Are our public services digitally ready for immersive services?

29th April 2021

Following discussion with leaders and innovators, Liz O’Driscoll shares five key takeaways on how public services can leverage immersive technologies

I was lucky enough to recently host two round tables to discuss our first volume of Perspectives* and how we can make immersive technologies a reality.

Immersive technologies offer an opportunity to build more engaging and personal public services. Our view is that there may not be a need to deploy expensive hardware on a mass scale and instead to consider what can be accessed by a citizen on their own smart phone. In this way, rather than public sector creating the immersive content, they make curated data available for services to be built on top.

To explore this, we brought together experts in software and technology as well as public sector leaders who are pushing the boundaries of what public services can do with data.

I’ve summarised my key takeaways from a truly enjoyable discussion exploring the digital maturity of our public services and how we can best leverage the potential of immersive technologies.

1. The pandemic has accelerated digital transformation
It was clear from the discussions that the pandemic has opened many eyes to what is possible in terms of digital training and engagement. Citizens have widely embraced digital technologies and, almost without exception, organisations have had no choice other than to accelerate their digital programme. Digital maturity varies across all sectors. There are some “real structural pieces of work” to get the foundations right but trust is increasing and there is an absolute appetite for new technologies like AR/VR.

One interesting point raised was the alignment between the digital expectations of the public sector and those of the general public. The biggest driver for further transformation is likely to be citizen demand. Many citizens are already using these technologies, and this is only set to increase as providers like Apple begin to add functionality into smart phone devices.

There are a lot of curious people who are open to using new tech and happy to explore and try things, but in a Local Authority context we are only just going through internal digital transformation and trying to get our data in order.”

Round table delegate, Perspectives from Civica

2. Use cases are critical to drive investment
Across all sectors there was a desire to ensure that we aren’t being tech-led; instead focussing on finding use cases that “bring positive experiences and drive social value.” There are a lot of pressures within public services and a real focus on finding efficiencies and optimising costs around budgets and resources. This can impact the level of innovation because of a lack of "time and headspace” to explore new technologies and improve service design. There is a big opportunity here for the private sector and academics to start to help the public sector think about new ways of delivering services.

It was exciting to hear about various potential use cases and early pilots. There appears to be considerable appetite from citizens for a more engaging planning process that helps visualise the infrastructure improvements. Immersive technology could go a long way to address this. Housing providers are embracing the technology as a way to deliver virtual viewings and support tenants to make basic repairs. Also, as we found in our own research, healthcare is where there are the clearest use cases, particularly VR for people with dementia. There is little doubt that this is where we will see the earliest widespread uptake.

Technology without a use case is a toy.”

Round table delegate, Perspectives from Civica

3. Inclusion is about more than access to devices
When thinking about uptake of new technologies like AR/VR, digital inclusion is key. The perception that you need state of the art equipment or a high spec mobile phone to be able to access immersive services will certainly be a barrier to uptake. But inclusion is about more than having access to the device. Connectivity and digital skills are vital areas to consider in ensuring that services can be accessed by all.

The demands of staff attempting to access immersive visualisations of data will impact heavily on available bandwidth. Many areas do not yet have 5G coverage and this will no doubt be needed to accelerate roll out of immersive services. We need to ensure that there is “ubiquitous connectivity” otherwise people will be excluded.

Digital inclusion activities also need to cover staff. One of our delegates shared that 20% of the organisations they work with have reported that they don’t know the digital skill level of their staff. Having public sector officers confident with digital skills is a key, but often overlooked, factor in promoting the roll-out of new digital services.

We have to fix connectivity because that is the key enabler for everything else.”

Round table delegate, Perspectives from Civica

4. These services will push the boundaries of data and ethics
Strong foundations around data governance and data ethics will be vital areas to consider so that public services and citizens can use immersive technologies with more confidence. The existing frameworks of legislation and governance that most people already understand (data protection, legal data use, GDPR etc) does not readily extend to these services looking to combine and visualise multiple sources of data.

There are very few examples available to support decision making and direction and until we have this, there will be a perception of "too much risk". It was however encouraging to hear how our delegates have been engaging with centre of excellence like the Centre for Data, Ethics and Innovation to drive thinking around how to use data in new ways.

Whilst the technologies offer huge opportunities, we don’t know yet what is (and isn’t) publicly acceptable around the use of city, citizen and council data.”

Round table delegate, Perspectives from Civica

5. We still need to talk about the value of data sharing
Despite having worked in this area for years, it is continually frustrating to hear that all sectors are still trying to articulate the value of data sharing. However, in recent months the feeling is that the general public and other stakeholders are starting to understand the importance of data and the value in bringing different data sets together for simulation, analysis and useful insight. Maybe there is light!

If data can be combined to provide a view of citizen population then it’s likely that better services can be designed and delivered. Linking pieces of simple information together can create flags to identify where extra support may be required or highlight linkages and trends that can have overall public health benefits.

A further challenge is data integration and interoperability. Whilst healthcare data integration has benefited from standards development, other sectors are a way behind.

There remains an opportunity to further consider the value of data and how public services organisations can capture this value. It’s worth remembering that “open data” doesn’t need to mean “free data”.

Asking the right question at the right time because of insights from interconnected data can make a genuine difference in outcomes.”

Round table delegate, Perspectives from Civica

It’s been a real privilege these past two weeks to hear from innovation leaders across various public services organisations and to talk about challenges that are shared regardless of sector. I continue to believe that immersive technologies can help extend the delivery of public services, particularly as we move forward in our socially distanced environments.

In the end it will come down to a question of demand. Now that the public service leaders have spoken it would be interesting to further expand their perspective by asking if the public are indeed ready!

The challenge is less about the tech, but more about inclusion and being led by the public.”

Round table delegate, Perspectives from Civica