A network of school weather stations in Peterborough has become the front line in a radical council ICT strategy, linking cutting edge tech trends including open data, the internet of things, "ultrafast" broadband, smart cities and cloud computing, the council's ICT chief has told UKAuthority.com.
Peterborough has been gaining attention this year for moving almost all its data and software systems to cloud hosting and management, much of it using public cloud services such as Box and Amazon Web Services (AWS).
In September the council published a technology strategy for the period 2014-19 restating its aspiration to create "government as a platform" using modular and cloud-based systems. The plan cited the examples of companies such as Netflix and AirBnB that "adopted new business models and cultures and completely rewrote the rules of their sectors."
Elements of Peterborough's work have included a cloud CRM project using Salesforce; pilots with staff using file storage and sharing from public cloud supplier Box for all their work; and a target of moving 80% of council systems and data to public cloud storage by 2015. Staff have been issued with Chromebooks to enable mobile working and hot-desking, and residents can access their own service portal online.
The council has also struck a partnership with fibre network builder and operator CityFibre, which this year began laying a fibre network in the city with starting speeds of 1Gbps, or 1,000 Mbps ("superfast" broadband is defined as 24 Mbps).
The driving force behind all this innovation is the imperative to make savings, Richard Godfrey, ICT Manager at Peterborough City Council, told UKAuthority.com.
"The latest numbers were that the council has a £25m shortfall - we're in a position where we can't afford to sit still and do nothing", said Godfrey. "What we have done with the IT strategy is to try and use the IT budget as an enabler for savings across the rest of the council."
A major source of savings from moving systems to the cloud will be the ability to enable more mobile and flexible working from staff groups such as social workers, who will be able to use council buildings such as libraries across the city as "touch down points" rather than returning to more distant offices. Overall desk space can be reduced as a result, he said.
Further savings will be realised by moving server hosting into the cloud, Godfrey said. "We have got a server room where most of the equipment is at least five or six years old, so a lot of time is spent just keeping the system alive, keeping the lights on. We want to migrate as much of this as possible into AWS."
This in turn "enables us to run a much sleeker IT department, and allows staff to spend more time in departments, working with them to realise their transformation. So we can go into children's services for example and say how do we make it easier for you to work?"
As for "sleeker", the changes would also mean a staff reduction within ICT, Godfrey said, and in fact, the council's entire ICT function has already been outsourced. As part of its push to become a "commissioning council", in 2011 the council signed a 10-year deal with Serco to manage a range of front and back office corporate services including ICT, customer services and council tax collection. "So they are not my direct staff, though I am responsible for them", Godfrey said. "Strategy sits with me, and I work with Serco to deliver it."
And what of the school weather stations?
They form part of a "Living Data" project within the city's Future Cities Demonstrator programme, which is seeing about 30 weather stations installed in schools. Primary school stations will record basics such as rainfall and temperature, while secondary school stations will also measure environmental factors such as particulates, noise and light.
The data will be published openly in the public cloud and combined with other open data sources, allowing both schoolchildren and businesses to come up with valuable insights into public services and life in the city, he said.
"We will work with third parties to map it against other data such as hospital admission or crime data, to see how big an influence the weather has on them. Even planning - if we are taking a field and turning it into concrete, what effect will it have on the microclimate? There are hundreds of examples."
The data will be shared over the city's new fibre network, for which the core build of 90 kilometres is on track to be finished by March 2015. Having such strong platforms for sharing data opens the door to better collaboration with the private sector, tapping into new sources of innovation, something the public sector often does not do very well, Godfrey says.
"In Peterborough we want to say 'We have all been off doing our own things, now we want to join together. Let's start seeing it together as a city.'"
Pictured: Peterborough Cathedral - West front, by Julian Dowse / Geograph.org.uk
Future Cities Demonstrator: www.peterboroughdna.com