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March 7, 2016updated 05 Sep 2016 7:39am

Fighting austerity with technology: How Bucks County Council is using data to become a business

Analysis: Could smart transport be a money-maker for local councils?

By Alexander Sword

In times of austerity, cuts to government spending often fall heavily upon local councils.

According to the Local Government Association, local authorities face a shortfall of £12.4 billion by 2020. The usual remedies often include raising council taxes (announced by Brighton & Hove council last month) or selling off property (as Oxfordshire Council is now doing).

Another key priority has been looking for efficiency savings wherever they can be found, with technologies such as the cloud often suggested as a way of providing these efficiency savings.

Bath & North East Somerset Council, serving over 176,000 people, recently implemented a virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) with Atlantis Computing as part of a wide ranging cost reduction programme.

Moving across the breadth of the country to the east coast of England, Lincolnshire’s Boston Borough Council managed to almost halve its communications costs by implementing a Foehn cloud phone system.

Buckinghamshire County Council has already managed to trim its budget by £100 million since 2010, but is looking for savings of £31 million over the next year, according to Martin Tett, leader of the council.

But according to David Aimson, Project Manager at Buckinghamshire County Council, the next step for councils is not simply to think of efficiency savings but to start looking at revenues: to start thinking like a business.

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He says that there are "ever-increasing budget cuts" facing many councils which are forcing them to look into commercial opportunities.

"By the very nature of being publicly funded we are not historically commercial organisations," he says.

However, Aimson claims, "over the next decade you are going to see councils turning more into businesses."

The OneTRANSPORT project, carried out in partnership with InterDigital, is at the forefront of this change in thinking, he says.

"We had this wealth of data that we could start selling. Before we’ve given it for free but we need to start thinking outside of the box a little bit."

The project is an integrated transport initiative for transport authorities. Costing approximately £3.5 million, the two-year smart city programme will enable transport information to be published and accessed nationally by parties such as transport authorities and application developers.

"We knew we needed to modernise and look at solutions to improve our existing roads infrastructure," says Aimson, noting that the wealth of interesting data available was not being fully utilised.

The council’s data is divided into two sets: live data, including car parking sensors, car counting sensors, number plate recognition. The other set is static information, including bicycle lanes, bridge heights and traffic light locations.

Buckinghamshire County Council has always dealt with data, but the key difference here is in the curation service that it will provide. Some of this information was available anyway, whereas some has not been available to the public before now.

As John Hood, CTO of Civica, which works with 94 percent of UK local authorities, says, "public services are awash with data" and need to move out of the "era of data blindness."

"We get a number of Freedom of Information requests, but how we provide it is in a very raw format," says Aimson. "Selling data is not a new thing, but what we’re selling here is a solution.

"We’re amalgamating the data and giving the opportunity for developers to develop new exciting programmes, websites or apps, using an industry standard."

One app, for example, will use the data to build a smart alarm, which can optimise your wake-up time in the morning. Instead of setting a time that you would like to wake up, you set the time that you would like to arrive. The app takes into account the transport conditions, including traffic jams or public transport delays, and then wakes you up at the necessary time.

"Just imagine being able to snooze an extra ten minutes in the morning because you know your train is delayed before you arrive at the station," says Aimson.

The project is being conducted in partnership with the councils in Oxfordshire, North Hants and Hertfordshire, according to Aimson. They will also be running a national forum to promote the concept and what they are trying to achieve to other local authorities. They are hoping to roll it out not just across the UK but eventually further afield.

"The likes of Transport for London will be interested in this, because currently they go through lots of different vendors or data providers and it is not amalgamated into one place," says Aimson.

There is, of course, a limit to how far councils can fund themselves; notably this project was only possible due to funding from Innovation UK, the central public body sponsored by the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills.

However, projects such as oneTRANSPORT show that councils have important assets already available that might help them to ease the pain of spending cuts – and technology might be the way to unlock them.

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