Empowering Families to Achieve London’s Smart Success

Famiio’s response to the Smarter London Listening Exercise

The discussion paper, A Smarter London Together, sets out the London Mayor’s aspiration for the capital to become the smartest city in the world, and forms the basis for a new Smart London plan. The following article is Famiio’s input to the accompanying listening exercise, and our perspective on the priorities that will help the ‘family of London’ to thrive in this fast-changing world.

Priority: Information is power

Recent developments in the tech industry concerning Cambridge Analytica, Facebook and others have served to highlight the ability of information to forge outcomes, the risks of misinformation, and the growing commodity that is Big Data. Indeed, information has the transformative ability to change lives and, for this reason, must be made accessible to all — this concept is summarised eloquently by American activist Robin Morgan:

“Knowledge is power. Information is power. The secreting or hoarding of knowledge or information may be an act of tyranny camouflaged as humility.” (Robin Morgan)

The success or failure of London as a city, let alone a Smart City, rests on its ability to empower people, in particular families, to access the right information at the right time, and to act on it for the good of themselves and those around them. The impact of failure to provide this information can be observed in ‘developing cities’ such as Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where access to an advanced technological infrastructure proves little help without the availability of mature information content, which is needed to make decisions that can improve people’s daily lives (this is from personal experience).

As stated in the original discussion paper, the UK is “creating advanced urban services which have the potential to make cities work smarter, become more productive, sustainable and liveable.” This is a good thing, but from the perspective of the average citizen, the urban services that visibly matter on a daily basis are those of childcare, education, retail, activities, support services, entertainment, transport, etc. And the common commodity that enables people to access these urban services, and hence address their immediate needs, is information.

Figure 1: Empowering parents and families with the best information is the key to Smart Success for London.

Families must be empowered so they can understand for themselves:

  • which services are available in their local or neighbouring areas;
  • what to do when they need assistance;
  • where to go and how to access services through efficient delivery of specific and timely information and guidance;
  • what constitutes good quality information, easily available to parents and young people at key points or situations in their lives such a when 
    seeking childcare; accessing a school place; building safe neighbourhoods; understanding bullying; ‘county lines’; CSE; parenting at various stages; etc.;
  • how to gain knowledge, learn and grow in confidence to make changes for the better.
  • what information they can expect to be provided with by law, e.g. information that is comprehensive, accurate, current, timely, impartial, accessible, and free to access.

The discussion paper focuses on making a city a better place to visit, travel, and improving its infrastructure — however, it should also be underpinned by ‘Family Information’ so that citizens gain multiple benefits through a single trusted point of contact, namely the local authority (and other affiliated portals).

Figure 2: The broad range of family information needed by parents and families

You may be forgiven for thinking that this is already available in every London Borough, but unfortunately this is not the case. For many reasons, often linked with lack of funding, information is by no means as good as it should be — a recent objective audit of London Borough directories confirmed that the technology available to parents is still painfully disconnected across borders, and in many local authorities in spite of the best efforts of staff teams, parents state it is all but impossible to find what they need when their family needs it. In fact:

“49% of parents are either confused or have ‘no idea’ what is on offer (Gulc and Silversides 2010) and 70% of parents are not aware of their local Family Information Service (FIS), the principal source of information on offer from government (ibid), and one in three parents think more information is needed (Huskinson et al 2016). Confusion and lack of clear information were key issues that came up in focus groups with London parents conducted by the GLA. Participants were unsure about what was on offer and felt that more information was needed.”
(Institute for Public Policy Research (2017) The Future of Childcare in London)

We would encourage that this is addressed by London as a priority, as part of any effort towards becoming a Smart City.

Priority: In-Work and Child Poverty

London has a growing problem with poverty. Latest figures state that:

“58% of Londoners in poverty live in a working family, a 50% increase over the last decade which equates to 1.3 million people.” (Trust for London)
“700,000 children living in London are below the poverty line, a staggering 37% of all children in the capital. While poverty rates are higher for everyone in London than nationally, this gap is larger for children than for any other group. London has the highest rate of child poverty of any English region, and there are as many poor children in London as in all of Scotland and Wales.” (CPAG)

On ethical grounds, it seems inappropriate for London to consider laying future claim to being the smartest city in the world if it is still contending with these very real poverty statistics. This inequality will only serve to alienate and divide London, the proud family that has been through so much together over the years. There is a real danger that it could be the technology and smart solutions that end up driving a wedge between communities, when it should be bringing people together and addressing this inequality.

Smart should aim to be the glue that sticks London together. Aside from the benefits and advances in AI, IoT and Big Data, which are all important, Smart Cities should also tackle how to deliver better information to support parenting roles, family well-being and improvements to family life, enabling families to take advantage of new and innovative developments. Since currently these are devolved issues, London Boroughs should consider ‘pooling resources’ to fund connected technological solutions, that enable families to access flexible and blended childcare and family services. This will help families to function around modern working patterns and empower parents to lift themselves out of poverty. National research from the New Economics Foundation (NEF) informs that this type of support leads to economic efficiencies and, first and foremost, highlights the huge impact that emotional well-being has on people’s futures.

This is a significant opportunity to ‘put the heart into Smart’.

