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Defra plans to boost tech spend



Minister says plans include new technology for environmental risks, streamlining its IT estate and the release of more open data

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is planning to push up its investment in technology as part of an increase in capital spending, along with combining its IT and other functions with those of two of its largest agencies and continuing to pursue its open data campaign.

Minister Elizabeth Truss outlined the plans in a speech on reforming the department at the Institute for Government yesterday.

It included a pledge to increase its spending on IT, science and facilities by 30% as part of 12% increase in capital investment over the next parliament.

Truss said the technology will be focused on automating the monitoring and inspection of flood risk areas, but would also lay the ground for a 15% reduction in running costs.

“This means we can do things like introduce a single helpline for farmers and streamline the way people apply for environmental permits and track animal movements,” she said.

The move is accompanied by the campaign to encourage people outside the department and its agencies to develop digital tools for environmental purposes. The minister said the programme to make more Defra data available for re-use is on course for its target of 8,000 datasets being available by June, and that this would account for a third of the Government's open data.

New digital tools

“This is a major resource that entrepreneurs already use to design new tools, from websites for people to check their local river levels to software for the latest precision farming techniques,” she said.

“Our data is driving exciting advances in mapping. Architects are using our Lidar data, a 3D map of the country built up with airborne laser readings, to build a model of London as they plan the next skyscraper.“

She also referred to the plan to combine Defra's IT, HR and communications operations with those of two of its major agencies, Natural England and the Environment Agency, as part of a broader integration programme.

The IT alignment has been previously outlined in the department's UnITy programme, which covers the replacement of two major contracts set to expire in 2017 and 2018 and is aimed at reducing IT running costs by 2025% by 2020. It is under the senior responsible ownership of Chris Howes.

The integration will involve in a change in the structure of much of Defra's work around river catchments and landscapes, with a plan and budget for each area rather than its 34 organisations developing their own plans.

It will include the creation of a new Environmental Analysis Unit to pull together data to investigate issues such as flood alleviation, flora and fauna, farming, water and air, bringing them together rather than treating them in isolation.

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