Digital Cities: Newcastle set to become the UK’s leading smart city


This week, we caught up with Jenny Nelson, Digital Newcastle Programme Manager at Newcastle City Council


Jenny has worked at Newcastle for over ten years so we discuss the different roles she's held and how the rise in digital has impacted these roles over the years. We also talk about how she's tackled imposture syndrome, the adoption of their adult social care bot, how Newcastle is set to become the UK’s leading Smart City plus much more!

It doesn't feel like I've worked at Newcastle for ten years, but it is over ten years! I think, while I have changed roles reasonably frequently it has all been within the same area: transformation. I have focused more in the last three to four years on digital work.

As Digital Programme Manager for Newcastle, I am the senior specialist organising a broad programme of activity, not always activity that the Council is leading. A big part of my role is partnership work, helping to connect the dots within the Council and across the city.

Our programme has three key objectives: improving the customer experience, becoming more efficient, and growth through digital. My role is certainly not leading all the projects within those objectives but being the senior stakeholder promoting digital ways of working across the city.

I’m not from a technical background and I’ve had to get over some imposter syndrome about that. You do not have to be technical to work in tech. At the end of the day I’m transforming the way that customers interact with technology not necessarily the technology itself.

Do you think that being a woman intensified that imposter syndrome?

I frequently go to meetings where I am the only woman in the room, which can feel uncomfortable. The idea about tech and IT being masculine also feeds into that. Yet, as I say, at Newcastle it has never been about the tech, it has always been about the people. Even if you are not from a tech background, whatever gender you are you have a lot to give to the digital transformation programme.

Tech is now a part of everything we do, and I think over the coming decades, the association between tech and masculinity is going to lessen as more and more roles are digital. Do you agree?

Yes, a theme I wanted to pick up on is how digital has changed and one of the significant points is you can be digital, have a digital mindset and work in a digital way without doing anything with technology. For me that is something that has really shifted, it is not necessarily just about tech integration. A lot of people do not see Whatsapp, Skype and other tech as tech because they use it in their everyday lives. The more we can pick up as an organisation on how we can mirror the way people are living outside of dealing with the Council the better. It is the ultimate goal.

Can you tell us more about how you utilise tech that customers are used to, like messaging, to provide services?

When I first started the job four years ago it was about getting people online, perhaps more from a customer service ethos. However, things like bots, messenger, voice technology, give us greater opportunities. Digital is not just about forcing people to go online, a lot of people prefer to do things another way, which is probably more digital than going online.

Tell us about your three key objectives and how you've gone about implementing them...

To start with, a good example of the customer experience objective is our adult social care bot. The bot has allowed us to offer a 24/7 advice and support triage service using a web-based messenger conversation. Before the bot, people would have had to call us about problems such as where to get equipment for a family member or where they might go for home help. Some of our users were saying that they forgot to call until it was the evening and too late. What the adult social care bot has done is open up that avenue.

The bot does not give advice directly or have new content, but it almost works as a hand-holding spot to guide people through the information that is online. I do not know whether you have ever looked at the information on adult social care, but it is a tsunami of information. The bot can guide people through what could be an overwhelming amount of information. It also has natural language processing and is able to interpret the intent behind what people are asking. It is a great example of how we use emerging tech to supplement our offering to customers.

With regards to efficiency and reducing cost, we have 78 Local Councillors who come together at meetings eight times a year. The Council Chamber we use at our Civic Chamber is a listed building, but the technology was, what we might politely call, end of life. The technology was getting more temperamental and the market engagement suggested it would be a six-figure sum to replace the voting system that is in the Chamber at the moment. With the financial pressions, we could not afford that and instead managed to create an in-house voting system. The system has helped our elected members see the benefits of digital.

The “Smartest Street” is an excellent example of digital innovation at work in Newcastle. It was part of the Great Exhibition of the North last year. The goal was opening people’s eyes to the advantages of Smart Cities, even with simple things like bins, the quality of the air and finding car parking spaces. We are now exploring how we can scale that up to cover the whole city.

