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UCL project leverages digital technologies for more effective government

The UCL-led GovTech Lab facilitates knowledge exchange between academia and government. It also supports proof-of-concept testing in areas such as artificial intelligence (AI) and blockchain.

The Palace of Westminster, as seen while walking over Westminster Bridge

30 September 2020

The GovTech Lab project aims to: 

  • transform the way in which governments engage with citizens
  • assist policy-making decisions
  • improve how national infrastructure is managed
  • improve transparency and accountability

Starting a discussion about tech 

Dr Zeynep Engin (UCL Computer Science) co-founded and now leads GovTech Lab. Professor Philip Treleaven (UCL Computer Science) and Dr Catherine Mulligan (Imperial College Centre for Cryptocurrency Research and Engineering) also play pivotal roles. 

In 2015 Zeynep set up the international ‘Data for Policy’ conference series. It served as a forum for discussion, debate and thought leadership among top academics and civil servants.

Inspired by ideas generated from the conferences, she wanted to setup a ‘vehicle for testing proof of concepts’. She successfully applied for knowledge exchange funding through UCL Innovation & Enterprise and GovTech Lab was born.

Zeynep comments: “Highly disruptive technologies such as AI, blockchain and IoT [internet of things] are changing every sector and are of increasingly relevance and interest to governments. But they often don’t have the internal capacity to make use of new products or lack understanding of the processes. 

“UCL is in a unique position to provide support as a major London-based university with the whole spectrum of relevant disciplines, from law and policy, through to philosophy and computer science.”

Transformative potential 

GovTech Lab works around five key technology themes: AI, blockchain, IoT, big data, and behavioural and predictive analytics. These technologies have the potential to completely transform the operation of government in different ways.

A few examples include:

  • automating payments from and to citizens
  • gathering public opinion to drive policy
  • designing and developing smart cities, including self-driving vehicles
  • modelling public service demand and transport use
  • real-time monitoring and management of urban infrastructure
  • facilitating international trade

GovTech’s leadership and advisor panel consists of key people from academia, business, industry and government. 

Considering wider implications

To date, GovTech Lab has initiated two defined projects, both supported by UCL knowledge exchange funding.

DataNet is looking at developing a global infrastructure to support the safe sharing of data. This will use blockchain, AI and machine learning, and emerging communication infrastructures such as 5G. 

The Digital Ethics Forum looks at the societal impacts and consequences of the technologies dealt with by GovTech Lab, a topic that closely aligns with Zeynep’s own research. 

“AI and machine learning are not entirely objective as some people might think,” says Zeynep. “They carry over a lot of the biases and injustices that have always been present in human surveys and decision-making. In some cases they actually amplify them. The most recent high profile example is the A-Level marking fiasco.”

Facilitating collaboration and partnership

Zeynep has worked very closely with UCL Innovation & Enterprise to create GovTech Lab and retains strong links with the department as the initiative goes from strength to strength. Dr Laura Bovo, Innovation Networks Manager at UCL Innovation & Enterprise, serves as an advisor to GovTech Lab, facilitating collaboration and funding opportunities.

Laura comments: “At UCL Innovation & Enterprise, we look for ways in which academics can work together with business, industry and government to address societal challenges. GovTech is perfect example of this, and has come at an opportune time as government really comes to realise the potential of these technologies. I look forward to seeing GovTech Lab grow in exciting new directions.”

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GovTech Lab received funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) Impact Acceleration Account (IAA 2017-20).

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