The public sector and the Internet of Things. Could 2019 be the year when smart networks really take off in Scotland?

Jack Anderson, Head of Digital & Innovation at Capita

At the beginning of July the Scottish Government’s procurement and commercial directorate invited suppliers of Internet of Things (IoT) products and services to join a new purchasing framework.

Released without fanfare, the ‘Dynamic Purchasing System’ (DPS) has the potential to revolutionise how public sector bodies deliver their services to citizens across the country who are soon likely to start feeling real benefits from a wave of ‘smart networks’. If you have an Amazon Echo Dot or Google Assistant in your home, you are already a consumer of internet-connected smart services, so you may not be surprised to know that the public sector is extremely interested in delivering its services to citizens via these direct data interfaces. The question is very much not ‘if’ but ‘when’, and the creation of the Scottish Government’s DPS is a crucial stepping stone towards IoT-enabled public services. 

The procurement framework joins three other tech-focused supplier frameworks within Scottish Government and was the culmination of a great deal of development work both inside and outside government. One organisation which played an influential role was the outsourcing company Capita, whose contract to run the Scottish Wide Area Network (SWAN) began in 2014 and is crucial to the delivery of a shared network and common ICT infrastructure delivering data services to the likes of Scottish local authorities and NHS boards, serving 50% of the public sector nationwide.

In terms of IoT, the network can also be harnessed by those organisations to build a range of innovative sensor-based services – from assisted living technologies which can enhance social care provision for the elderly to ground-breaking water treatment methods that can automate the detection, and possibly the removal of, pharmaceuticals in hospital waste-water. 

The framework is relatively new and inevitably demand will be stimulated by the necessary investment in innovation. But as part of Capita’s contract, it is committed to investing into the SWAN Innovation Fund, and the company has set up a ‘Living Lab’ at its Tannochside development site near Uddingston, outside Glasgow. Jack Anderson, Head of Digital & Innovation at Capita, explains: “The Living Lab is part of our contractual commitment to investing in emerging technologies, such as IoT, which will enhance SWAN services provision nationwide. At the core of IoT, though, is sensors on the one hand, and data on the other. If you have the infrastructure, which we do, then in theory there is no end to the possibilities for what data you can capture. I have this saying which is, ‘If it shakes, rattles or rolls, you can fit a sensor to it’.”

Anderson describes an IoT project the company is working on with the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) and farmers in Arbroath, in a collaborative effort to investigate how sensors might be used to collect vital rainfall and weather data from a dry ‘basin’ area; such data will facilitate a greater degree of accuracy for forecasts to be made, allowing for better management of local water resources. The company is also keen to see how sensors can be fitted within hospitals to provide ‘asset-tracking’ for vital medical equipment; a recent innovation workshop held with the NHS allowed Capita to demonstrate IoT technology developed by WMW Hub, one of its application partners based in Belgium.

Anderson’s clear enthusiasm for IoT is backed by a public attitudes survey conducted by the polling company Opinium on behalf of SWAN, from May to June this year. The survey found an overwhelming majority of respondents (84%) wanted the public sector to embrace more digital technologies, with 88% believing that IoT will enhance healthcare services.

Alan Whiteside, an Innovation Consultant with NHS Highland, is among the many public sector professionals who have been working with Capita to explore potential use cases. Although early in development terms, he says the potential for IoT to serve a region that is larger than Belgium but with a tiny fraction of its population (330,000 versus 11.35 million), the scope to deliver IoT-enabled services is enormous.

“If IoT can help some of our remotest communities more resilient – for example by reducing outpatient appointments among island populations, or being able to deliver physio services remotely, the cost savings can become significant,” says Whiteside. “Working with Capita, we are exploring a number of potential use cases for IoT which can help deliver more informed decision-making. But what we need is uptake and the ability to establish a collaborative network whereby different specialisms and sectors can share the benefits.” 

“If we can collaborate with other public sector organisations in the region we can develop solutions for Smart Homes, Smart Energy and Smart Water.”

Whiteside is also working with the Northern Periphery & Arctic Programme, an EU-funded collaboration between nine partner countries including Scotland, Sweden, Finland, Norway and the Faroe Islands, to develop an IoT accelerator, which will allow partners to quickly adopt and give successful projects a “soft landing”. Such pan-regional partnerships could help reduce cost and duplication and barriers to innovation – which is notoriously difficult to finance – coming to market.

James Pocock, Chair of the SWAN Management Board, adds: “We have more than 6,000 sites connected to SWAN currently and this number is growing all the time. With Scottish Procurement’s dynamic purchasing system (DPS) for the provision of Internet of Things (IoT) technologies and services now live, we hope this will encourage further service developments on the ground as more organisations become aware of the potential that IoT can offer. 

“As the network continues to develop, we welcome the addition of further healthcare locations so that even more clinicians and patients in Scotland can benefit from improved connectivity. The research clearly shows that the majority of Scottish citizens will embrace digital innovation, and whether it is care of the elderly and vulnerable, or having a video appointment with a GP, there are many areas of healthcare across Scotland that stand to gain.” 

The full list of 21 suppliers for the new framework was published in a listing early in September and it remains open to suppliers who wish to join over the course of the next two years.

For Capita’s IoT survey report visit https://go.capita-it.com/connectedhealth