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New centre will use digital technologies to transform local government services


A pioneering research centre set up to train the next generation of digital economy researchers is being launched in the North East of England.

Led by Newcastle University and involving policy makers, the private and public sectors and researchers from across the globe, the Centre will provide a unique opportunity to investigate how digital technology can be used in the design of local government services to better meet the needs of the communities they serve.

Funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) the Centre for Doctoral Training in Digital Civics will train more than 60 PhD students over the next nine years, exploring how digital technologies can be used to promote public participation in the design and delivery of local services, including education, public health and social care and planning.

Led by Professors Patrick Olivier and Peter Wright, Newcastle is already a world leader in the field of human-computer interaction and the Centre will build on this through the involvement of the University’s centres of excellence for research in planning (Global Urban Research Unit), public health (Institute for Health and Society), education (Centre for Learning and Teaching) and security (Centre for Cybercrime and Computer Security).

Professor Olivier, who is based in Newcastle University’s Culture Lab, part of the School of Computing Science, explains: “The aim of Digital Civics is to use technology and design thinking to fundamentally reorient the relationship between those who govern and those who are governed – ‘better government’ not ‘less government’.

"The technological advances we have all witnessed in the last 20 years mean that new grassroots models of service provision and government are now genuinely possible and the goal of the Centre will be to train a generation of researchers capable of realizing these.”

Professor Wright adds: “One of the biggest challenges for Digital Civics is that it needs researchers that are not just technologists, but also experts in areas such as health, politics, planning and education. This will require researchers who understand the potential and the limitations of digital technologies, but who also know how to engage with communities to innovate in the design of new services that really meet their needs.

"Our local government partners are very excited about the potential to genuinely empower the communities they serve, and one of the novel aspects of the Centre is the way that we will be working in close partnership with our three local councils.”

Widespread support

The Newcastle CDT is a partnership between Newcastle University, local government (Northumberland, Gateshead and Newcastle councils), local and national NGOs, international technology companies, and many of the world’s leading universities in North America, Asia, Europe and Australasia.

Industrial partners include BT Research (UK), BBC Research and Development (UK), IBM Research (Ireland), eBay Research Labs (USA), Microsoft Research (UK), Orange Labs (France), Philips Research (Eindhoven), Promethean (UK), Tunstall (UK) and SMART (Canada)and the 38 international university partners include Berkeley, Cornell, Stanford, Tsinghua, Peking and Sydney.

Chi Onwurah, MP for Newcastle Central and Shadow Cabinet Office Minister, said: "We are all increasingly becoming digital citizens whether we like it or not, and it's essential that no-one is left behind. That's why I am so pleased that Newcastle is going to have this fantastic resource and be at the leading edge of making sure our digital services work for everyone and not just a few."

Leader of Newcastle City Council, Councillor Nick Forbes, said: “Newcastle University makes a significant contribution to the region's economy so I am delighted that it has secured further investment for this centre that will train the next generation of digital scientists.

“This leading centre will help create the jobs of the future which is exactly what we need, and anything that enhances public services and improves quality of life for residents is a good thing for the city and the region.”

Councillor Robert Arckless, policy board member for children's services at Northumberland County Council said: “It has been a pleasure to work with the University in shaping the bid and supporting them through the process, and we look forward to our future partnership work with them.

“Working with the University on the key aspects of digital civics, such as community learning and discovering better ways to promote community participation in the decision making process, has obvious benefits for the council. The centres will provide learning opportunities for our young people and hopefully the research can improve the ways the council engages with our communities now and into the future.”

Leader of Gateshead Council, Mick Henry, said: "We're facing tough times in the public sector with resources squeezed and demand for many services rising. So opportunities like this, to investigate how new technology can help us to be more efficient and improve how we connect with residents and involve them more closely, could prove vital in the future.

"We're no strangers to innovation; the first trial of what became internet shopping was carried out here in Gateshead, with direct involvement from Gateshead Council. Who knows, we might see the beginnings of another world-changing technology as a result of this project."

Adrian Woolard, Head of BBC Research and Development, North Lab, said: “Culture Lab’s international standing as a centre of excellence for research in interaction design and human-computer interaction is one of the primary reasons that it will be one of the founding members in our long-term BBC User Experience and Accessibility Research Partnership.

"This CDT will further cement our strategic relationship over the next 10 years. In particular we are very excited about the new Centre's research training in participatory and community media which will explore new and sustainable models of media production and consumption.”

A spokesman for BT said: "BT is delighted that Newcastle University has been successful with its bid for an EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Digital Civics. This is a great opportunity for BT and Newcastle University to further improve our collaboration for long-term research in the UK on connected communities, and to further strengthen our links to the North East.”

Marielle Langerak, Department head of Philips Research, adds: "Philips Research takes a keen interest in the training of the next generation of researchers, particularly where this relates to areas of our core business such as health and wellbeing and digital technologies to support that.

"The particular emphasis of Digital Civics on new models of public health intervention and community driven models of care delivery nicely fits with an increased emphasis in our own research efforts on patient engagement and ensuring patient involvement in understanding their own health situation and shared decision making on suitable care options."

Announced today on the top of the BT Tower in London by Universities and Science Minister David Willets, the CDT in Digital Civics is part of a £350 million investment in post-graduate training across the UK.

Science Minister David Willetts said: “Scientists and engineers are vital to our economy and society. It is their talent and imagination, as well as their knowledge and skills that inspire innovation and drive growth across a range of sectors, from manufacturing to financial services.

“I am particularly pleased to see strong partnerships between universities, industry and business among the new centres announced today. This type of collaboration is a key element of our industrial strategy and will continue to keep us at the forefront of the global science race.”

What is Digital Civics?

Professor Olivier explains: “Over the past two decades, society has embraced digital technology, from broadband internet and laptops to mobile phones and tablets, but local government has struggled to keep up with the demand from communities to have their voices heard and get involved in rethinking the way that future local services might be provided. Digital Civics is about exploring new ways in which digital technologies can be used to harness the potential of local communities – not just here in the UK but anywhere in the world."

Newcastle has a number of recent examples of Digital Civics innovations:

PosterVote, a low-cost paper-thin electronic voting device, allows community activists to use a traditional paper poster to securely poll the opinion of residents on issues such as parking and planning applications. Lead researcher Vasilis Vlachokyriakos explains:  “The posters provide an efficient and affordable way to collect opinions of residents and motivate discussion around community related issues. They are designed to reduce the barriers to having your voice heard by being accessible to everyone interested in the topic of the survey.”

FeedFinder, an app designed with and for mothers, helps promote child health by allowing them to rate the facilities provided for breastfeeding by shops and public buildings.  As lecturer Madeline Balaam describes:  “This is not about telling women what to do, but is instead getting mums – the experts – to share their experiences and knowledge of what matters when they are out and about and wanting to breastfeed.”

published on: 21 November 2013