’re building an expertise in the in-house team and market testing how people are using AI. We’re learning, but there is a big realisation that it will provide true digital transformation,” he says.
“We’ve got to shift from low level automation to real in-depth artificial intelligence and look at what it means for our future workforce and how the council will interact with the place. For example, in how sensors could tell us something a pothole needs filling rather than someone telling us.
“In the next six months that will become our number one priority.”