07 May 2021

How Greater Manchester is putting residents at the heart of digital innovations

Guest blog: Phil Swan, GMCA Digital Director as part of our #DigitalPlace week.

The Covid-19 pandemic continues to affect all areas of life in many and substantial ways and it has been humbling to see how communities have come together to support those in need.  I have been and continue to be inspired by how people working across all parts of the digital sector have similarly responded to this pandemic. Over the last year we’ve seen digital transformation at an unprecedented pace, and we must ensure people remain at the heart of what we do, putting our citizens first and empowering them to solve challenges in our communities.  

From a sector perspective, Greater Manchester’s Digital Blueprint central focus is to put our people at the heart of our plans through an inclusive approach that builds on our greatest asset as we work towards our ambition to be recognised as a world leading digital city-region. It is no accident that our first priority is Empowering People. 

This year, alongside the amazing work by individual local authorities and other public sector organisations, we’ve seen a huge acceleration of the Greater Manchester Care Record to reach 99.7% of patients; a renewed drive for a fully inclusive and 100% digitally enabled city-region and the launch of a taskforce to drive that work; rapid build out of new fibre infrastructure; help for businesses to get online through programmes like Made Smarter and deployments of technology at scale to support remote and home working – but we shouldn’t see that drive slow down, or stop, post-pandemic. 

The Digital Inclusion Agenda for Change for Greater Manchester 

A recent report by The Good Things Foundation and Liverpool University indicate that levels of digital exclusion are much worse than previously thought, with over 700,000 people in Greater Manchester only using the internet in a narrow or limited way and a concerning 450,000 classified as 'non-users.’ 

As many as 1.2 million residents in Greater Manchester could be excluded in some way from accessing the benefits digital brings, including a considerable number of children and young people for whom digital literacy only extends to expertise in phones and social media.  

A challenge of this magnitude requires a whole system response, The Greater Manchester Digital Inclusion Taskforce was established to help address these challenges. The cross-sector group membership includes industry, voluntary, community and social enterprise sectors, plus public sector partners, local government, schools and our health and social care partnership and that taskforce will be integral to achieving our commitment that Greater Manchester become a 100% digitally-enabled city region, through a digital inclusion agenda for change. 

An example of the work being done in Greater Manchester to fix the digital divide is the Greater Manchester Technology Fund. The fund was launched in response to the closure of schools and colleges, as an emergency support fund to help digitally-excluded young people with the technology and connectivity needed to continue their learning at home. The fund works closely with schools and colleges to understand their technology requirements and identify those students most in need of support. Schools and colleges have then been provided with digital kit bundles which include a laptop or tablet and the required tools to get online. During Phase 1 & 2 of the Greater Manchester Tech Fund was able to support over 1,300 young people thanks to generous donations of funds and technology from organisations including AO, Arup, Auto Trader, Huawei, Boohoo, Beechfield Brands and Irwell Insurance Company.  

The need for this work has been echoed in the Greater Manchester Inequalities Commission report which was published in March and highlighted how vital it is to address exclusion and inequality in the city region. Our focus now is to ensure that this is mainstreamed within our everyday work, not an “add on”. 

The Greater Manchester Digital Platform- a citizen centric approach 

Innovation in public services is important for our residents who rightly expect effective, secure and well-designed services. Greater Manchester is recognised as a place with the ambition and civic mandate for inclusive, progressive and joined up digital capabilities that ensure no one gets left behind. Helping everyone to live healthier and happier lives by being able to navigate through, access and benefit from an increasingly digital world. 

To achieve this ambition, the Greater Manchester councils, NHS organisations and other public bodies are investing in technologies and capabilities that enable us to join up data from systems across the public sector in ways that help address specific challenges – like helping more children to be School Ready, or to enhance hospital care.  

One important part of this is the Greater Manchester Digital Platform which brings together integration and data matching capabilities, secure hosting, application design and mechanisms for residents to securely access their data.  It is still early days, but these tools have been used to undertake over 3,000 children’s developmental assessments since September and growing. The ambition is to support families and children more effectively across the range of 0-5 year services that span maternity, GPs, health visiting, early education (including nursery settings in the private sector) and schools as part of the wider Greater Manchester School Readiness Programme. As families and services often cross council boundaries in urban areas, taking a Greater Manchester wide approach makes sense. 

The platform is one of the digital technologies that has been used in response work during the COVID-19 pandemic. Last year components in it were used to develop a new app to help match volunteers with vulnerable people and to support daily “situation reporting” analytics tracking the likes of PPE available across over 2,500 care settings.  

Moving forward the platform will continue to be used to develop solutions to citizen problems and improve services for residents. 

Post-pandemic world 

We are living through a time of incredible change - our societal models have unfrozen and have yet to re-freeze in new configurations which will be governed by the way in which we collectively emerge from the pandemic. Whatever the new normal is, it will be more digital – there’s no going back now. There will be new opportunities and challenges for everybody and in Greater Manchester we are endeavouring to create the conditions where the balance tips towards good opportunities.