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Finnish city Espoo trials artificial intelligence for community support

The authorities for Finnish city Espoo are testing out AI technology to help them target services at the residents who need them most

Finland is fast becoming a major Nordic and European powerhouse in the development of artificial intelligence (AI) technologies and applications.

The latest chapter in this technology journey, and one which has captured the attention of municipal authorities across Finland, is the City of Espoo’s Customer-Centric Project (CCP).

The project has seen Espoo’s authorities bring in IT group Tieto to test a range of AI models that could be employed to provide greater efficiency in the delivery of specialised frontline services.

A satellite of metropolitan Helsinki, Espoo is Finland’s second largest city and municipality, with 270,000 residents.

The CCP supports Espoo’s plan to enhance the overall effectiveness of its response systems. Espoo wants to use AI to support important core functions, such as channeling funding and critical resources to the local authority’s vulnerable residents. Moreover, the city is seeking to more accurately target high-risk individuals and families within the municipal area, who may be experiencing financial distress.

Widespread interest in Espoo’s AI project

The AI-based dimension of Espoo’s CCP has attracted external interest from many of Finland’s 210 other municipalities.

The project is happening against a backdrop where the Finnish government has set about reforming the country’s local government structure. The merging of smaller neighbouring municipalities is a fundamental part of this reform, as is the centralisation of frontline public services such as healthcare and education. The Local Authorities Reform Bill is expected to reach Finland’s national parliament, the Eduskunta, in the second half of 2019.

Budget-conscious municipalities, which are to become more self-financing under the proposed reform, are eager to explore the expanded use of customer-centric digital platforms and AI solutions to reduce their operating costs. As a result, councils are examining ways of using AI as a cost-saving measure to replace certain traditional and manually delivered customer service functions. The objective is to redirect savings gained from the wider use of digital platforms and AI to bolster funding and resources for frontline services.  

Budget-conscious municipalities are eager to explore the expanded use of customer-centric digital platforms and AI solutions to reduce their operating costs

The CCP is gaining most traction among Finland’s bigger urban municipalities. Espoo has indicated a willingness to share the results of its project with city authorities in Tampere, Turku, Oulu and Jyväskylä. Chiefs in these cities are hoping that the CCP could become a customer-centric AI standard for Finland’s largest urban municipalities.

“The AI solutions we want to develop must have the ability to identify those client groups that urgently need our services. The potential of AI to provide an early warning system to identify the municipality’s most vulnerable clients are being tested. It will also be important to use AI to gather, analyse and handle personal data in a secure manner,” said Tieto’s Tomas Lehtinen, project manager for the Espoo initiative.

Data sharing for efficient local services

The client-centric AI services models tested in the CCP revealed the technology’s capacity to anticipate financial, medical wellbeing and social welfare needs before an individual’s or family’s situation reached a crisis point. The same CCP models will be used to transform how different municipal departments governed by the City of Espoo collect and share personal data relating to individuals and families.

Espoo’s long-term objective is to apply a holistic approach to a client’s personal data, services record and future needs. Just like other local authorities in Finland, data regarding municipal residents in Espoo is siloed. In practice, this means that personal data relating to individual clients is generally stored on the information databases of different departments. Under Espoo’s current administrative IT system, the various departments and frontline office units within the municipality do not routinely share information.

For the City of Espoo, the goal is to combine separate personal data information sources using AI to create a higher degree of efficiency, said Lehtinen.

“We are aiming to use AI to benefit municipal residents, our employees and the City of Espoo as a whole”
Tomas Lehtinen, Tieto

“We are aiming to use AI to benefit municipal residents, our employees and the City of Espoo as a whole. The client-centric services solutions we are looking at will have multiple layers of benefits. Much of the AI data we generate can also be shared with various research institutes. AI doesn’t have a decision-making role in Espoo at present, but going forward it can offer the city’s personnel with an important support tool in their daily decision-making,” he said.

Aside from main technology partner Tieto, Espoo is also collaborating with the Finnish Center for Artificial Intelligence (FCAI). Espoo joined the FCAI in May 2018, after the institute was co-founded by Aalto University and the University of Helsinki.

“The information in Espoo’s databases, and the shared databases of the Helsinki metropolitan area, carry a high level of value and significance for researchers. Espoo’s decision to pioneer this niche area of AI and intelligent technologies reflects well on a municipality that has an ever-growing number of innovation-led startup firms. It sets a strong basis for cooperation with AI development specialists like the FCAI,” said Samuel Kaski, the head of the FCAI.

AI effective in predicting residents’ needs

Advanced tests focused on harnessing AI to cultivate social and healthcare service planning, as well as bolstering the ability to predict the well-being of clients. The results have been largely positive. Completed trials confirmed the suitability of AI as an effective, cost-efficient tool in the planning of social and healthcare services and in predicting clients’ individual well-being requirements.  

One of the CCP’s highest-profile trials combined the social, healthcare and early education citizen relationship data of the entire population of Espoo between 2002 and 2016. Analytics software was used to scrutinise the mass of data from more than 37 million contacts. Espoo plans to use the knowledge gained from the AI study to better target the municipality’s most vulnerable residents, particularly in cases that might require client intervention to prevent social exclusion.

Matti Ristimäki, the head of Tieto’s data-driven businesses division, said: “The AI trials demonstrated that the technology and the utilisation of data have a significant role to play in healthcare, whether in developing new service paths or supporting healthcare professionals in their daily work.”

Read more about the use of AI in the Nordic region

Read more on Artificial intelligence, automation and robotics

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