From place-based to place-led: The paradox of delivering local service

As an organisation that has been enthusing about Cloud to various local service providers for many years now, we have encountered three typical misgivings from customers about using Cloud, which we experienced in ‘phases’.  During ‘phase 1’ (2012-2015; G-Cloud started in 2012), many people expressed nervousness about security – coming from a tradition of on-prem hosting. During ‘Phase 2’ (2015-2019), we would have many conversations with organisations that were happier storing data in the Cloud, but saw Cloud as place for just that and no more – storing data.  ‘Phase 3’ (2020-) sees us starting to have conversations about Cloud utilities and services – for example, stringing together optical character recognition, natural language processing, machine learning, process automation, web services etc – to start to deliver against a range of exciting, often revolutionary, citizen-centred use cases.  Examples of these include quickly contacting relatives of lost or confused people, fixing potholes, automatically identifying different types of flytipping and organising tailored responses, blasting through process-heavy workflow, etc.  Even now, however, we often encounter an important objection: “We’re a local organisation, so why would we want to consume a standard service?”. 

However, the pandemic has opened up the conversation a bit more.  We’ve seen evidence of an increased willingness among local service providers to move from being ‘place-based’ (we build our stuff ourselves, we host it here, and we don’t share, for ‘security’ reasons) to ‘place-led’ (we realise that we can configure and deploy ubiquitous, often cheap, technology to understand our locality better, and as a result we can tailor service outcomes much more closely to our local population).  For example, our work with Swindon Borough Council has recently been shortlisted for the Digital Leaders AI and Innovation Award for using Amazon Rekognition object recognition cognitive services to leverage cloud-based machine learning to improve fly-tipping and street scene reporting. 

In another example of moving from ‘place-based’ to ‘place-led’, Central Bedfordshire Council had been manually assessing thousands of pupils who were potentially eligible for free school transport.  We automated the eligibility process using QRoutes, a route optimisation application already in use by the council within its waste services. This helped to determine the walking distance from the pupil’s address to the school, which in turn generated a Google Maps URL, that could be used to check the route by parents. The parents/guardian of those potentially eligible for free school transport would then be invited to complete a form to provide evidence to support the offer of free transport – resulting in significant savings for the Council. 

Both these, and many of our other experiences, are all about delivering ‘place-led’ experiences using tech that is often ‘place-based’ (i.e. it’s ubiquitous).  This points to an interesting paradox for understanding and delivering localism in the emerging digital era: namely that local services, that local people really want to use, are increasingly quickly, and cheaply, achieved by ubiquitous capabilities that are usually located in the Cloud.  Developing our collective understanding of how we realise the truly local via the truly ubiquitous will be one of the most important challenges for building great public services from here on. 

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