Playing catchup

Playing catchup

The public sector must play catch-up if it is to achieve true digital transformation, says Darren Watkins, managing director for Virtus Data Centres.

Nearly all industries are in the midst of digital transformation. Whether it’s online shopping, customer service chatbots or increasingly sophisticated AI experiences, the competition is fierce and it’s “do or die” for businesses who are trying to best engage digitally savvy consumers.

The same is true of the public sector, so it’s disheartening that many view the UK public sector as being slow in its digital transformation efforts. Perhaps it’s because the public sector is heavily reliant on older IT infrastructure, which significantly hampers the ability of staff to deliver the high-level of service that we have come to expect thanks to pioneering industries such as retail and logistics.

However, despite the UK government’s clear commitment to using technology to improve services and save money, it’s accepted that squeezed public sector budgets and complex requirements make adopting digital technologies on a large scale difficult.

Digital transformation programmes are “extremely challenging”, but the risks of not transforming are also significant, jeopardising the future quality, value for money and relevance of public services.

Notwithstanding the introduction of a range of online services there is still a long way to go until the public sector can boast a truly efficient digital strategy.

With many calling for complete digital transformation as a solution to public sector service problems, there is an increased imperative for these departments to catch up with their counterparts in commercial industry.

A smarter approach

A study by Accenture highlights that for an organisation to digitally transform it must put “organisational, operational and technological foundations in place that powers constant evolution and cross-functional collaboration”.

It is recognised that much progress has been made since the introduction of the Government Digital Strategy in 2012, which demonstrated the potential of public service transformation by rebuilding some of the most high volume services to make them “digital by default”.

New digital professions are now established across the public sector and departments have become better at sharing platforms and components, code, patterns and best practices, so there is a strong foundation upon which to build.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, many reportsshow that the UK is still at the early stages of its digital journey, where the primary aims are to cut costs and make savings, rather than embrace the truly transformative potential of digital disruption.

There is a focus on discrete initiatives, such as a move to more digital communications with the public, or workplace programmes which aim to provide government workers with digital skills. But what’s needed is a broader strategy which harnesses the power of technology to provide for all –in an inclusive, accessible and sustainable way – and it’s here that the “smart city approach” comes in.

Smart cities thrive on shared public systems and services. Governments, technology companies and businesses all want to leverage this interconnection and the data it produces in order to bring intelligence to urban environments, and to improve the quality of life for residents.

A collaborative approach to building a smart city can certainly bring significant benefits. When large companies such as IBM and Cisco work together with civic planning authorities and universities, they can focus on improving public transport, law enforcement, energy use and waste management by using data-driven systems.

There are plenty of good examples of collaboration at work. In Helsinki’s Smart Kalasatama district, for example, connected applications take centre stage. Its residents are the initiators and testers of new technology and smart services – and the local authority reports that it wants to become so efficient that its residents gain one hour of extra time per day.

Smart projects in the district include parking places with car charging facilities as well as automated waste collection systems that reduce the traffic of garbage trucks by up to 90%.

Added to this, the municipality is embracing smart grids and real-time energy monitoring pilots that aim for a 15% reduction in energy usage, and apps that plan the most efficient traffic routes with any type of transportation method.

Businesses too will benefit from a smart city environment, seeing greater efficiency in their operations and ultimately better service to customers. For instance, improved traffic management will improve supply chain and logistics for online retailers, whilst smart lighting may improve footfall around physical shopping centres, boosting sales for local businesses.

Making it happen

It is clear that a broad and collaborative approach to smart living is vital to public sector digital transformation success. But schemes like those outlined in Helsinki and beyond are only possible when digital infrastructures can physically link dispersed machines and sensors so they can exchange information in real time.

In order to tap into the potential value of “big data”, interconnections between people and applications, data, content, clouds and networking need to be seamless.

Being able to store Internet of Things (IoT) generated data, with the ability to access and interpret it as meaningful actionable information is vitally important and this puts data centres firmly at the heart of any digital transformation strategy.

When it comes to getting the data centre strategy right, government departments and local authorities have significant challenges to overcome. Most will have to mix the old and the new - dealing with legacy infrastructure as well as creating new facilities.

This could mean that traditional “core” connectivity hubs will have to work alongside smaller data centres optimised for edge computing, and as more and more applications are required to service immediate engagement – such as media streaming or payments – data centres must be placed correctly.

The extensive nature of digital transformation needs something beyond a company or Government department's in-house storage capabilities, and this presents significant opportunities for data centre providers to help.

Multi-tenant colocation facilities have been cornerstones of the Internet economy since the 1990s, and will continue to be important as we enter into the age of the smart, tech powered megacity environment, providing the best in interconnectivity, flexibility and scalability.

High Performance Computing (HPC) will also likely power smart city applications as it presents a compelling way to address the challenges presented by the IoT and big data, and data centre managers will continue to adopt high density innovation strategies in order to maximise productivity and efficiency, increase available power density and the physical footprint computing power of the data centres; vital in power heavy big data application.

For any wide scale digital transformation to succeed in a highly regulated world – where any technical advancement must be inclusive and cater for all – it’s vital to start with getting the basics right.Ensuring that the impact of new technologies on infrastructure is managed and getting the data centre strategy right is an imperative first step. As our UK cities grow, whether they thrive and deliver a good quality of life to millions of citizens is down to the IT backbone that underpins them.