David Rees and Sir Merrick Cockell
20 February 2015
To-date, attention has been focused on consumer applications for wearables, but it is likely that we will see a growing recognition of their potential in business use to improve operations and enhance customer experience.
For example, one UK supermarket is using wearable devices to give staff an image of what the shelf should look like when stocked, and then to help them check stock levels and locate items in the warehouse. It is also using smart watches to inform staff when customers arrive at the car park as part of their ‘click and collect’ service. This enables staff to schedule collection and reduce customer waiting time.
Local government should be considering what uses it could make of these devices and the practical considerations that need to be addressed to implement them successfully. The key benefits lie in the possibilities they offer to provide real time data, highly accurate information about location, and an ‘augmented reality’ picture of the environment.
That means a social worker could have instant access to all case, person and location information during a client visit and use ‘voice to text’ to upload information.
Alternatively, enforcement officers could check whether a site adheres to the planning application and building regulations or whether a car has a valid parking permit just by walking past it.
Or, highways officers and engineers could have instant access to asset information and schematics and instant hands-free communication with the office.
For service users, wearables will provide the next generation of telecare. Devices, such as ‘intelligent patches’, can monitor the wellbeing of the people being cared for, wherever they are, increasing their independence and providing assurance to carers.
For those with a visual impairment or dementia, the technology can augment their vision or help them to remember real time relevant information.
Other services, such as tourism and heritage, could also be enhanced through the ability to provide relevant and personalised information to visitors.
This is not science fiction; all of this technology is available now and is already being used in public services.
In the USA, glasses are enabling teachers to undertake field trips when it would not be practical to take the whole class. They can provide audio and video feedback to the classroom and even respond to pupil’s questions in real-time.
One US fire department is also using Google Glass to call up a building’s blueprints and relevant information during an incident, relaying video to control centres and filming the operations for subsequent training programmes.
In the UK, Transport for London passengers are already able to access details of the nearest tube station or real time bus information on their smartwatch device.
However, there are a number of factors that need to be addressed if these devices are to be adopted successfully in local government. It is important to recognise that the device itself is just one part of the solution and on its own will not bring benefits.
To fully exploit its advantages councils will need to include not only the device, but also location software, specific applications and the use of cloud solutions.
For some authorities, that will require significant changes to their technical environment, though the growing number of authorities at all tiers where cloud has already been adopted show there is a willingness to go down this route.
It is important to avoid large-scale implementation and complex scenarios and instead, start small and identify specific areas where wearable technology could be helpful.
The use of wearables should be considered on a case-by-case basis in the same way hand-held devices were introduced over the last two decades. The secret of success is to look for an immediate return on investment.
A further issue to consider is the need to avoid being seduced by the latest technology. Our consulting group research suggests that wearable technology is being refreshed every four to six months.
There is constant work to improve the quality of imaging, reduce weight and extend battery life as can be seen in Google’s decision to withdraw its Glass product for further development.
Finally, councils should remember that as with any new technology, there are risks. A recent survey by Ipswitch, a networking specialist, found 88% of local authorities have no plan in place to manage the implications of wearable technology. Yet they do need to be able to manage the implications for network performance, security and possible data breaches, as well as concerns about personal privacy.
However, these factors, if properly addressed, should not stand in the way of councils exploring the potential of wearables to improve service and to help drive further efficiency savings.
David Rees is head of local government services and Sir Merrick Cockell is a senior advisor at PA Consulting Group