CIO50 2020 #21: Mark John Denvir, Auckland Council
IoT sensors to help fight the Kauri Dieback, ‘digital twins’ of council-owned farms, bots’ to process hundreds of thousands of invoices a year.
These technology-enabled initiatives address different key concerns of the Auckland Council.
Mark John Denvir, ICT director at Auckland Council, however, notes that these innovations have a common link - their foundations were from an initiative started more than two years ago in another area of concern by the council.
This was the project Safeswim, which provides live information on water quality and swimming conditions at favourite beaches and pools around Auckland.
“We have built a low cost, open source and open data IoT platform for this,” says Denvir.
The project, he says, aimed to explore emerging technology, while developing internal capabilities and processes, and informing standards, policies, strategies and procurement approaches for the council’s ICT function.
The IoT data platform was created to capture real time data about the environment and assets, helping Auckland Council understand the value of real time data and insights as it works towards becoming a ‘smarter city’.
“The data captured has enabled Auckland Council to become better informed and driven a response by our councillors to a call for change, to improve our aging infrastructure and water quality,” says Denvir.
The platform then enabled the framework to roll out projects to help address critical issues affecting Auckland such as the Kauri Sensor project.
The latter utilises sensor technology to help fight against Kauri Dieback and manage Farms for the Future.
It utilises specialist technologies with sensors installed on farms, from monitoring soil quality to cow growth.
The platform led to the creation of a “digital twin” for the 40 Council-owned farms, and these are used to measure the effects of different farming practices in granular detail.
“An extensive map of the water quality, grass and paddock standards enables our farms to develop sustainable farming practices with high quality, low cost food yields,” says Denvir.
“The datasets will provide transparent food provenance and enable our communities to access land to grow food and enhance wellbeing.”
“This technology will move from traditional farming practices to new, allowing us to maximise land use and link existing technologies in ways we haven’t done before.”
Denvir says the council has also tapped robotics, with Robotic Process Automation (RPA) streamlining their services to customers and Auckland.
The software ‘bots’ automate the entry of data in large quantities.
Automation eliminates human error and processes data in record time, as the bots ‘act as the user’ and save the organisation 4000 hours per annum, whilst increasing customer engagement, says Denvir.
This initiative has increased customer and employee satisfaction, reduced cost of services to the business, accelerated the time to resolve issues, and improved data entry for an accurate, robust database.
He says RPA has improved productivity across Auckland Council, saving $600,000 within the first five months of launch.
“It has also enabled our ICT team to start rolling out Agile as a way of working, to better deliver our services to the business and our customers.”
He explains that the Auckland Council processes over 160,000 invoices every year with an average of 13,500 invoices per month.
Automating the process saves the council approximately $139,350 a year. Savings in automating submissions is approximately $150,000 a year.
Integrating the CRM and job management system with 'bots’ enables the Regulatory Support Dispatch staff to assign jobs to animal management at an accelerated rate. This saves up to $155,000 a year or up to 6,200 man hours.
Denvir says building and resource consents are required to be processed within 20 days. This is an insurmountable challenge against the growing volume of submissions, as well as up to 160,000 site inspections per year for building consents.
To automate the inspection and approval system, the ICT team built an application in Neptune that would work onsite and offline to help inspectors meet with industry demand, and increase the number of inspections.
Auckland Council partnered with uDrew to automate the building consent process. This dramatically reduced time and cost associated with submitting a building consent to Auckland Council, says Denvir.
The consenting process is easily available to Aucklanders to submit and gain automatic approval for simple structures such as car ports, swimming pools, decks and retaining walls.
Short-term savings are estimated to be around $2 million to $5 million per annum, while long-term savings are forecasted to reach $50 million to $70 million.
“These innovations are in response to identifying, understanding and responding to problems from our community. This is part of our ongoing commitment to improve and make Auckland a better place to live for our people,” says Denvir.
“These innovations have provided Auckland Council with solutions to the city and our customers that are making an impact for positive change,” says Denvir.
“Streamlining the consenting process will lead to compliance with industry demand, enabling more houses and development to roll out and address the housing crisis,” he adds.
“Building a comprehensive data set of real-time data on our environmental issues, our farming practices, and our cities needs is contributing towards a shift to a smarter, innovative and liveable city for the future, now.”
“In my role, as the director of ICT Auckland Council, it is essential that the leadership team are informed and guided to understand the disruptive changes that technology has on our business and our city,” says Denvir.
“I lead from the front, to set up the vision and get people excited, then empower them to then step in front and drive the vision into reality,” he states.
He ensures that his leadership team members are involved with discussions within the council on how technology can drive the council’s evolution and also enhance business opportunities for the city and communities.
This can be seen with the ICT teams upskilling in agile last year.
“Several early adopters within the department utilise agile to drive projects faster, with better results due to the customer centric, iterative approach that the Agile methodology enables our teams to implement,” says Denvir.
“This empowers our people to feel a stronger sense of ownership, drive and customer insights leading to empathy and an incremental shift within the business itself, towards understanding that our ICT department is a customer-centric, strategic partner for the business, as well as a robust services provider to the organisation and Auckland.”
He points to the importance of providing the framework for a healthy, positive workplace and culture.
Diversity is essential to this. “We have a number of cultures here at ICT and I believe that this enables a rich and diverse team environment.
“The multiple layers of different perspectives, cultures and beliefs adds to the tapestry of building a dynamic and engaged workplace.”
The ICT department also runs a graduate programme, where participants work in different areas of ICT. That is a unique aspect of our programme, says Denvir. The graduates then expand their skills in their preferred area.
“I strongly encourage upskilling and training, encouraging our people to increase their skill sets to ensure they are stimulated and engaged,” is a key message to his team.
The council partnered with Fr@nk! to roll out agile training to the ICT teams. “This will help assist with changing our business mindset and methodology, escalate our project delivery and ensure we have a faster service delivery to the business with a customer centric mindset.”
“This is a developing shift,” says Denvir, who expects early impacts to the business will result in inquiries across the organisation for training in agile. He says the training will now be delivered by agile trainers from the ICT team.
Denvir reveals his most significant experience in business transformation involved not technology, but people.
In a previous role, he was asked to exit a key staff member who was viewed by the other business units as “toxic”.
This particular person, however, held significant IP on the company’s systems. Thus, the organisation was also concerned about the impact of the loss of this IP. At the same time, the wider ICT team’s staff engagement score was in the single digits, “deemed to be destructive”.
“While trying to understand the risk to the organisation of exiting this staff member I discovered that the real issue was a disconnect between the IT team and the business about the problems they jointly faced,” says Denvir. “This led to a deeply frustrated IT team that felt undervalued.”
He discovered that the individual who was deemed “toxic” was a committed employee but needed help to manage the team’s frustrations with the business units who did not understand ICT’s concerns and issues.
Denvir initiated various coaching sessions for the IT team so they can better articulate their concerns while also listening to the concerns of the other business units. “We were able to change the relationship the business had with both the IT team and the individual.”
“The key lesson I learnt from this was the importance of being present when dealing with people,” he says.
One also has to be open and attentive to hear what others are saying, he says. “This is a difficult skill when you already have your own views to start.”
He reveals this individual went on to become a valued member of the company, and drove significant improvements within the team, which lifted its engagement scores to the 80s.