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Five things for public sector digital in 2024


Mark Say Managing Editor

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As always, there has been a mixture of ambitions, achievements and frustrations with digital and data in the public sector over 2023.

The potential for solutions that harness machine learning and artificial intelligence have climbed the agenda, boosted by the widespread awareness of ChatGPT and large language models. Government bodies have addressed the diversity of issues involved, with initiatives such as the launch of the AI Safety Institute, publication of the principles in AI in policing, and plans for regulatory sandbox for AI in healthcare. And other organisations have developed guidance, such as the Ada Lovelace Institute identifying public sector opportunities for foundation models, and the Alan Turing Institute producing tools for an ethical approach to AI.

There is a consensus of a great potential but also anxieties around the implications of the technology that are going to take a lot of time to resolve and will always require an element of caution in how it is deployed.

Cyber security has had a higher profile than many would have wanted, with disruptive cyber attacks on organisations including the British Library, Greater Manchester Police and some local authorities. There is no shortage of guidance and tools from central bodies on enforcing security, but the ‘arms race’ with malicious actors is set to continue way into the future. The anxieties are not going away.

But there is also steady flow of achievements, harnessing digital and data for the public good. There have been examples at a national level, such as NHS England meeting its target for the roll out of virtual wards, and the implementation of the National Underground Asset Register; and local successes such Luton Council’s launch of its Social Progress Index and Suffolk County Council’s achievements in digital care. The latter may have a direct effect on fewer people, but they show other authorities what it is possible to achieve with imagination and application.

It creates an outlook in which there is still plenty of cause for optimism, tempered with a need for caution and recognition that there is bound to be controversy along the way. Here are some of the things that will occupy minds over the coming year.

Pushing the potential of generative AI

Just over a year since it became a cause of excitement, there’s now plenty of talk about generative AI – or large language models if you prefer – being on the Gartner hype cycle. That says the excitement will soon peak, interest will fall into a trough then gradually recover as viable use cases are developed.

But GenAI has already gained a firm foothold in public services, where it is proving to be a valuable tool in reducing time consuming work through its capacity to pull together massive volumes of text and images to generate relevant documents and material. Even smaller organisations have shown how it can speed up a process and save valuable employee time, with examples such as Swindon Borough Council using it to produce Easy Read documents for people with learning disabilities, and West Berkshire District Council producing a tool for drafting job advertisements.

There has also been guidance on how to use the technology from organisations including the Cabinet Office and the London Office of Technology and Innovation.

It is already showing its value as a tool for the public sector to deal with the tight squeeze on its resources, it is finding a place on the platforms of major technology suppliers, and it has a high enough profile for senior officials, not just those in digital, to have a strong interest in what it can do.

More facial recognition in policing

A subject that has attracted controversy in recent years, notably with South Wales Police getting into a court battle over the legality of its use of the technology, and the outgoing biometrics and surveillance commissioner urging caution in deployments.

But it has become clear that the UK Government favours wider use, with the policing minister telling police forces to double the volume of searches with retrospective facial recognition, the possibility of a national unified database and the Defence and Security Accelerator launching a market exploration for its use in security and policing.

Live facial recognition may be more controversial, but like the retrospective type it is a tool for identifying suspects and increasing the capacity of hard pressed police forces. There will be an ongoing debate about appropriate policies and procedures, but it will become an increasingly significant element of policing.

Data from drones

Otherwise known as unmanned aerial vehicles, (UAVs), drones have been used by police forces for a few years now and attracted interest from other organisations involved in public safety and infrastructure. Lincolnshire Resilience Forum has deployed them with geospatial technology to identify static caravans in its emergency planning; and Transport for West Midlands has set up a drone team to help manage traffic in the region.

There are also signs of use in less obvious applications. Swindon Borough Council has provided an example with a deployment for roofing inspections in social housing; and the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology has identified the potential for scanning fields and crops.

There is a potential to pair drones with AI technologies in identifying features in a landscape, or close inspection of objects from an aerial viewpoint, and integrating the results with other technologies to provide a whole range of insights for public services. It is an area that is open to experimentation but expect to see some more applications go into use over the coming year.

More virtual wards

One of the big stories of the past year has been the increase in the use of virtual wards in the health service, and there is every reason for this to continue. Enabling patients to monitor their conditions through connected devices in their homes provides the scope for big efficiencies in the sector, and does a lot to preserve their sense of wellbeing.

The technology has advanced, the public is becoming more familiar with the devices, and in most parts of the country there is more confidence in the connectivity that makes it all work. The move towards virtual wards requires a matching effort to ensure the clinical support is properly managed, and it could require new skillsets. But this is likely to become increasingly prominent in healthcare throughout the UK.

A year for open banking?

This one’s a longer shot, but open banking – which allows for read-only financial data to be shared between banks and third party service providers – has sneaked into the headlines in recent months.  The Government Digital Service has begun to look at providing a function on the GOV.UK platform, and the Crown Commercial Service (CCS) has set up a procurement framework for relevant services.

In addition, London’s chief digital officer has said that local government should look at the principles of open banking for the exchange of data.

It would be a big leap for most public bodies to get into it in a big way, but CCS has emphasised that it can sharply cut payment costs and help to reduce error and loss, which provide important incentives. This could lead organisations to test the water, and hopefully news of clear benefits by the end of the year.

And the festive message

Meanwhile, we wish all of our readers a happy festive season – don’t let thoughts about digital and data get in the way of enjoying the celebrations – and all the best for the new year.

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