Published on the 10/06/2021 | Written by Heather Wright
Auckland’s super city tech: Digital twins, IoT, bots and productisation…
Mark Denvir is big on efficiency.
As the director of ICT for New Zealand’s biggest council, Auckland Council, he heads up a team of 360 permanent IT staff and 30-50 contract staff handling IT for a vast array of council services.
And at a time when councils are facing reduced revenues and recovery budgets – and for Aucklanders, like many, rates increases – efficiency, increased productivity and reducing costs are critical.
It has been just over a decade since the eight councils within the Auckland region were merged to create the sprawling ‘supercity’ – a $3 billion business, and home to 1.6 million people.
“We are pivoting to make really effective use of the modernised IT landscape we have.”
“Auckland Council has got to a position through the 10 to 11 years we have been together as one organisation where we have become an efficient IT-based organisation and we are pivoting to make really effective use of the modernised IT landscape the council now has,” Denvir says.
It’s a position he believes is enviable and will enable the council to move forward in the transformation of its services more easily than ‘probably most organisations’.
In the coming months, Auckland Council will go public with a ‘significant’ project that will re-imagine the way the heavy, operational side of IT is designed, building in much greater agility to enable IT to respond with speed to changing demands and needs.
Denvir is coy on the plans. It’s a big project and Mayor Phil Goff is likely to want to announce it himself, given the cost savings it is expected to bring Auckland Council.
What Denvir will say is that it is ‘really in the data centre’ and it’s about getting Auckland Council ‘to be really focused on how technology underpins and enables the organisation to be better at the services it provides by putting the agility and flexibility’ into the business that it needs to move forward.
Much of the Auckland Council IT work remains behind the scenes, with citizens largely unaware of the work. That’s just how Denvir likes it.
“As the head of a technology function within a large organisation you would like people not to even understand that the technology is there because it is just enabling the business outcomes, rather than what the technology is,” he says.
“For me what Aucklanders will start to see is the council just being far more effective in the way it is delivering its services as we underpin and enable the organisation to be more efficient.”
Talking IoT, data and digital twins
When it comes to the individual projects, all the usual suspects are there, from IoT and sensors to automation to data and analytics.
A project to create a digital twin for the city was put on the backburner thanks to Covid and the 2020/2021 emergency budget which saw budgets slashed. A year on, however, and Denvir has the funds to scope out the project.
While the original Smart Growth Portal, combining Council geospatial data with that from public sources and central government, was expected to rely on the NEC Kite network platform, Denvir says times have changed.
“Technology develops so rapidly that it makes sense that we go and test the market again for what is the best way for council to achieve their goals,” he says.
The project will bring the physical assets and infrastructure Auckland owns, including stormwater systems, roading and fresh water, to life through a digital twin.
“It would be a great resource not only for council to be better informed in its decision making but also for citizens of Auckland to be able to see what the infrastructure is like in their local region or even under your house. Where are your pipes, where is the stormwater, what is running close by where you are?”
Denvir doesn’t want it to stop just with council owned infrastructure.
“Ideally what you would like to be able to do is sit there with other organisations that have assets in the city, be they power, telecommunications and be able to show where all those assets are.”
One possible use case: Being able to understand the age of all assets in a certain street and syncing up with other infrastructure providers so everyone has the opportunity to maintain assets in one window – and one dig of the road.
Denvir says the future of the project depends on the value it will provide and whether that can be prioritised against all the other demand for council spend.
Sensors, meanwhile, are already being installed on council assets. Denvir sees IoT as a crucial technology for councils.
“I do see us improving the way we look at creating insights in data that allow us to be more effective and for me that will be driven a lot out of what we are doing with sensors.”
Proof of concepts are underway using sensors to capture information to make better use of human resource.
Sensors installed at remote properties, where park rangers need to ensure water supply and maintenance of the properties, mean rangers don’t need to travel to the properties just to check anymore.
Another initiative, launched 18 months ago, sees citizens becoming the council’s eyes. The app and web offering enables anyone to log an issue they see with any council infrastructure, such as a broken public toilet or park bench, or graffiti. Photos can be uploaded and the job is logged with council and passed to either an internal team or external contractor, with the citizen kept up to date on what is happening.
Denvir says the project, launched 18 months ago, just before Covid hit, has seen ‘very significant uptake’.
“We’re very happy with how that has gone, and part of what that has done is made us far more efficient as an organisation. We have automated and really taken a value chain view of that service, so right from the citizen informing us of the problem through to the resolution, where as much as we can we automate that process to keep the people involved informed of how that work is progressing.”
It’s part of a big drive towards increased online capability for the council, which has also introduced online booking and scheduling capabilities for building inspection, and an application for the building inspectors themselves providing a real-time application for completing their inspections.
“We have become far more efficient in our inspection time frames and therefore enabled far more capacity for us to do inspections, just by having a look at our value chain and asking how we can take some of the manual processing to automate our value chain as much as we can.
“And we have seen significant uptake and increase in what we have been able to achieve.”
The bots are here
While the report a problem app uses open APIs for integrations (the council has invested ‘quite heavily’ in an integration capability using Mulesoft), Auckland Council has also had a significant RPA practice for three years and has numerous bots in production.
One key bot takes all the written feedback from community consultations, brings it into the system and themes it.
“This would be an extremely manual process for us in the past. A significant number of man hours, and cost, have been saved by us taking this approach.”
But while technology can be a big winner, Denvir says he’s also very aware that it’s not the solution or way to interact for all citizens.
“We definitely invest in the digital channels as we get some significant efficiencies and therefore manage the money that that ratepayers invest in us to provide those services as effectively as we can, while also being quite aware of the multiple needs for different sections of the community that we have to cater for.”
But there’s potential too, for technology to improve engagement with other sectors of Auckland’s diverse community.
While the Council doesn’t yet have chatbots or digital humans in play, Denvir says it’s on the radar.
“We do see a role for digital natives, or digital bots who can speak to people in their own language and help them navigate the services we have.
“We are very keen to look at ways we can invest in making our services usable across the diverse spectrum of Auckland.”
Covid, Denvir says, has brought IT more to the front with a growing understanding of how the technology that is available can help the business move forward.
“That’s only a positive thing,” he says.
Denvir says IT is becoming much closer to the business, moving away from being a behind the scenes IT shop to really being an enabler for the Council.
For Auckland Council that includes embedding some of the IT team closer to business units to work with them on understanding how technology can deliver the business outcomes their seeking.
“As part of that we bring some capabilities to help the business look at new opportunities but also through that we have a better understanding of what the business requirements are. So then we can help scope out what would be the sensible way to take that opportunity or fix the problem and through that we get a voice with the organisation to make sure we have a sensible roadmap of what we can deliver on their behalf.
“It’s extremely important to be able to sit with the business and prioritise with them so they understand the resources that are available and how best to make use of them.”
And it’s not just Auckland Council who could benefit. Denvir says he’s looking at how the some of the technology benefits the council is seeing, can be commoditised to create products to take to market.
“If we can fix problems for Auckland, then not surprisingly they can be used elsewhere in other jurisdictions.
“I personally have a view of ‘how can Auckland, with its ability to invest where others may not, create solutions that other parts of local government New Zealand can also benefit from.”