• Emerging Technology

The real user need is no need at all: Using intelligent technology more proactively

By Tom Blackie6 February 20203 min read

Technology is evolving too fast to keep up, but one thing we do know is that it is becoming a great identifier and predictor of things. Newsworthy items about facial recognition used in law enforcement and Fitbits predicting our health problems are just the tip of the iceberg.

At Methods we are increasingly considering intelligent technologies for our public sector clients. We know these capabilities present an opportunity to be more proactive; for organisations to use technology such as recognition software and algorithms to anticipate the world’s problems. Or at least get to them faster, before they present a real inconvenience.

Some traditional services place an unnecessary reactive burden on users

A few years ago at a council client, I helped develop user needs as part of designing a case management system. The needs being considered largely placed a reactive burden on the user – reporting fly tipping and potholes by email, for example.

The conversation developed further and by following the needs towards their origins we questioned whether they were needs at all. People have no need to report potholes; their need is for roads that are safe for them and the vehicles in which they travel. This led to an idea to stick cameras underneath refuse lorries to monitor local roads and report potholes automatically to a central maintenance team – eliminating or reducing the need for the public to report them. Just a few years ago this was dismissed as pretty fantastical, but subsequent developments have triggered a few reflections.

Fast forward to today and the pothole conversation has grown into something much more significant. Methods’ Local Government and Emerging Technology teams have been working on a truly impressive project – something you will no doubt hear much more about in future.

Proactivity means fixing things before they even become problems

There are a few important lessons to learn from our pothole example:

  • Proactive and preventative approaches to service design enabled by intelligent technology have the potential to transform the concept of user need entirely. They present new ways of thinking about problems, identifying and even solving them before they enter a user’s sphere of influence.
  • When considering user needs, always try and follow them back to their origin. I have seen several projects billed as transformational focus on recreating existing user needs and journeys rather than considering eliminating the need altogether.
  • This technology really is available to anyone, and at minimal cost. We’ve shown that the computing power in a mobile phone is enough to build and test a prototype for a government agency.

But beware of the potential pitfalls

There are some important considerations to make when considering using technology that prevents problems and uses large amounts of data to make decisions:

  • Any intelligent technology takes time to learn and adapt. Moving towards proactive technologies will be a difficult journey. You will need large, accurate datasets and a lot of time for testing.
  • Many people are wary of predictive technologies. Consider using something like the Open Data Institute’s Data Ethics Canvas to assess the wider implications of employing intelligent technologies.
  • The technology might be too efficient! As a council responsible for fixing potholes, do you want every pothole reported if you’re not planning on fixing them all? Consider the impact of proactive technology on wider business processes and capacity.

A new relationship between citizens and governments

Government’s potential ability to anticipate problems and behaviours has the potential to revolutionise public services. The ability to analyse and interpret data instantly could increase efficiency and quality of service whilst saving costs, opening up valuable resources in areas that need it. With the right data, the potential breadth and depth of analysis is massive.

Here’s how you could get started

There are lots of ways you could begin to think about employing a more proactive technology strategy:

  • Try and identify reactive user needs (that require action on the part of the user) and assess how that issue might be predicted or identified (and potentially fixed) before the user needs to be involved.
  • Think about transforming information flows and data collection in existing business processes. Assess how information collected manually might be collected automatically in future.
  • Start with a small problem, to prove the concept to yourself and others. In every technology project a proof of concept is useful to inform design and get buy-in from stakeholders.

If you have any thoughts or questions, please feel free to contact me on thomas.blackie@methods.co.uk