Public safety agencies are undergoing a process of modernization and are challenged to digitally transform operations. There’s a lot of high-level talk in the marketplace about the specifics of digital transformation and the capabilities agencies need to achieve it.
What do agencies need to make this happen? What do they want? We spoke with Hexagon experts around the world to find out, and we’ll be sharing their perspectives in a series of blog posts.
Here’s what Nick Chorley had to say about public safety agencies in Europe.
Wendy Sack: How do you define digital transformation when it comes to public safety agencies, and what kinds of challenges do these agencies face as a result of this transformation?
Nick Chorley: A lot of it has to do with having different channels of communication. You’re reporting some calls for service via data message or via a web portal or something like that. Then it’s following that data the whole way through and making it drive decision-making by presenting options and related information to the user making the decisions. It’s also making information available to the public, having feedback on the agencies through portals to report things like, “This much crime happened in this area or this is what our stats were like this week. We didn’t do such a good job on these days because of something, and we’re doing something about that.” It’s being able to feed that information back, automating it from the data that’s already been collected rather than having to do our own analysis.
I think one of the biggest challenges is that the customer has to change the way they work and that’s not always something they want to do or they’re able to do. Sometimes they also have to review the impact of those changes on their statutory responsibilities. They have a charter to a service of a particular type. And when they make these changes, they have to think about how that affects what they’ve been chartered to do by the city or whoever’s commissioning their services.
WS: Is it fair to say that modernization can be challenging because many public safety agencies have relied on legacy technology for quite some time? Plus, investments in new technology can take more time?
NC: Different agencies are using all sorts of different equipment to provide their services. Some of it’s ancient, and some of it’s a bit more modern. Part of digital transformation is joining things up and transferring data between those different elements. And if some of them are old, they just can’t do that. So that’s absolutely a challenge – just because you modernize one thing, you don’t necessarily modernize all your other components, and you find that until you’ve modernized everything, you can’t really be totally transformative.
WS: What other considerations make modernization difficult for public safety agencies?
NC: It’s not just funding. You might have the funding to do the transformation, but you can only do so much at once without disrupting your service, and it can take years to transform everything. You have some situations where you have disruptions you can predict, but often these different services have grown up over years and are so intermeshed that, unless you really pull the whole thing apart and spend weeks and weeks thinking about it, you may never realize some of the interdependencies. You may not realize until you’re working through phase one of the project that it’s going to have an impact on a later phase. Then you need to upgrade that other system you thought you were going to be OK with. There are known unknowns and unknown unknowns to think about there.
WS: As more and more data is available as a result of digital transformation, agencies are facing increasing requirements for transparency and more accountability in their communities. How does this impact the daily work of these agencies? What are the advantages and disadvantages?
NC: In Europe, we have data protection legislation, the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) that gives people rights over data that relates to them. An individual member of the public can request to find out all the information the agency has on them, then the agency may have to justify why it needs to retain it.
As far as body cameras, a lot of agencies have body-worn cameras. That’s as much to protect the agency as it is to protect the public. The public has their smartphones out and they’re taking videos. It’s a very uneven playing field in that respect because the agency’s under a lot greater scrutiny than the public is. I think it puts real pressure on the employees because it makes them nervous. But the whole business of being transparent requires you to record stuff, and to get any benefit out of digital transformation, you need to be recording things in a coherent digital form that lets you link the information up to other information to make it valuable. I think it puts a great onus on the agency to educate and inform the workforce how they need to behave so they collect the data appropriate to the situation. If an agency has its data properly digitized, and has enabled digital transformation in its processes, it’s in a much better place to answer questions. It’s then actually much easier to report and to tell citizens everything that they are entitled to know.
WS: What are the biggest wants and needs of today’s public safety providers?
NC: A lot of the agencies talking about digital transformation see it as a means to an end, and that is they need to “do more with less”; they need to provide a better service with reduced budgets. They are pretty well set up for the everyday workload, but they need to be better at reacting to demand and managing demand. So, if suddenly they have a spike in calls, they need to have processes in place to manage that. Digital transformation helps them do that. Not everybody’s thinking of digital transformation to do that. Some people are thinking of much more rough and ready situations whereby they just overflow their calls to a neighboring partner agency. There are a variety of solutions to that problem of managing demand, but I think digital transformation is the most scalable one and is the best long-term answer.
Most of them want to be more efficient. They want to be better joined up with their stakeholders and other partner agencies. I think a lot PSAPs in the U.S. are multi-agency in the first place, but that’s much less common outside North America. It’s definitely pretty unusual in Europe. You might have some joined up within the PSAP anyway, because you are part of one system, but you still need to be connected to the city and other agencies you work with. I know in Europe the emergency medical service – the ambulance service – has a great interest in being much better joined up with what they call the health care economy, because they can just get such massive dividends by making other elements of that process aware of the incident and the patient. If they can make the hospital aware of the patient before the patient arrives, then they can not only make a better experience for the patient when they hand him or her over to the hospital, but they can also free up the ambulance much faster so they can get back on the road. That’s a win-win situation.
WS: You work closely with these agencies. If you had to pick one thing you think these agencies would want from their digital transformation/modernization journeys, what would it be and why?
NC: I’ll talk about a project I’m working on with a very large agency. Digital transformation was right up at the top of their agenda. That was one of their very high-level, commissioner-level messages: digital transformation. They wanted to be able to provide a better service to citizens. They are very conscious that, although they have a huge number of call-takers, the level of demand can fluctuate wildly, and sometimes they just can’t cope with it. And if their processes are more aligned to be digitally transformed, then they’re going to be in a much better place to cope with it. Part of that was digitalization of processes to enable some business transformation. But the other part was just thinking a little bit differently about their business to take advantage of that digital transformation, and some of that meant providing a slightly different service. So, not trying to react nearly as much immediately, but really only reacting to the life-and-death stuff immediately.
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Nick Chorley, director EMEA public safety & security for Hexagon’s Safety, Infrastructure &
Geospatial division, is based in London.