If the bins need emptying, just press a button...how the app era is changing the way we get things done
Thursday 06 January 2011
If talking to someone in a call centre has ever had you grinding a pen into the desk or chewing the telephone cord with frustration, then it may have occurred to you that sometimes when you need help, information doesn't always get where it needs to go.
Maybe you just want the noise across the road to stop, or a new wheelie bin, but it can take several phone calls, conversations with multiple confused operatives and a sense of purpose akin to an Old Testament prophet to actually get things done.
Many of these little glitches in helping people get things – whether it's bins, benefits or medical care – can be overcome with smarter technology: surgeries sending patients text message reminders about appointments and allowing you to cancel with a reply reduces the amount of missed appointments; graffiti can be reported on a website or over an iPhone app and smart little games could help you visually navigate the maze of the benefits system.
And thank God that technology could help public services – because with the swingeing cuts planned, they'll need it. Budgets for local government have taken a heavy 25 per cent hit, half a million civil servants will lose their jobs in the next four years, and services from care homes in Birmingham to bin collections in Leeds will be affected.
If technology promises to make things better, it also promises to make them cheaper and that – more than anything else – is why the Government is interested in it right now. After all – PCs don't need pensions.
In several instances the Government has actually stated it wants to reduce costs by improving technology – the Immigration and Border Controls Authority for example, where tools like facial recognition scanners will speed up the task of matching people up to their passport photos, will reduce staff costs and queues. In most cases, computers save human time by taking on more repetitive tasks, enabling funds to go to more important services.
But there is a long chill shadow over new public sector technology projects, cast by several costly mistakes. Step up the NHS computer programme – four years late, and with a budget that slipped from £2bn to £12bn, possibly escalating to £20bn"
On a local level there are embarrassments like Birmingham City Council's new website which cost an eye-popping £2.5 million. A figure that Dominic Campbell, head of tech consultancy FutureGov, brands as "utter nonsense" explaining that "a modern council website should not cost more than 10% of that".
So technology can be used well and it can be used badly. But can it reach vulnerable people with help more easily and deliver better public services for less? Can it help your friend Sam when his wheelie bin disappears? What about your daughter's bed bug infestation or the care your nephew is getting for depression?
Firstly, technology will never provide all the answers. The PC itself won't be carrying bins or searching through the mattress fibres. The technology just enables the service that is already there – as Stefan Stern, the former management columnist for the Financial Times and now Director of Strategy at Edelman puts it – if a service isn't working to start with then just adding a new computer system won't help. "People often come at this the wrong way round," he says. "First you need to design a system that solves customers' problems – then you drop IT into that design so it all flows smoothly."
"This applies to the private sector just as much," he continues. "Companies will sometimes buy the kit thinking that that their problems are over, but they won't be dealing with the business's underlying, systemic problems."
And you don't need 300 new computers to solve every problem. One of the best-known pieces of technology in social services is the modest app FixMyStreet, which helps people to send a quick notification to the council when something goes wrong in their area – maybe an illegal dump or a pothole. All the app does is send an email to the relevant person – but it overcomes the hurdle that it can be cumbersome to report small problems, and so residents often don't bother.
Another project called London View is an app-in-the-making designed by architects, which automatically calculates whether planned new buildings will interfere with protected views. Apparently London councils spend up to £30,000 a year consulting on views when considering planning applications, and this one piece of software could work out the same problem for much less.
Successful projects also consider the user. Who are they, what do they want from you, and how are you going to give it to them? Stefan Stern mentions Tesco as an example of where the technology is keyed to serving the needs of the customers. When you go to Tesco, you want to be able to buy what you need. "Tesco is an example of where IT and management work hand in hand," Stern says, "because they have a brilliant supply chain and very smart logistics, which means that there is very rarely a space on the shelf, even in your local Tesco's.
"Tesco management need to know that they are running low on baked beans in the Streatham branch – and they need to know in advance so that the truck is already on its way before the last tin has been taken.
"It's so successful because it's a highly sensitive and IT-enabled supply chain that has been designed well – the intelligent management came first before putting the IT in."
In the public sector, that means not just being able to report a spray-painted obscenity on your garden wall, but that the person supposed to deal with graffiti removal opens the email, responds to it promptly and gets someone out there with a scrubbing brush. Otherwise, as Stern points out, "introducing wonderful, clever IT on top of an organisation whose processes aren't functioning will just speed up the point at which you get to the problems."
Sometimes simple technology is all you need. Paul Hodgkin was a GP frustrated that lots of useful feedback from patients was going to waste. Stories from a mother taking her daughter through the mental health services or ideas that a patient on heart medication came up with – insights helpful for other people. He decided to design a website, Patient Opinion, where patients could post their experiences, suggestions and criticism. People in the NHS respond to the suggestions posted and reshape their services accordingly. The NHS recognised the importance of Patient Opinion and now funds it. Patient Opinion uses technology very simply – there are no lasers, smartphones or iPads necessary – it's just an internet messageboard, but the right people are looking at it.
To use technology effectively, you need to know what it can do and what it can't – you wouldn't use a messageboard to answer a 999 call for example. "Computers are great at sending information from one place to another, at following rules and patterns, and being always available," explains Hadley Beeman, founder of the social enterprise LinkedGov. "But they're not wonderful at adapting to changing circumstances, answering direct questions, or anticipating the way a variety of people think."
A computer may not recognise 68 Barton Road as a valid address because it only has 68A and 68B in its database – though the window-shaking bass would be enough for anyone next to the building to work out that the basement flat was the one causing a noise problem.
And if the pest control webpage has a separate treatment for mice and for rats, then it may not understand that you don't know whether it's a small rat or a strong-jawed mouse that is making its way through your muesli packets, when practically, the difference isn't relevant. "We have to apply the tech to its fullest where it can add value," Beeman says, "without letting it cause unnecessary complications." As Campbell, of FutureGov adds: "It's about using just enough technology to get the job done."
So before jumping in with a spanking new computer system or an augmented reality app, it's important to think about what needs to be fixed. Good technology works just like a good tool – it solves a problem.
While we won't replace civil servants with helpful robots, make walls report their own graffiti, or turn the bins into sentient beings, a few tips and tweaks could get services running more smoothly. And in austerity Britain, we'll probably appreciate that.
Five helpful apps
FixMyStreet lets you report neighbourhood problems – from graffiti to illegal dumps – instantly to your council and track their response
Frontline SMS uses text messages for social good, co-ordinating 'nudges' to vulnerable groups, such as appointment or medication reminders
Ushadi helps to organise communities. It was first used in Kenya to report electoral fraud, and in the UK last year to co-ordinate the volunteers clearing snow-blocked roads
Patient Opinion lets patients share their experiences of the NHS and make suggestions. NHS workers read and then respond to them
Mentor Well is a networking website under construction which will match mentors with people needing mentoring
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