Money from EPSRC backs five year programme to feed into service development with support from local councils
Newcastle University is setting up a new facility for the development of new digital platforms to support local services.
The Digital Civics Research Centre is being established partly with the support of a £4 million injection from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), as part of the programme to boost the UK’s digital economy.
The Newcastle research centre, which has been funded to a total of £12 million, is due to begin its work in August and will focus on the potential of digital technologies in planning, healthcare, social care and education.
It will be led by Professor Patrick Olivier of the university’s Open Lab research group, include academics from Lincoln and Northumbria Universities, and initially work with three local authorities – Newcastle City Council, Gateshead Council and Northumberland Council – and other organisations including the BBC, Microsoft and Orange Labs.
The scope document for the EPSCR funding says there will be a strong emphasis on social inclusion and getting the public more involved in the design of digital services.
One of its challenges is to develop new technologies and cloud platforms for access to open and citizen-generated data, big data analytics, and software services that can be scaled up to support communication and transactions with the public.
It also highlights the need to obtain “cross-disciplinary insights” into how digital technology can support the delivery services.
Olivier said: “Over the past two decades, society has embraced digital technology, from mobile phones to social media, and this transformation provides an opportunity for communities to have their voices heard and get involved in rethinking the way that future local services might be provided.
“Digital Civics is not about just putting existing services online, but about exploring new ways in which digital technologies can be used by communities to engage in local government service design and delivery – to fundamentally reorient the relationship between those who govern and those who are governed.”
There was also an indication that the centre’s work could soon influence the development of Newcastle City Council’s services. Its leader, Nick Forbes, said: "Newcastle City Council has embarked a Digital by Choice programme to adapt to the demands of the internet, and the university's digital technologies work will doubtlessly play a key role in how we as a council seek new ways to empower residents."
The Digital by Choice programme has recently provided a number of platforms for the council’s services. They include: PosterVote, a paper thin electronic voting device for polling residents on local issues; App Movement, for people to submit ideas for a location based review app; and Bootlegger, which enables people to create films using mobile phones.
The wider EPSRC programme makes £23 million available over the next five years to six universities to support research into digital technologies. In addition to Newcastle they are:
- Nottingham, which is looking at the ethical use of personal data to create personalised products;
- York, investigating the potential for digital games and interactive media to benefit society;
- Swansea, which is looking at people’s responses to new technology and how it could affect various issues including health and social care;
- Bath, where the focus is on improving motion capture technologies, with possible applications in healthcare and defence;
- and University College London, which is exploring the use of data and advances in modelling to support evidence based policy in regional development.
EPSRC chief executive Philip Nelson said: “Building on our previous investments, these new Digital Economy Centres will show how multidisciplinary research in the digital economy can be brought to bear on the big societal challenges we face. Their impacts in the real world will be shown by adoption by policy makers and improvements in services and economic benefits in the public, private and charitable sectors.”
The organisation collaborated with the Arts and Humanities Research Council and Innovate UK in putting together the funding programme.
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