Innovation and changeDigital TransformationData, overcoming scepticism and delivering outcomes: Transformation in Leeds

Data, overcoming scepticism and delivering outcomes: Transformation in Leeds

At last month’s Civica Exchange event, Girish Solanki, Head of Digital Change at Leeds City Council shared insights into how Leeds is moving towards its goal of becoming a 100% digital city. Here are some key excerpts from his presentation.

The value of data…

“There are many conversations about AI, the technologies that are coming and the data that we hold, which are all important things. However, I don’t think people actually realise the volume of data that we hold within our organisations and how valuable that data is. A colleague once said to me that data is the future crude oil. I think they were right – it really is of immense value to us.

“Five years ago, at Leeds, we started looking at our data, asking how we could use our data in the public arena to enable partners in the city and allow developers to come in and use our operational data to deliver better outcomes for the city, rather than us doing everything for our citizens.

“The key word here is outcomes. We started setting better goals and outlining what we wanted to achieve, which has certainly helped.

Overcoming scepticism…

A good example of our transformation is our desire to stop sending out letters to our citizens in Leeds every time there was a change to the bin collection date. Each time we had a change to a date, it was costing us £90,000 to send out a letter. We decided to try and use the Open Data Institute that had earlier been set up in partnership with Leeds City Council to find a solution to our problem, but I kept coming up against the same question: “Can we release the data?”

“You wouldn’t believe the difficulties we’ve had around that. Why do you want to touch our data? It’s our data. What’s going to happen to the data once it’s out in the public arena?

“It took us months to get sign off from service leads, members and directors to release operational data. Yes, it had to be fit for purpose, yes we had to comply with privacy and GDPR, and all that stuff, but the push back was incredible. We eventually released the data and once it’s out there, it’s out there. You can log onto the ODI in Leeds to view any data centre. We are public.”

The need for target outcomes…

“Once we overcame that hurdle, we held an event where we invited developers in from around the UK. Despite fears some people had, they came. We had operational people, not IT professionals, talking about what outcome they would’ve achieved. The first outcome is we want to get rid of these letters, but we want to engage with our citizens and inform them regularly, with updates that help them to put the right bin out at the right time, tell me where their local recycling centre is, what they can recycle and so on.

“Within four hours of that conversation, with a room full of developers and the operational data being public, we had concepts. In the afternoon, those concepts were presented back to us. Then, within the following three months, we sat down with operational services to say which concept do we want to take forward? That took us another six months – all because of the problems of culture and organisational change. People didn’t want to let go. They still felt that I should buy this app from a provider and then integrate it, despite open data helping us deliver this app for less than £5,000.

“We eventually launched the app internally before taking it public and now tens of thousands have used it. It’s completely free to users and cost us £5,000.

“Since then, we’ve used the same principle to develop other apps. The most recent one has been the housing picker where we have a huge volume of people contacting our contact centre to ask about waiting times with council houses.

“Why can’t we just put that data out there? Why can’t we just let them put their circumstances in? There’s a pivot table in the background, which then presents the information back. The average waiting time for council housing, by area, based on what they’ve put in is clearly available. That’s another example of where we’ve used open data in the city with partners.”

Connectivity benefits…

“The other major developments we’re doing are around connectivity. As a local authority we’ve started building houses again – we did about 1,300 last year, but on that journey, we had to define what does a Leeds house look like these days? We’ve talked about four emerging elements of gas, water, electric and broadband connectivity. We’ve developed an elite housing standard, which is actually a specification of what should be in our property, besides gas, water, electric. Every new build now has got to be fit for the digital world. That doesn’t mean we’re providing the connectivity, but we’re building in the requirements, which we can resell. It also means we can look at affordable fibre.

“We’re doing some trials in the south of the city where we’re using third-party companies to help us with low-end broadband, provide facilities for our tenants at a lower cost. It’s a two-way thing. We can push information out to them, but more importantly, it will enable us to deliver internet things going forward. For example, technologies in the house such as smart metering, which will help us in so many ways. In the future, we’re also looking to link this to independent living agendas through the use of motion sensors and so on.

Three principles…

“We’ve got three priorities for the city. One of them is housing and connectivity. The other one is smart transport. We’ve already started looking at smart parking, using open data. We’re trialling that in Leeds at the moment. We’re also looking at social care, working with our partners in the city, where we’re looking to move towards a single care record and that’s in motion as well. All of this will be achieved by working as one team to deliver smart outcomes for the city – it’s an exciting time for Leeds.”

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