Learning about new technology

Purpose

The purpose of this is to enable technology suppliers, innovators and other councils to understand and challenge our positions on emerging technology. This helps us ensure that our thinking is tested and enables us to be open to the options that give the most value to our residents.  

Overview

We have a preference to re-use technology we already license, to rent or buy solutions off-the-shelf where this isn’t possible and only to develop our own solutions where there is a clear gap in the market between what our users need, what’s currently available and where the costs and benefits make it preferable to do so.

When we rent or buy technology, we first assess it against the Technology Code of Practice. We have a strong preference for solutions which meet this standard, but we recognise that some solutions may not fully comply with all of the principles in the Code. The assessment enables us to be aware of, and plan for, any areas where those solutions currently fall short if, on balance, they are the best fit for our users’ needs.

  1. CHATBOTS

Current status 

We’ve had some experiments with chatbots and remain interested by how these can add value to some residents. However, it isn’t currently a key strategic priority. 

We currently have a small chatbot pilot underway: Ally for housing advice and options. However, we are focused on developing our online content so that it’s accessible via JSON endpoints to multiple chatbot providers. We believe that treating our data and content as products and making them open will enable us to have a ‘single version of the truth’ accessible to meet multiple user needs. This work is currently underway.

Assumptions

Our understanding of the market is that there are three types of providers:

Generic chatbots, often provided by large global technology companies. These can be used by the Council ‘as a service’ and are attractive because they most likely to already be familiar to the largest number of our residents. Our concern is that we know too little of what biases may be at play in the algorithms that are beyond our control. 

Our strategic intent is to use generic chatbots where possible, but to focus on providing our data in a format that enables customers to access it via the chatbot of their choice.

Specialist chatbots, typically developed by smaller companies where the specialism is in a particular subject matter. These are provided via the Council’s existing channels. These are attractive where the specialist is able to provide trusted advice in a format and style that’s been demonstrated as attractive to the customer-group. Our concern is that the business model and data is typically not owned by the Council, reducing our control over the advice and our ability to move between vendors. 

Our strategic intent is to trial the use of these bots where a company has subject matter expertise and can help us understand the user needs that they meet.

  1. Hybrid chatbots typically use a combination of manual input, decision trees and some natural language processing to process and triage customer interactions. Our concern is that this is a fast-moving segment of the market and the business models and data structures mitigate against the Council being able to easily move between providers.

Our current assumption is that these chatbots are the least good fit with our strategic intent. 

How to engage with us

  1. If you believe any of the assumptions above are wrong, please explain so briefly either openly or over email. 
  2. If you are provider of a specialist chatbot and want to explain your offer, send a brief summary of how it meets user needs to email@hackney.gov.uk 
  3. If you are a provider or re-seller of a generic chatbot, please watch the content redesign project and engage with us when the content is live. We’d particularly favour a model that enables us to try the solution at a smaller scale
  4. Look out for ‘Concept’ projects on Pipeline which will help suppliers see when we are considering a project.

2. ROBOTICS PROCESS AUTOMATION

Current status

We are currently working with T-Impact to support RPA on three revenues and benefits processes and one enforcement process. T-Impact is a re-seller of UI Path. We have demonstrated significant time savings and data quality improvements but are yet to achieve financial savings. 

Assumptions

  1. Our preference is to redesign whole services better to meet user needs (and the Service Standard) but sometimes, incremental improvements can improve outcomes
  2. RPA becomes affordable when it’s working at scale, but local authorities perform relatively few processes at sufficient scale easily to identify cost savings
  3. Bots based on user emulation alone are more cost-effective but vulnerable to changes in the interface brought about by software upgrade. They’re more suited to older software with a lower likelihood of UI changes
  4. Some higher volume council tax and benefits processes have too many exceptions to make them easily suited to teaching variations to the bot
  5. If a bot were to break, we may lack sufficient knowledge to necessarily know why or fix it quickly and co-ordinating between the software and bot vendors may lead to further overheads

Strategic intent

We will continue to explore the benefits of RPA in high volume transactional services where the costs of replacing legacy technology through service redesign are too high. 

We will explore the merits of different bot technologies once we have maximised the capacity of our existing arrangement and/or when it comes to an end in May 2020.  

We will not adopt a bots strategy or aggressively seek to apply the technology to all high volume processes across the Council unless we have sufficient in-house expertise to support them and can identify an ROI over 18-24 months. 

How to engage with us

  1. If you believe any of the assumptions above are wrong, please explain so briefly either openly or over email. 
  2. If you are a provider or re-seller of RPA technology and can demonstrate a clear ROI for its application in one or more council services, contact us on email@hackney.gov.uk 
  3. If you are a provider or re-seller of RPA technology and would like to bid when the current contract is up for renewal, follow the project on Pipeline
  4. Look out for ‘Concept’ projects on Pipeline which will help suppliers see when we are considering a project.