The EastEnder's electronic friend

A council in Newham, east London, has set up multimedia kiosks to help residents find out about services. Milly Jenkins reports

Newham Council, in east London, serves one of the most deprived areas in Britain. High unemployment and large numbers of immigrants and asylum-seekers make poverty a pressing problem. Part of the council's approach has been to put information technology at the top of its agenda, investing pounds 5m in public-access information services. Its pioneering efforts to improve communication with residents - half of whom come from ethnic groups speaking 16 different languages - were recently rewarded with an IT Department of the Year prize.

In partnership with the Metropolitan Police and Olsy UK (formerly Olivetti), the council is installing multimedia kiosks around the borough. With easy- to-use touch-screens, the kiosks carry detailed information about the council, benefit and health services, the police and other agencies. The user can read about services and facilities in several languages, print out information, and telephone council and police departments direct from the kiosk.

The kiosks also have video-conferencing facilities - not yet in use - so that in due course users will be able to speak in person to council workers or police officers. Two of these kiosks are being piloted at the moment, in a council tax office and a police station, with 10 more coming online by the summer in supermarkets, libraries, leisure centres and other local authority offices. Hole-in-the-wall kiosks will make it possible for people to access information 24 hours a day.

At the moment, non-English-speakers face an uphill struggle in finding out about local services. Council translators need to be booked in advance and have to travel around the borough to meet people. The video-conferencing facilities will make translators immediately available online. Signing services for the deaf will also be offered via the video links.

Simon Norbury, Newham's head of computing and communications, says that the kiosks will eventually replace the need to visit council offices: "One of the pilots we're developing is for online benefit forms. It will let you know within a couple of minutes whether you're eligible for benefits and, if so, help you to complete the form. The forms could then be translated into English.

"We have a strong anti-poverty initiative in Newham and one of the objectives of the kiosks is that they will be able to help with all issues," Mr Norbury says. "So if people fill in a housing benefit form, it may come back to them and say, 'do you realise that you could apply for family credit with a different agency, and that you can do that from here?'"

The Metropolitan Police also have ambitious plans for the kiosks. Gary Fitzpatrick, the Met's project manager, says the possibilities are enormous. "If someone loses their purse, rather than having to go to the local station, which may be a bus ride away, they can fill in a form at a kiosk, or make a video phone call to contact someone who can help them.

"Once we've shown that reporting thefts and accidents can be done from the kiosks, people may be able to use them to tell the police they're going to be away for a few weeks, and ask for someone to keep an eye on the house." Another possibility is that the kiosks be fitted with scanning facilities, so that people who need to show the police their licence or MOT can scan them in, rather than having to visit a station.

But the short-term aim is to make the police more user-friendly: "Someone who's recently arrived in this country may feel intimidated by a police station, but feel more comfortable using a kiosk, in, say, a doctor's surgery, to find out about Victim Support or what to do if they see a crime. These kiosks aren't new bobbies, but they are about reassurance and policing by consent."

The EU is helping to fund the kiosks, under the Advanced Trans European Telematics Applications for Community Help (Attach) project, which has participating members all over Europe. Similar systems are being piloted in Sweden and Italy, with participants pooling information on new software developments.

Olsy UK is providing the British kiosks. Theresa Zimmer, the product manager, hopes they will become a regular part of British life. "We're working closely with other boroughs and would like to see kiosks all around the country," she says. "But at the moment Newham is a lot farther down the road than anyone else."

Newham's drive to take the borough into the information age also involves installing access points to the council intranet and the Internet in libraries and schools. The council hopes that one day residents will be able to access the system from home, using cable modems. Bell Cable Media, which is providing the video links for the kiosks, is working with them on this.

Newham is banking on its IT projects to save millions of pounds in processing costs. The council has already cut costs by overhauling its internal system, networking 3,000 PCs and introducing e-mail and automated task applications.

"We're also busy developing a core database of addresses and linking existing databases to that," says Mr Norbury. "So that when someone contacts the council to say they're moving house, that information will be fired off to all the relevant agencies: the council tax office, the benefit office, the electoral register ..."

The Met says that the kiosks are unlikely to cut their costs. "But it will make us more effective," says Gary Fitzpatrick. "If forms that are filled in at reception desks, often taking 15 minutes, could be filled in at the kiosks, it would free up the reception officer to deal with people who absolutely need personal attention, such as battered wives or assault cases. It's all about providing a better service for the future".

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