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Forget Whitehall, local government is where the debates on data innovation get real

Local government may not be the first place people look when considering future trends and technologies, but perhaps it should be. Far from its unfair reputation of stuffy, wood-panelled committee rooms and lifeless 1960s office buildings, UK local government is currently the Petri dish in which some of the most talked about new innovations are being tested, refined and scaled.

Currently councils are key players in testing the innovations that will shape our lives over the next decades, from drones in Preston and Bradford, smart cities in Birmingham and Glasgow, predictive analytics in Essex and Manchester, through to artificial intelligence in Harrow and Aylesbury Vale.

At Nesta’s 2018 City Data Analytics conference some of these projects will be the context for a set of discussions about the future of council services. Following a morning session - which will look at the current state of play in data analytics - the afternoon will explore the development of smart cities in the context of increased concerns about personal data security and surveillance. Following this, we will discuss the use of algorithms to support or make decisions in public services. The final session will look at applications of AI in local government, from social care to website chatbots.

It is no coincidence that councils find themselves as the focal point for tech innovation now, despite government typically being a challenging place to experiment. While government in the UK is still comparatively centralised, local government remains the major contact point for the provision of hundreds of services which directly affect people’s everyday lives. Add to this the ‘burning platform’ of local government finance and there is little option for many councils now but to experiment and innovate.

In this context, it is not surprising that radical new technologies can appear like an oasis in a desert. But history is littered with examples of promising technologies which have ended up as white elephants, or which simply didn’t deliver the expected benefits. It follows that one of the most important questions we should ask is how we make sure that we harness these technologies for the problems they are best suited to solve.   

The questions are not limited to the technical. Many new technologies bring with them complex ethical and moral decisions. When do attempts to be pre-emptively helpful with predictive algorithms become an affront to liberty? When does the legion of cameras, sensors and monitors we need to be ‘smart’ become an invasion of privacy? And when does the AI tool that helps resolve customer service enquiries become a threat to jobs, trust or even humanity?

These are just some of the questions we’ll be asking at our event on the 24th (further details here). We hope you can join us there, or if you’re unable to make it to the event, or it is fully booked, the whole thing will be streamed live on our event page.

Photo credit:  by Andy Kelly on Unsplash

Author

Tom Symons

Tom Symons

Tom Symons

Acting Head of Government Innovation

Tom is a Principal Researcher in the Policy and Research team at Nesta.

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