Every year at this time writers ease themselves back into the blogging routine by putting on their Mystic Meg cloaks and looking forward to the coming year in an effort to predict the big things that might or might not happen. Most then hope that these are quietly forgotten about so that their rash forecasts and unrealised ideas aren’t brought up in twelve months’ time.
It is therefore with some trepidation that I present my own 12 predictions for 2015 with regards to how technology might affect local government. Please don’t hold it against me in 2016…
The Internet of Things
This term has sprung up over recent years, and has been used to describe everything from fridges which top themselves up to bins which report when they are full. The basic concept is to turn otherwise ‘dumb’ devices into smart ones by introducing sensors which talk to a central system and direct actions based on simple rules; were this to be rolled out at scale the possibilities are enormous.
However, this involves a significant amount of investment up front in order to realise these benefits, investment which is not likely in these times of austerity. Councils might love to have a network of street lights which automatically order repairs without the need for people to report them, but the reality is that they can’t yet afford them. Until someone comes up with an argument to demonstrate that a connected network of dumb devices will save significantly more than the cost to smarten them up, our neighbourhoods will remain stupid for now.
Wearable tech will still be searching for a niche
Everyone loves the idea of one piece of wearable tech or another, be it the sensors in your watch which check your health or simply the belt you wear which knows when it should loosen itself. Trouble is, at the more sophisticated end of the scale (which is getting all of the press) it feels very much like a technological development searching for a market.
Wearable tech holds the potential to improve the health and fitness of its wearers significantly and may therefore lead to real savings for not just local government but also the wider public service. Doctors would be able to know in real time whether the medication they prescribed was working, or call people in for a check-up based on their data. The trouble is, the only people buying these and using them in the way intended are those who already have a more than passing interest in health and fitness, the last people who will lead to increased financial savings. 2015 will see software developers stretching some of the things that these wearable devices can do but will not see them taken up by the mainstream despite the benefits they could lead to.
Open data will continue to quietly become the norm
2014 saw the launch of a range of open formats for the information published on gov.uk, something which was more important than many people give it credit for. Open data seems to be one of those things which everyone sees as good but few see as urgent in terms of priorities; as long as it’s on the internet in some format or other it’s fine. As more and more departments are effectively coerced into releasing their information using open formats, more and more clever people will be able to take this information and do more and more interesting and useful things with it.
Gov.uk Verify will take off
In case you missed it, GDS did another brilliant thing towards the end of 2014 when they launched Verify, the new way in which they are able to verify who you are online (do you see what they did there with the name? I told you they were clever…). It doesn’t try to get you to create yet another account and profile – instead it allows you to add a few bits of information and then it quizzes other verified and trusted sources to check that what you have said matches up. It’s so solid that it’s even allowing users to renew their passports online, something unthinkable just a few years ago.
Local government has always struggled with the field of verifying identities online; some are doing it well through the creation of master accounts with the council, though few of these are able (yet) to allow all of the myriad legacy systems to talk directly to these accounts. For those which are facing real problems, particularly around some more sensitive information, Verify may well be the way to go, and 2015 could see the first few councils taking this route.
Council websites will start to look better
For some reason, a huge number of council websites look like they are some form of strange homage to web design of the 90s; lots (and lots) of text, a couple of square pictures in frames, boxes containing everything and a colour palate that makes a nursery class wish for a little more subtlety.
Modern users expect every site they use to be comparable in terms of quality of look and feel, regardless of the scale or sector of the organisation behind it. 2015 will start to see more local authorities realising that a website needn’t be bland and boring to look at; form and function can in fact go hand in hand. Hopefully we’ll start to move away from these awful layouts and on to something which looks much, much better and more welcoming on screen. And that’s all screens, not just those on a desktop.
Attack of the Drones
There have been countless stories over the past year of how drones are going to change everything. I don’t think they are going to personally, at least not in the short term. I’ve seen too many science fiction dreams dashed on the rocks of reality to get my hopes up.
I do however see a number of uses for them in local government circles, particularly around enforcement. A drone with a camera, operated by a trained council officer, could be invaluable in enforcement inspections when access to a site is restricted. Want to know whether a waste company is complying with storage requirements but can’t see over their fence? Send in the drones! Want to get some birds eye views of a construction site? Drones are the answer! This year will see at least one council break out their remote controls and take to the skies.
Digital High Streets will become a thing
I’ve written in the past about how councils might be able to help local businesses get more digital and online, and now that business rates can be retained this may well give councils the extra incentive they need to take this more seriously. With a huge and ever increasing amount spent by consumers online it’s vital that as many local SMEs as possible get in the game.
2015 will see a couple of big schemes start looking at this and actually making it happen. And if they don’t, then they should; consider the gauntlet thrown down.
Criminals go where the money is, and this is no different online. In the past, cyber criminals have attacked institutions which hold financial information about people with the aim of accessing credit card information and spending big. In this day and age though there is something which is becoming increasingly valuable: data.
Councils may not hold much in the way of financial information but they hold an awful lot of data about individuals. In the past this would only be lost if it was left on a train on a memory stick; these days all that’s needed is a web connection. As more and more systems link up, hackers will increasingly become more interested in the data held within council systems and how they might exploit it: perhaps 2015 will see the first major hack of a council database?
Video meetings will become more common
Everyone is familiar with Skype, one of the underrated wonders of the digital world, and how it can make communication so much easier. Why then do we insist on limiting communication within councils to the spoken or written word?
Slowly but surely, council hardware and infrastructure is improving and opening up to allow video conferencing facilities to be viable; I've used it myself to have meetings with a council already. Councils will begin to encourage the use of video conferencing internally as a way of both improving communication as well as saving money and time on people travelling between meetings in different buildings.
Caring about sharing
Social sharing sites such as Airbnb – the site helping people find accommodation around the world – have very quickly become big, big business. To date these have met with mixed reactions from authorities; some have studiously ignored it, while others (most notably New York) have aggressively challenged its practices and the rules it may potentially be breaking.
As these sites continue to grow we will begin to see them rub up against some of the rules inherent in local government in the UK, around licensing, permitting and such like. I’ve no idea on which side the coin will land, but I expect some initial challenges to be made around how they operate.
The ongoing rise of mobile
The work I’ve been doing recently looking at council websites shows a trend we will all be familiar with – mobile is growing. Almost a third of some council sites are already accessed from mobiles, a figure which has been rising for several years and which shows no sign of slowing down. There are more smartphones in the UK than people, and increasingly their users are expecting to be able to access any and all council services and information online.
While I think 50% might be a bit too rapid a change, I can certainly see a number of local authorities pushing the 40% mark when it comes to accessing sites via mobiles.
3D or not 3D
At every gathering of innovative minds and unconference over the last few years, at least one room has been used to discuss 3D printers and the amazing potential they hold. Technology in this field has come a long, long way since the early days, with examples of surgeons printing fake versions of hearts to study before operations and tools being e-mailed to the International Space Station and printed off rather than sent up by rocket.
Local government is yet to find a practical use for this technology. However, as costs continue to fall and quality continues to rise, 2015 may see the first signs of a change in this area. Perhaps it will be street light repair vans being able to print parts on demand rather than going back to base to collect them, or on demand production of wheelie bins saving bulk purchasing and storage costs; there’s bound to be a handful of practical, viable uses for this amazing kit. Isn’t there?!
So that’s my twelve predictions for 2015. Some are big, some are small, but at least one of these will come true over the year, and if more than one does then I’m changing my official job title to Nostradamus.