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This year Liverpool celebrates its 800th birthday. It is a fitting trail for next year when the city welcomes the world to enjoy a 12 month celebration of its life and times as European Capital of Culture. Both events highlight just how far this city has come - able to embrace the past while grasping the possibilities of the future and offering everyone the chance to join in.
Liverpool is no longer a sleeping giant. The city is approaching the future with renewed confidence, once again an international city looking outwards with regeneration and new technology forming the bedrock of its renaissance.
Seaport to e-port
Already the city has come a long way in shrugging off the torpor of its recent past. The next challenge for Liverpool in its unstoppable drive from seaport to e-port is to embrace wireless communications and Liverpool has been named as a pilot project for BT’s Wireless Cities initiative which will be established this Spring.
The project is set to revolutionise the way people live, work and play – initially in the city centre - and provide a huge boost for residents, council staff, businesses and the two million additional tourists expected to converge on the city during the next two years. In simple terms, it means people can access the web from their laptops and other devices wherever they are without needing to plug into a permanent connection. The possibilities are endless, the opportunities to engage with people limitless.
Connecting with community
Liverpool wants to develop community driven initiatives to promote inclusion, community protection, street event co-ordination, traffic management and socially-oriented services which connect with Liverpool’s diverse communities. And of course as 2008’s culture year approaches there is the desire to use wireless technology to boost the city’s leisure and tourism industry and engage many more people in the celebrations.
That means allowing tourists and visitors to call up the latest information about places of interest, hotel accommodation, restaurant reviews and public transport from their mobiles or perhaps using a portable handset hired from a tourist agency. This technology could also deliver a "virtual tour guide" for tourists who could set up their mobile phones so they can be guided around the city and receive instant information when they pass a building or location of historical or cultural relevance.
Further, Liverpool, now one of the safest cities in Europe, could become even safer. Having spent more than £5m on 245 cameras in the most advanced CCTV scheme in the world, the freedom of wireless technology could take the scheme a step further. A wireless CCTV network, free from the restrictions of cabling, could soon be deployed anywhere in the city centre.
City Council and other public service staff would be freed-up to operate from anywhere within the city. Social workers and health workers could take a ‘virtual’ hospital, clinic or office out to patients or vulnerable people at home on a wireless-connected laptop increasing independence for both health professionals and those people who depend on them. Liverpool will continue its successful drive to become a UK business capital and attract new industries, with business people able to access the internet on their laptops anywhere within the city centre. A premier tourist destination, business-friendly and safe, these are just a few elements that being a wireless city will help Liverpool achieve.
And as the Wi-Fi coverage spreads across the city, more and more council employees will be able to take advantage of ‘teleworking’, whether they work from home, a council building nearer their home or even a community centre meeting the council’s mantra: “work isn’t where we are, it’s what we do.”
This sort of infrastructure will be a powerful magnet and a great advertisement for the city in attracting the high-value new industries that are built upon modern information technology and communications services. While Wi-Fi is about to go live, Liverpool City Council is already using new technology to improve the quality of people’s lives and increase democratic involvement.
Last year was a red carpet year for its call centre which picked up a raft of awards including gongs for excellence in customer care and computer security. Run by the pioneering Liverpool Direct Ltd (LDL), the call centre takes more than 50,000 calls each week and 750,000 e-mails a year, dealing with everything from parking permits to housing benefits.
LDL is the largest council-run call centre in the UK and was established in July 2001 as a joint venture partnership between BT and the City Council, unique in this country. At the end of last year a five year extension to the partnership was signed meaning as much as a further £90m will be invested in new technology to improve and modernise council services.
Trendsetter for the electronic age
There is great pride in the impact and role of this 24/7/365 operation because it's not often that a council can say it keeps abreast of technological changes never mind be in the vanguard of finding new, more efficient and effective ways of using ICT to help people.
A decade ago, many would not have even thought this change possible, nor for the benefits to be reaped as quickly as they are now. Once, you could only reach a council department between 9am and 4.45pm and no doubt be put on hold as you waited frustratingly only to be told there was no one to help. In fact, ignoring the phone became a coping strategy. It is clear now that Liverpool, one of the great industrial cities has moved from being a seaport to an e-port and is a trendsetter for the electronic age. LDL answering customers’ calls quickly does not alone, of course, amount to efficient and effective e-government. Fortunately though, it is just the tip of the iceberg.
Council services under one roof
In tandem with the call centre are satellite council bases of information and expertise. If Scousers want face-to-face contact, 10 One Stop Shops have been set up in the heart of communities throughout the city. They employ the latest technology and deal with all council services under one roof.
A network of ‘pavement pods’ on streets throughout the city is allowing people to make payments, access council information, report a fault, book tickets, look for a job, plan a route, find out Capital of Culture and tourism information, send free e-mails and text messages, and interact directly with their local public service providers.
Highways and social services staff are taking out handheld computers and tablet PCs to their customers. The ‘Telecare’ project has seen state-of-the-art monitoring equipment being installed in homes to support elderly people living alone and keep them safe. A hi-tech mobile learning bus tours all areas of the city delivering free computer training and education courses, 230 computers have been introduced in all 24 of the city’s libraries, giving people free internet and e-mail access, and the £1.1m C-Net project has seen more than 600 computers given to residential and foster homes.
Technology is so much more than the internet of course, but this remains a vital tool too. The internet has meant that councillors can be contacted by e-mail, which many prefer, and all senior councillors and officers have Blackberries allowing them to communicate instantly across the council solving problems and improving people’s lives more quickly.
The internet also gives residents greater access to the democratic process. Liverpool’s disability and equality strategy is web-based, while residents can also take part in polls allowing them to influence policy.
Regenerating the city
Technology, in brief, is raising confidence and increasing opportunities for everyone while helping regenerate the city as business thrives, which in turn allows the city to build for the future and be ready for the next wave of technological innovation. While winning prizes at annual glitzy bashes may be welcome, the real prize is ensuring all in Liverpool benefit from the inclusiveness that technology provides and for it to be seen by others as making a real and tangible difference.