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Developing digital solutions at speed to support the vulnerable


It is possible to quickly build digital systems in response to need in a crisis such as coronavirus, writes Tim Kidd, director for local government at Hitachi Solutions


A prime lesson from the coronavirus pandemic for the digital tech community is that speed is of the essence in developing new solutions.

Some local authorities have acted quickly to identify need and create new digital tools to coordinate their response, often with a predominant focus on protecting vulnerable people during the crisis.

Not all councils have the in-house skills, but they do not need to do it all on their own. Some vendors are trying to help by releasing underpinning solutions that provide a strong but flexible foundation for building new applications at speed, both for the current crisis and future initiatives as life returns to normal.

This has been a crucial factor in creation of the Covid-19 Vulnerability Hub, developed by Hitachi Solutions with the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea on Microsoft’s Azure cloud and Power Platform. It was initially created in under 18 hours in response to the immediate challenge of supporting vulnerable people through the crisis - enabling a fast assessment of their needs and how they can be supported, and providing structured reporting and dashboards.

Although built using Microsoft Power Platform – comprising Power Apps, Power BI and Power Automate – and the Common Data Service, it does not depend on having existing Microsoft technology and can be easily integrated with existing social care, housing and contact centre systems. This enables councils to rapidly develop solutions as their processes mature and central guidance changes.

Extra functions have been added as the NHS and Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) provided details of the data structures for identifying vulnerable people, and as more clarity has emerged over how the local authority processes need to work. This includes enabling third parties such as voluntary groups to provide feedback once they have delivered the support.

As extra organisations have begun to use the solution they are providing input on new requirements, and as more local authorities deploy it they will be able to influence its further development.

Norfolk County Council has been among the first to take it up, initially to coordinate its list of vulnerable people needing support during the pandemic. Its chief digital officer and director of IMT Geoff Connell says it wanted to get away from sending around spreadsheets, in a secure, cloud based solution that it could share with the county’s district, city and borough councils with the appropriate access controls.

The system has been built on Microsoft Dynamics and Power Apps licences – free for at least six months to help the response to the pandemic – and hosted within Norfolk’s existing tenancy of the Azure platform.

Short timescale

“It took just a matter of days, rather than months, from agreement to implement the system for live use, which was a very agile deployment,” Connell says. “This sort of development could not easily have been made in this timescale by traditional means of development.

“There are a few similar solutions built on the Microsoft offer and this one from Hitachi Solutions gave us the best combination of very low cost, good functionality and confidence in the vendor. It really is very cheap compared to traditional software-as-a-service solutions.

“This dynamic, agile software deployment is exactly what we needed to support fast emerging and evolving new demands presented by the pandemic to support collaborative working in out two-tier area.”

All of the public sector authorities across the county have signed up to use the system.

Connell adds that the key to the rapid progress of such developments has been the use of the Microsoft Power Platform as a foundation for the solution. It enables organisations to create business specific applications with the ability to extract data from central sources, such as a council’s Local Land and Property Gazetteer or geographic information system, using the Common Data Model approach.

This involves an extensible collection of schemas with well defined semantics to support interoperability of the various systems, making it possible to string them together through Power Apps and break down the siloes that are often created by commercial, off-the-shelf solutions. It does this without complex and expensive integrations, making it possible to develop and deploy applications quickly, and to standardise and rationalise applications as part of a technology strategy.

Rapid response

Once the Power Platform is in place it is possible to implement a solution at speed in response to a crisis. In recent weeks, for example, Hitachi Solutions has supported an initiative to develop a system to coordinate the work of mortuaries around London during the pandemic. The company has also pointed to the potential to extend the Vulnerability Hub for wider use.

This has already been done in managing contact with people who, although not identified in the cohort from the NHS and MHCLG, should be regarded as vulnerable and in need of support. It can also be repurposed for managing services provided to rough sleepers and vulnerable businesses, initially during the pandemic but stretching into the future. Some authorities have indicated that they are already planning to use it after the Covid-19 pandemic subsides.

The Vulnerability Hub can be set up in as little as 30 minutes and does not involve any proprietary intellectual property, so it can be customised for other purposes by a local authority. Hitachi Solutions can, however, provide valuable support in accelerating developments and helping an authority extend the use of the solution.

The company has been recognised as one of Microsoft’s leading European partners in the use of the Power Platform – winning the Government Partner of the Year award in 2019 – has expertise in working with its Dynamics platform and data analytics technologies, and has created its Power Platform Centre of Excellence where it can work with organisations on new developments. It has won commendations for its speed and responsive in supporting local authorities and been commissioned to develop other pandemic response solutions across different sectors.

To request more information and take a step towards deploying the vulnerability hub, follow this link. For a 'walk through' of the solution, watch the video below:


Image from, CC BY 2.0

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