This article was first published by the Guardian’s Local Government Network.
There has been some quiet moaning about the news that O2 Telefonica has struck a deal with Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea councils to bring free Wi-Fi access to residents and visitors to the boroughs.
One officer called the scheme “a waste of money”. I don’t understand this negativity, especially as, according to the provider, the cost of creating Europe’s largest Wi-Fi hub is precisely zero to the taxpayer and the two councils. Of course, money will have been spent on arranging the deal, but the cost of this is almost irrelevant when compared with the potential boost to the local economy.
As I have argued before, the building of IT infrastructure must be about communities, businesses and local authorities working together to reach a desired result. Westminster council says the Wi-Fi service will open up new possibilities for west end businesses. We know that councils have to adapt to stay relevant to the way their residents live their lives, and this is especially urgent in technology, media and communications.
The vast majority of mobile phone sales in the UK are now smartphones. The technology has become affordable and useable for new demographics, including my grandma, who is nearly 90. So as increasing numbers of people are using Google, email and even accessing council information on the go, these innovative partnerships with service providers should be welcomed.
The current infrastructure for mobile internet (3G) is already creaking under the weight of use. From a purely practical view, we need more free Wi-Fi areas just to keep supply up with demand – especially if we are tounleash the power of British cities.
The O2 project will also help more people work with greater flexibility. Next summer, you could leave your desk and send emails while sitting in the local park. Or employees could wait out the rush hour by working the first part of the day down the greasy spoon. You may choose not to – but wouldn’t it be nice to have the choice?
Rather than being restricted to mainstream coffee shops, general WI-FI access turns every cafe, library, bench and waiting room in to a possible work space. Better access to the internet could help bring people back to the high street.
The deal could also help battle some of the problems caused by the digital divide. There are still nine million people in the UK without online access. This partnership could offer children a greater chance to go online outside of school, or allow older people to receive health advice without making a trip to the doctor.
There is great potential for Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea councils to better understand who is in their borough, what they’re doing and how to design services more in line with end users. Users of the service will have to provide registration details, which should be no more demanding than when registering to use any network in a coffee shop. If the council uses this point of engagement effectively they could also offer further online services, such as updates on bin collections, school closure and local community events – even council meetings and consultations.
Going where the eyeballs are, a white paper published by the Local Government Information Unit (LGiU) last year, showed that significant cost savings can be achieved through proactive communication models that cut down on avoidable contact time by up to 35%.
By then monitoring users over time, councils can build a picture of movement patterns around the borough that are much more detailed than any traditional survey could produce. This means that valuable data can be gathered at any time and taken into council meetings to help make better decisions.
If we’re lucky, this data may even be freed up for developers to turn into websites and apps that will help people live their lives more easily.
Some may worry that this is bit too big-brother-like for comfort, but it’s really no different to the way Google, Apple, Facebook and lots of other organisations collect information every day; just look at how many people now find their services indispensable. I hope local government does all it can to encourage more of these relationships.