Swindon Borough Council innovates with generative AI to transform access to vital information service accessibility

Written by Sarah Peña, Head of emerging technology, Swindon Borough Council

Emerging technologies such as generative AI streamline business processes and allow providers of public services to connect with citizens in new and intuitive ways. For example, local councils can draw on cloud-based artificial intelligence (AI) tools to make content more understandable.

This is something we’re focused on at Swindon Borough Council. We have an opportunity to connect in new ways with residents who have additional needs, such as low literacy levels, or cognitive impairment, or learning difficulties. 


The importance of inclusion

There are 1.5m people with a learning disability in the UK, 44.2m in the US, and globally it is estimated that 15 per cent of the population have some form of learning disability. Public-service providers are expected to supply accessible, easy-to-understand information to the public so they can make informed decisions about their lives and for their households. Not all citizens have the same ability to identify and digest the information that’s important to them, so councils have to invest in alternative versions of documents in a format known as Easy read.

It can typically cost $150 (£120) to adapt content manually for a single page with just five lines and five images. A document of five pages would take two weeks to adapt, and cost $750 (£500). This is unsustainable in terms of the demand on council resources. Most importantly, people may miss the significance of a change in local provision, or the need to attend an appointment.

Our Easy read solution presents simplified text on the right side of a page and images on the left—all summarizing the most important, relevant information. This results in documents that are more accessible for people who might otherwise feel isolated and reliant on others to discover what’s happening in their community.


The AI-based facilitator

Generative AI excels in making content more accessible for everyone, thanks to its ability to summarize and simplify information, and turn it into forms such as images. 

Amazon Bedrock provides one of the simplest ways for development teams to build and scale generative AI applications with the use of foundation models: template neural networks/machine-learning algorithms which can be adapted for a particular use case. It’s hosted in the cloud and is intuitive to use, so it’s simple and affordable for local councils to experiment with. We are also confident that data is secure.

We tested the technology on a complex tenancy agreement of more than 50 pages. We experimented with the tools and within just a few days sent samples of adapted content back to Adult Social Care. When they liked the results, we moved into a deeper engineering phase.

A positive difference for communities

We saw a further opportunity to combine the technology with our existing Translate solution, to make content available in 75 languages and reach people for whom English is a second language.  

At Swindon, we’re keen to improve services informed by the people who use them. We employed Experts by Experience of a Learning Disability, a group whose members have a wide range of learning disabilities.  Tom, Dan, Charlotte, Kelly, Tammy, Elroy, and David provided important insights into their experiences and how we can all work together to break down barriers. This was as important to us as the technology collaboration. For example, it’s how we learned that images are important, text size needs to be bigger than usual, the space between any text needs to be wider, and jargon and ambiguous terms must be avoided.

We now have a solution and we’re excited about its potential for positive social impact. Once launched, it’ll help overcome barriers and improve people’s lives. 

Also, as a council with budget pressures, there’s significant financial gain. We can now create an accessible multi-page document for 7-10 pence per page.


Share the benefits

Cloud-based technology has enabled this service innovation. The cloud is a place where we can experiment and explore fast, securely, and at low cost. And our teams don’t need to know Python or have a PhD in AI. We can simply focus on realizing our ideas for new service improvements.

We’re keen to share our experiences so other councils and public services can build on what we’ve learned and extend similar benefits to their own citizens. That’s something I’m passionate about. For this reason, we plan to make our tool open source—in other words, available for others to use, licence-free. We’ll also release the prompts and parameters we’ve curated, so that others in the public sector and third sector can customise them rather than starting from scratch. These solutions have the potential to help so many across other councils, across social care, in health, and in the non-profit sector.

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