The transformative power of the cloud

John Jackson, chief executive of the London Grid for Learning (LGfL), shares his thoughts on the London SuperCloud which will provide all 33 London boroughs with lower-cost, cloud-based access to commonly used services and applications saving the public sector a potential £1 billion a year.

One of the things that most excited me when I began my role as chief executive at the LGfL was that the trust has been providing cloud services and technology successfully for over 15 years. As chief executive I want to bring that experience and blueprint to the wider public sector. We already run the secure Public Services Network (PSN) for London - the UK government's high-performance network, which helps public sector organisations work together, reduce duplication and share resources - and, at a time of austerity when we need to be more efficient and creative, it’s time we built on what already works. So I’m committed to developing cloud services for the public sector as a whole.

In practise this means aggregating digital services so councils and public bodies do things once rather than many times, which is expensive and inefficient. It means making it possible to share data efficiently so we can help vulnerable people and enable new insights that help solve complex challenges.

It means building a 21st century digital infrastructure for the sector that enables London to be a world centre of excellence, attracting digital companies and investment to the capital and generating growth and employment. And, of course, the great thing for the sector and our customers is that LGfL doesn’t seek to make profits for shareholders, it reinvests back into the sector to make things better.

What is SuperCloud?
Put simply, a SuperCloud is a cloud that links multiple clouds together securely. My fundamental belief is that no single cloud can support the needs of schools. We want to bring to schools a SuperCloud for education which will provide services to schools better and cheaper than would otherwise be the case.

Working with our partner Virgin Media Business, LGfL has already built a dedicated fibre infrastructure which, as it stands, is one of the largest educational and public sector networks in the world. As cloud delivery depends on high bandwidth and low latency, LGfL has the necessary scale to provide secure services to schools and the rest of the public sector underpinning the next generation of cloud services.

For schools, the LGfL SuperCloud provides authenticated users with a secure filtered broadband connection complemented by a wide range of associated safeguarding and communication services, as well as online content processing a billion URLs every day. In the last admissions round we processed 225,000 applications for secondary school places, delivered 565,000 SMS text messages to parents, and sent more than 50,000 mobile applications alerts via our mobile app, ParentComms.

Beyond schools, LGfL delivers access to the PSN, the further education network JANET, NHS N3 - the national broadband network for the NHS and national government departments. As LGfL provides its own dedicated core network, we’re able to control and manage contention rates as well as deliver public, hybrid and private cloud.

We are also currently involved in discussions to deliver a 4G overlay onto the fixed network to make secure cloud services available, including filtering on demand, at any location to any connected device.

Harnessing cloud to transform
While SuperCloud aims, like other service aggregators, to make it easy to access servers, storage and commonly configured apps, the aim is not to commoditise ICT. Ultimately, SuperCloud is about rewiring government and its relationship with its citizens. Through cloud we can enable the public sector to do things that it either could not, or would otherwise find difficult to do.

Through the development of this digital infrastructure, the public sector could stand to save £1 billion a year, allowing essential resources to be shared and continuing to sustain London as a global centre for innovation.

One cloud
At LGfL we have realised that we have a network asset that could be applied more broadly in London. For example, the NHS N3 network in London is due for contract renewal, and by using the LGfL SuperCloud the NHS could reap the economies of scale we can offer as an aggregator and more importantly avoid the costs and risks associated with building another regional network.

Integrated health and social care
A cross-sector SuperCloud would also enable one of the new services we are likely to see emerging soon. The various parts of the public sector have between them huge information resources that can be trawled for patterns and trends, helping match scarce resources to demand.

Rather than employ various disjointed systems and fragmented data, cloud can enable data aggregation and access to common platforms at a scale that delivers major benefit. For example, an integrated bed booking and availability service could be made accessible securely for London as a cloud service that would free up the precious time of professionals, particularly as the NHS’ resources are so severely stretched.

Cost and efficiency savings
The new pan-London anti-fraud initiative is an example of the way in which new, cloud-based platforms will transform the sector. London has taken an ambitious decision to buy into a payment-by-results cloud service for fraud rather than purchase an IT system that simply pools data across local authorities and other sectors. Cloud-based data aggregation facilitates the application of advanced analytics which in turn enables the identification of complex and otherwise difficult to spot fraudulent activity, for example being implemented by cartels. Efficiencies from this new cloud and data aggregation service are likely to amount to well over £100 million.

Another example of similar efficiency saving is the work undertaken by the London Office of Data Analytics who deliver better outcomes through data aggregation. Data from multiple sources is used to help officers identify potential houses of multiple occupancy and rogue landlords, helping to focus investigation efforts more accurately, increasing both efficiency and effectiveness.

Looking to the future
One exciting possibility is introducing artificial intelligence (AI) into the SuperCloud. This could create a ‘conversation as a platform’ within a public service environment, providing non-linear relationships in contrast to sharing through a workflow engine. The London Borough of Enfield’s automated call centre is one example of an existing facility that could be built upon and provisioned through a cloud service.

Faced with the demands for services and lack of resources, the public sector has to be innovative, so an idea-generating exercise such as white-boarding (the placement of shared files on an on-screen shared notebook or whiteboard) might become a non-linear activity. The participants might pass a specific task to a bot to execute, increasing their conversation power by an order of magnitude. Embedding implicit learning into the conversation platform using an AI engine is a further possibility.

Taking advantage of opportunities
In summary, cloud service should not be about the commoditisation and delivery of low-cost ICT processing power and data storage. Instead, it should be used more fundamentally to create and enable the cross-government capabilities that the sector needs for leadership in a digital, devolved world.

But it’s more than the tech. The SuperCloud is really a massive change programme. With alignment in leadership, behaviours, strategy and technology planning, the SuperCloud has a real chance of changing people’s lives for the better. Political will and executive decision makers must recognise that alignment in driving aggregation and the move to cloud is essential for such a scheme to succeed.

Five years ago SuperCloud would be impossible, however, emerging exemplars and unrelenting austerity now make it not only possible but arguably a necessity to build something like a SuperCloud that extends far beyond the education community to embrace the public sector as a whole. At this point of course, the aims and aspirations of other major groupings in that wider public sector community have to be successfully incorporated too.

The strategic plans for NHS and central government networks come to mind. These others are working towards similar medium and longer-term efficiency and business transformation objectives, albeit from differing starting points.

NHS and local authorities are currently building a cross-sector Health and Social Care Network (HSCN) that will inter-operate with the existing PSN (which in turn links with LGfL) thus creating, for the first time, something one could begin to call a true PSN as a member of the public would see it.

For the part of central government departments, devolved governments and administrations, the Government Digital Service has recently reported that consultations within their Technology Leaders Network have concluded: “We could just use the internet. For the vast majority of the work that the public sector does, the internet is okay. From today, new services should be made available on the internet and secured appropriately using the best available standards-based approaches. When we’re updating or changing services, we should take the opportunity to move them to the internet.”

Such examples demonstrate that there are different ways for networks to emerge serving the needs of the public sector. These networks can emerge either by accident or by design, and now is the crucial time for us to decide which of these options it is to be. Those who believe in having a designed system now need to come together and plan what the details of the design will be if we are to ensure the best lasting outcome for the future of the public sector.

LGfL is a not-for-profit consortium serving 60 local authority areas and 750,000 public sector staff.

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