Latest Public Sector News

16.04.14

Moving on up

Source: Public Sector Executive April/May 2014

After successfully winning a £100,000 award from the O2 Local Government Digital Fund competition, Julia Woollard, team manager for architecture and programme management in ICT at Newcastle City Council, discusses how their innovative idea could help young people in the North East travel independently.

Professor Stephen Hawking once said: “Obviously, because of my disability, I need assistance. But I have always tried to overcome the limitations of my condition and lead as full a life as possible. I have travelled the world, from the Antarctic to zero gravity.”

And yet, a serious social challenge faced by many local authorities is that the number of young people with special educational needs and adults with learning disabilities unable to travel independently is on the up.

Newcastle City Council, however, believes it may have developed the right concept to change this; improving the experience and life opportunities for many young people.

After taking part in the recent O2 Local Government Digital Fund competition, the local authority has been awarded £100,000 to help turn its potential ‘digital vision’ into a practical reality.

The competition prompted more than 120 local authorities to submit an idea to solve a problem in their community, of which six were chosen to take part in a Dragons’ Den-style pitch final.

After thorough deliberation, the judging panel, which included O2’s business director Ben Dowd, Adrian Hancock, chief executive of SOCITM and Simon Parker, CEO of the New Local Government Network, agreed on two winning councils to benefit from the Digital Fund:

• Newcastle City Council – For using technology to help young people with special educational needs, and adults with learning disabilities,  become independent travellers; and

• Buckinghamshire County Council – For the development of a universal benefit calculator app to help frontline workers assist citizens understand the impact of welfare reforms.

Julia Woollard, team manager for architecture and programme management in ICT at Newcastle City Council, and Jill Bauld, special educational needs and disability project manager, presented the pitch to the ‘dragons’.

During the bid, to highlight the inclusivity of the idea, a video created by students from Newcastle College studying for a Media Foundation Degree in Television and Radio showcased the demand for the app after filming with schools, teachers, parents, carers and the young people themselves.

Woollard said: “It was amazing how quick the process happened. But, right from the off, we knew we had a good concept as it was building on the work our colleagues in Wellbeing, Care & Learning have been doing for some time. For example, they have been running a Programme for Independent Travel Training for approximately four years.”

The Programme for Independent Travel Training is all about giving young people with special educational needs the confidence to travel to school and other places on their own. The work is done in stages with carers assisting them to begin with and travelling
with them. Over time, though, the young people are weaned off having to have someone with them.

The central driver for the Newcastle bid was an attempt to build on the success of the programme. Woollard said: “The concept that we pitched to the dragons was that a young person would have a smartphone app to support their independent travel, but the features would be tailored to each young person.

“It would, hopefully, help make the process easier for young people wanting to go out travelling on their own, but also make it easier on their parents and carers – allowing them to still know where their children are.”

Features of the app include having a real-time location feature, which acts as a safety net for the user and carer – so they can always see where they are. Users would also have a link to their support network with an ‘indication of presence’ (for instance a little green icon) letting them know someone is available to call or message in case of an emergency.

Other wish-list features include:

• Providing support for users in case of unexpected events. For instance, if a bus was diverted then the young person would understand what is happening and be provided with alternative routes; 

• Easy to use route planning functions, which would be very visual and intuitive;

• The potential of having a geo-sensor so people get reminders that it is their stop or notifies them about what they need to take to school on certain days;

• There is also an American app which, by scanning coins in the palm of your hand, helps calculate how much money you have. This would help when a young person is buying something from local shops, but is uncertain about their math skills; and

• It could also act as a reference library for doing various activities, for instance - making a cup of tea.

Woollard told PSE that this year alone, Newcastle City Council anticipates spending £2.6m on transport for just over 800 children with special educational needs – between home and school using taxis and minibuses – and it will also spend around £300,000 on the same transport for adults with learning difficulties.

She said: “In the social care sector we are moving towards a can-do, rather than a prescriptive, approach where we are looking at enabling children and young people with the skills they need to go through their lives.

“While our initial starting point was children and young people with special needs, we also extended this to adults with learning disabilities; as many have similar challenges and would benefit from independent travel.

“We know some of the children will never travel independently, some of their cases are too complex, but we will be able to help a number of them. It will also help save the council money, which we can recycle back into the system to help vulnerable people.”

In terms of demand, Woollard added that many of these young people want to travel independently and do what their peers are doing and they want a form of support that doesn’t make them stick out from the crowd – “that’s why a smartphone is perfect”.

“They want something that provides that instant connection, which is intuitive and flexible,” she said, “while what the parents and carers want is a safety net and peace of mind.”

Cllr Joanne Kingsland, cabinet member for children’s services, and Ewen Weir, director of wellbeing, care and learning at Newcastle City Council, added that they are delighted to have been given the opportunity to work with O2 to develop something that will support children, young people and adults to have more freedom and independence whilst travelling to and from schools and colleges. 

“The video, produced by students from Newcastle College in partnership with children and young people who need transport, was innovative and inclusive. This demonstrates the way that we intend to work throughout the project to improve independence for our young people,” they explained.

Woollard told PSE that even if it isn’t possible to get all the wish-list features developed for the app initially, it was better to ‘reach for the stars’, as the ambition of the plan will help so many.

Mark Adams-Wright, head of local government at O2, said: “This was an incredibly well-thought out plan, and an idea that shows the social value digital innovation can bring.”

He added that technology holds the key to helping the public sector make crucial savings – whether through policies and devices to empower staff to work more flexibly, or a mobile app to make it easier for local authorities to engage with communities.

“We are passionate about ensuring services in the public sector are of high quality for UK citizens, and serve them in the easiest and most cost effective way,” said Adams-Wright. “All of the judges were impressed with the range of creative and innovation solutions submitted this year. We look forward to helping authorities across the UK tackle the challenges in their local area by engaging
staff, citizens and communities through technology, and hope that all those involved will continue to connect with us through the Local Government Digital Forum over the coming year.”

He says an O2 project team, consisting of a project and technical director, will be put together very soon. It is even hoped that the independent travel app could be rolled out within six to nine months. 

“It will depend on the scope we decide,” said Woollard, “but if all goes well we’ll have something within the year.

“We hope this will be a lightweight, standalone app taking advantage of a lot of open data datasets, particularly in relation to transport,” she said.

“We don’t want to make it something that has really deep integration into our council systems; we’ll need something in terms of managing our customer details, of course, but we do want it to be lightweight so it can be picked up and used by other councils.”

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