All of our objectives are underpinned by a broad digital inclusion offer, making sure we are being as inclusive as possible.

How has the adult social care bot been received?

We developed it in-house using the Microsoft bot framework, which was part of our enterprise agreement with Microsoft. That in itself was a big learning curve, we did not have much experience in it but we felt strongly that was the way we wanted to pursue it. We worked with users to understand their needs, examined the data and found the common pathways. We then went to paper prototypes and asked users how they would feel if the bot responded in certain ways. We made it beta-live around a year ago, but we did not do any promotion. We just put it on the website and let people find it. We also have an analytics programme running on the bot so we can see where we can to tweak and improve things.

The thing with AI and bots is that it never finishes. You have to learn, the bot learns, but it is all about the user at the end of the day. I think the biggest thing I take from the adult social care bot is if people are willing to interact with a bot, and people do know they are talking to a bot, about adult social care issues then the applications of bots are endless. Adult social care is seen as a sensitive area so the fact that people feel comfortable engaging knowingly with a bot demonstrates we need to tackle the stereotypes.

We have not perhaps had the natural uptake we may have liked. What that suggests about people’s use of channels is interesting. On our waste bot, we moved it to a bot-only access channel (though you could contact via other methods) but the bot now achieves 99.9% of channel shift.

Even if the new option is really good is it human nature to default to how we have done it before? The numbers have not been huge but what we have learnt from the people who have used it is that the interest is there. The majority of people have been using it out of hours, which means we have improved our service coverage.

Do you think you will expand it to other areas of the Council?

All the work we do is done on a case-by-case basis because of the financial situation we are in. We still get a lot of contact and know that people might be struggling with complex processes. We generally feel that if you can do with adult social care then there is no reason why you should not be able to do it with other areas, like planning. I know that is something that other councils are also looking into.

Newcastle is set to become the UK’s leading Smart City and I would love to know more about that...

It is excellent to hear that kind of message is getting out. What we have found in Newcastle is that we have really good assets and people that perhaps have not been as connected as they have been. What are doing now is connecting all these areas and sectors. We are home to the National Centre for Innovation on our Newcastle Helix site. We also have the Newcastle University Technical College, which is about providing digital skills and general education to 13-17 year old students. It is backed by industry players, like Ubisoft and Accenture.

In addition to this strong academic basis, we already have great connectivity with excellent broadband coverage and free WiFi coverage across the city centre. We have all of the building blocks to do something special but more fundamentally we need to think about the needs and problems of Newcastle’s people and how we can bring together all these players to help.

As a Council, we have just entered into a partnership with Urban Foresight, a Smart City consultancy. They will be working with us on a range of things such as doing more with programmes that are already in place, like smart parking, and how we can work better as a city to achieve digital transformation.

How do you think the Smart Streets concept will develop over the next few years?

The Smart Street gave us food for thought about not just collecting data in siloes like you might do with sensors in parking spaces that can direct you to free spaces and help improve the air quality around the city. Those kinds of solutions are just point to point but where the biggest benefit can come from looking at data sets more holistically. For example, what is the impact on waste if the number of cars parking goes through the roof. It is important to bring data up so it can be looked at across the board to identify trends we might not have picked up yet. I think it is more about what we do not know at the moment, the data can tell us things that we had not even picked up.

Which service(s) in Newcastle has been positively impacted by bringing in tech?

I think all of them would be the easy answer! There is such a vast array of opportunities that the challenge is prioritising them. We work on an invest-save basis, so we need to make sure that where we make an investment it has the biggest return. Due to this, we target the big budget priorities like social care, which continues to be an area of increasing cost especially with an ageing population.

We also ask ourselves about the significant challenges people are facing that cut across services. The way that people live their lives does not necessarily line up with our Council services. One example - albeit not the most exciting one- accessing Council land or assets, where you need to cut across several services. We need to understand the greatest pain points and improve them, even if they are cutting across different services.

What does digital transformation look like at Newcastle City Council? What are some challenges you have faced along the way?

