Bridging the digital divide

Published on Wednesday, 14 August 2013 13:56
Written by Simon Harbridge

The Digital by Default agenda is the Government's initiative to transform the provision of digital services throughout the country and whilst widely embraced by central government, it is yet to completely filter down to local government.

This view is supported by findings from a new survey from O2 Digital Community, which reveals there is still a digital divide between local authorities and the public. Almost half (48 percent) of citizens say they like to use the internet, mobile apps or social media for essentials like paying for council tax or getting information on local services. However in the past 12 months, just 7 percent have used these technologies to communicate with their local authority either because they are not available or they don't provide the information and services they need.

This is further confirmed by the SOCITM's 2013 Better Connected survey, which shows that council website performance scored even lower than in 2012. Of all the 433 websites surveyed, only 9 percent achieved the top four star ranking with the number of three star rankings at 140. According to the survey, visitor feedback on council websites recorded satisfaction down on all counts.

If local authorities were to think more about the technology they implemented and responded with the right online tools, then citizens could benefit long-term and money saved could be pumped back into other critical front line services. The data is out there, we just need to find better ways of probing that data and delivering it to citizens in the way they want so they can make the most of it.

To help the public sector embrace this digital revolution, Stone Group has been working closely with Hackathon Central – a not for profit organisation set up to encourage UK application developers to work on ideas that can make a huge difference to peoples lives.

The Spring Hackathon was a great example. The two day hack – 'Building Apps for Local Communities' - took place at the Google Campus in Tech City in London, brought together over 50 developers to develop applications (commonly known as apps) that enable easy retrieval of information from council websites by non-technical users, creating better online and mobile links between communities and their local public services.

The developers had access to the ESD toolkit, an extensive publicly accessible dataset facilitated by the Local Government Association, in addition to the Police API and public data from all 43 polices forces in the country. It's through the event that we can see what's possible for local authorities to achieve by tapping into their local communities. One great example of a mobile app that was developed was 'iNeighbourhood Watch' which gives citizens the ability to report low-level crime by submitting a photo taken on their phone. The person reporting the crime can append a text description with the image to provide additional detail and use the phone's GPS locator adds the location where the photo was taken. The information is then sent to local police community support officers and/or local authority neighborhood teams via the Police API. A call is received, where a text-to-voice service reads the location of the reported crime and the description to the recipient.

In a short period of time, the developers clearly demonstrated we could do a lot with the datasets that our local authority associations and service providers have access to. The information is clearly there so it needs to be embraced so digital services can be developed further thus bridging the divide between local authorities and citizens for the betterment of society.

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