When Azmat Yusuf moved to London in 2010 to work at Google, he was deeply confused by the city’s public transport system.
At 3am, he would find himself wandering around, trying to navigate the city’s maze of night buses to get home. “Back then, people would just get in the bus and ask the driver where does it go,” Yusuf said at a conference in 2016.
That’s when he decided to use his knowledge to revolutionise London’s public transport system. He launched CityMapper in 2011, an app that used publicly available transport data to create one of the world’s most best-known govtech firms.
“Govtech” is a rapidly emerging sector that looks to technology to solve public sector problems. The sector’s remit is broad. Its companies try to revolutionise transport, healthcare, welfare distribution, tax payments, education or urban planning.
But these companies share a new generation of leaders who are asking, why isn’t applying for welfare as easy as ordering an Uber? What happens if you take innovations from the private sector and apply them to the public services?
Alongside CityMapper - now operating in 39 cities worldwide - successful examples in the sector are easy to find. An app by organisation Code for America, called GetCalFresh, has helped 390,000 people apply for food stamps in California by reducing a cumbersome 45 minute application into an eight minute process that can be completed on an applicant’s phone.
It’s estimated that $400bn has been spent on government technologies worldwide but countries around the world take different attitudes to the industry, with some collaborating with govtech firms more than others.
Singapore has emerged as an early leader, setting up a government technology agency within its central government. With GovTech Singapore’s launch in 2016, the country expressed ambitions to become the world’s first ‘smart nation’, creating a digital society, economy and government.
So far, the agency has created an app for parents to keep track of their children’s vaccinations and hopes to use sensors on lamp posts to track footfall to collect data that could aid urban planning.
In Europe, Estonia has set up an e-residency system where residents can vote or access medical records online. And more than 95% of Danish citizens have used the NemKonto platform, the online account enabling easy payments between citizens and their government
In the UK, local governments are increasingly turning to govtech start-ups to help them provide cost-effective public services after eight years of austerity policies have drastically reduced the amount of funding they receive from central government.
Tower Hamlets Council in east London, recently employed British start-up Mastodon C to predict future demand for local special needs schools, using data and artificial intelligence. Creating projections meant they could use their limited resources in the most effective way.
Alex De Carvalho
Alex de Carvalho, co-founder of govtech venture capital firm Public.io, said in a 2017 blog post: “It is clear that there are many great startups which could not only save the government a lot of money but upgrade services so they are fit for a modern, data-rich, smartphone-enabled age.”