I have a couple of points. Firstly, it is fundamental that our digital work is not just IT. We sit outside of the corporate IT Department, though we obviously work quite closely with them. We do not have a Chief Digital Officer post, digital is seen as everyone’s business. Within our management framework, managers and staff need to have that digital awareness.

The approach we have taken is using an innovation lab set-up. We have established an area to work on, based on customer demands or problems, then we follow a double-diamond service approach. We spend a lot of time understanding the service and customers, before defining the issues we need to solve. Then we test various prototypes and only once one is great will we focusing on delivering. The corporate IT Department does help with the delivery once the design process is done.

I would say that the digital transformation work at Newcastle has been quite front-loaded in terms of doing a lot of thinking and working collaboratively on ideas. On the way we have learnt great tools and techniques like doing a “Show and Tell” every fortnight to get people engaged and break down the reticence people can feel about showing something that is less than perfect. Before using that double-diamond approach, we might have jumped into solutions but spending time on figuring out the problem is crucial.

Other challenges include the difficult financial situation which can lead to nervousness from those involved who worry that they may be replaced by technology. Those barriers are clear to see, where people are worried about sharing ideas in case, they are replaced by the new tech. GDPR is making us think, for the right reasons, about how we use technology and interact with customers. With the bots, there has been a challenge around skills and adapting how the Local Authority works to help produce results. The more our customers respond to the solutions we produce, the more confidence we have to produce more innovative solutions.

Have you found that sitting outside of the IT Department has helped break down barriers that your colleagues feel regarding digital transformation and their jobs?

I think we hope so. I am yet to have an innovation lab where everything that came out of it was a digital solution. What we have found is that solutions come out of innovation labs that make people’s lives better and the staff involved in the process see the benefits of working with digital in that way. Avoiding focussing solely on an IT solution also helps to bring people around.

Which emerging technologies are you personally most excited about? Which do you see having the greatest impact on councils?

I think we are all clear that AI offers an opportunity for us to do things differently. I think where we need to think more carefully about that is building trust with users who may not feel immediately comfortable interacting with AI. AI can be perceived in a very negative way rather than as a helpful tool for solving customers’ problems while reducing costs. We are clear at the moment that we see the value in AI, especially for task-based processes such as process-automation. I think where we need to tread carefully is using AI for thought-based processes, where humans will always have to have the final say.

I am generally excited by how the digital mindset is permeating through the population and the opportunities this gives us to scale up what we do. Voice is a great example; Newcastle has not yet done anything based on voice yet because it did not feel like the business case was there, but the case might be strong now as attitudes have changed. If using voice is going to improve our customers’ experience, then we will offer that functionality. Voice and AI are two big areas which are exciting.

However, we are trying not to be too tech-driven. We want to find the right solution for the problem we are trying to solve, whatever that solution is, rather than taking a tech-led approach.

Voice technology is one of the most natural forms of tech, do you find that vulnerable members of society find it easier to use?

I think that is a really good point, voice is very natural, like you said, and we could perhaps lower entry barriers to services by having voice technology available. We want to support all members of the population and make our service as accessible as it can be.

What areas will you be prioritising going forward?

As I mentioned, we are working with Urban Foresight examining the initial business cases which will come through from that. We are particularly looking at how to scale up pilot Smart City projects, like the Smart Street as well as social care and housing schemes which we are analysing now. We also have bots and smart technology pilots in the mix. We want to accelerate digital transformation, but we want the people of Newcastle to feel comfortable. As a Council, one of our roles is to make people feel in control of emerging technologies and how they can help rather than there being fear.

Which app could you not live without?

It would have to be Whatsapp for me. I think it has revolutionized the way that we talk as individuals and as groups. While it might be a frustration sometimes with the number of notifications, you can control that! I particularly like Whatsapp because of the penetration it has had across ages and all groups. It is an accessible app, I interact with my seventy-year=old parents, my son and my son’s friends’ parents! I think it is one of those things that you do not realise until you step back how much of an impact one app can have on your life. I am sure there are other apps, which if I lost would feel like I had lost a limb. In terms of networking and community building it is one of my favourites!