The future is bright

Despite all the challenges stated above, we are excited that London has the biggest opportunity for innovation, change and smart success. The recent draft London Economic Development Strategy references ‘childcare’ 30 times, acknowledging these services as fundamental to the economic health and prosperity of the city. It states:

“To be able to make the most of the opportunities London has to offer, all Londoners should have access to the information, advice and guidance that allows them to respond to the capital’s dynamic and evolving labour market, throughout their working life.” 
(draft London Economic Development Strategy, Dec 2017)

This is in fact primarily a reference to careers advice for young people, but it is just as applicable to family information and, in particular, access to information on flexible and blended childcare provision.

Family information is a common strand within a large number of local authority statutory duties and the collaborative digital delivery of this information is a missing link — one which needs to be better established within wider Borough digital strategies and technology plans. If this was in place, the collective data across the UK would support and facilitate both national market development of family services and international comparison of smart cities. By definition:

“A city can be defined as ‘smart’ when investments in human and social capital and traditional (transport) and modern (ICT) communication infrastructure fuel sustainable economic development and a high quality of life, with a wise management of natural resources, through participatory action.
(Caragliu and Nijkamp 2009)

This surely cannot be achieved if the needs of family life are not met through poor information delivery, and it’s fair to question if currently local authorities have adequate insight about whether or not the right services are being delivered, without additional and arduous research — something which would far easier with improved data collection to do the ‘heavy lifting’. The reality is that there has been little innovation investment in the family information sector over the last 7 years, resulting in London falling way behind the technology curve. An integrated local/regional/national family information system is long overdue and its development should be a key component in ‘smart city development’.

Applying a better solution for London’s family information could also support one of the broadest ranges of emerging technologies and innovations, shown in Figure 3. From front-line local authority triage using chatbots, through AI-enabled childcare vacancy systems, all the way to auto-analysis of data quality to give daily tracking of statutory duty delivery. With the right system and the right development, London could finally feel like a Smart City for families — and definitely the first city in the world to truly solve this challenge, putting it one rung higher on the global ladder.

Figure 3: The range of emerging technologies applicable to Family Information delivery

What we propose

Bearing all the above in mind, we propose London considers innovative cross-sector collaboration to develop better family information delivery systems that:

  1. enable local authorities to collaborate online to fully meet their statutory duties set out in the Childcare Act 2016 and other legislation, including related guidance;
  2. provide family information in the context of ‘data as infrastructure for Smart Cities’ as set out in the recent paper by the National Infrastructure Commission;
  3. provide better information to parents and families by ensuring information systems (front and back-office) are:
  • Agile development — driven by the ever-changing information needs of families, in a timely, iterative and low-cost manner;
  • Flexible — constantly shaped and reflective of the everyday experience of front-line staff and parents, to ensure it truly reflects the needs of families;
  • Affordable — to all stakeholders, but focusing on the collective cost saving to the taxpayer, aiming to rationalise and reduce by 50% the current software maintenance and development costs of £6million per year across 500 websites.
  • Future-proof — ensuring that London stays ahead of the technology curve and can preempt changes in family needs, providing the technological tools when needed, instead of lagging by years.
  • Sustainable — offering methods of ethical self-funding, rather than relying on funding allocations from future Governments and changing priorities.
  • Open-by-default providing the majority of service information as published open data, possibly through the London Data Store, to enable ‘Smart commissioning’ of urban services and third-party application development. Potential collaboration: Open Data Institute, GLA, Future Cities Catapult.
  • Developed to open and ethical standards (responsible tech) — in the broadest terms, but also utilising common open data service standards for interoperability, and integrating information across health, education & social care to truly avoid unnecessary duplication, expense, effort, silo working, and to engage with and provide positive impact for families. Potential collaboration: Doteveryone, iStandUK, techUK, GDS, MHCLG.
  • Quality-assured — y all internal and external stakeholders to ensure it is purposeful and value for money. Potential collaboration: All local authorities.
  • Truly mobile-rich functions — delivered through all mobile devices (and not just a minimal experience), supported by a number of additional digital tools that facilitate knowledge and learning, at the time and place it is needed.
  • Secure and private — by providing the best secure experience for all stakeholders, compliant with GDPR but applying common sense and addressing cyber-security. Potential collaboration: Digital Catapult, BU Cyber-Security Unit (BUCSU).
  • Enabling parents to rate and review (quality assure) services and share them with others, based on their experience of use.
  • Enabling families, providers, practitioners and commissioners — by giving a national overview of service distribution & quality to match against outcomes and expenditure.

We welcome further discussion and collaboration, and look forward to a fascinating journey towards London becoming the smartest city in the world … we very much hope.

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Founded out of the front-line experience and strategic knowledge of local authority FIS management, Famiio is currently developing a national marketplace for flexible childcare and family services:

  • to enable local authorities to meet their statutory duty to deliver information to / support parents,
  • to facilitate service providers to promote their whole offer in one place online, surfaced on multiple portals, and
  • to empower parents to make independent and informed choices to improve their family outcomes.

Famiio is represented on the techUK Local Public Service Committee, recently featured as an Open Data Institute case study and is a Doteveryone Trusted Tech Partner.

Visit famiio.com for more information or to contact the author.