How technology helped the Highlands in a time of crisis

Jon Shepherd, head of ICT at Highland Council and Nitesh Jain, VP & global business head – travel, hospitality & public sector at Wipro Limited discuss how technology enabled community care in new and improved ways across a remote and vast region

Posted 24 November 2020 by Christine Horton

When the pandemic hit, the world was faced with new challenges. Overnight people were forced to adapt to a new way of living, with many having their work and personal life merge to one space. Being very remote as well as the largest local government area in the UK, the Scottish Highlands had the added pressure of ensuring their network and IT infrastructure could support and offer care to 230,000 citizens. The whole community would have halted to a standstill if the right assistance had not been available.

Highland Council comprises of 10,000 employees, all of whom play an essential part within the wider community. Teachers, social workers, engineers, cleaners and office workers play essential roles in the Highland community and required critical assistance to continue their work and provide necessary care for the rest of the community.

Through technology the Highland Council and Wipro allowed the community to continue that essential provision of care.

The pre-existing partnership allowed for the region to start their Work from Home transformation one step ahead of other areas in the UK. Following Scotland’s lockdown announcement on March 23, Highland Council needed to rapidly expand their WFH capabilities. At that time, it supported a maximum of 500 people to work remotely and so needed to be scaled up to support the full workforce. This meant moving 90 percent of those who worked in-office to WFH overnight. Understanding the unique challenges faced due to geography, the Wipro team worked in close partnership with the council to implement the final stages of a critical computer refresh program and provided additional essential IT at-home support.

The first step was identifying staff and school pupils who were without home broadband. In some cases, home connectivity was weak or entirely non-existent. The team sourced and placed 200 4G WIFI devices to those who needed them and 400 mobile phones and sim cards to those who were without. Wipro introduced and implemented a new VPN structure within a matter of weeks, which was rolled out to staff through home broadband. This allowed for secure connections to other networks; an essential step for all Council employees so that they could manage, write and share private documents securely.

Modernisation plan

Another priority was to ensure students and teachers were supported during their transition into lockdown. A modernisation plan had already started across all 200 schools. 25,000 Chromebooks were already with secondary and middle school students, as well as a suite of Google classroom products for teachers and students. This enabled all students to have contact with teachers and start lessons within four days of the lockdown.

Beyond enabling essential workers, the council also provided support where it was needed most. They set up a helpline in the first three days that connected the most vulnerable in the community with essential support. Employees from the local theatre and leisure centre (both of which had been closed in adherence to lockdown measures), worked from their homes to provide support for people who were self-isolating, people with disabilities and others who urgently needed food and medicine. This allowed 10,000 vulnerable or self-isolating people to reach the services they so desperately needed. The helpline also aided in the processing of £60 million worth of business grants and benefits. These were critical in assisting people of the Highlands in keeping their businesses alive through pandemic.

“At the start of lockdown…there wasn’t sufficient capacity to cope with the additional load that home working arrangements placed on the network,” said Sheila McKandie, head of revenues and customer services, at Highland Council.

“Our IT was in constant use each day; from early morning until midnight – placing significant pressure on the network. Working under extreme pressure and to unorthodox timescales, stability was restored by increasing network capacity, implementing Always-On VPN and rolling out virtual communication tool. These IT solutions enabled the Council to resume delivery of essential services. Equipping our workforce with a stable network, reliable remote access and modern voice facilities was the foundation that enabled the Council to provide a range of essential services across a vast landscape.’

Thanks in part to a pre-planned IT infrastructure overhaul, the entire community was supported efficiently. At a time when the global population was feeling the effects of COVID-19, this showed how valuable long-term partnerships can be especially when resilience is needed.

Change in attitude

Throughout the last few months there has been dramatic change to the IT infrastructure, but also in the attitude to technology within the community. This has led to people working together under immense pressure and, in doing so, re-evaluating their previous way of working. Council employees are now changing their outlook on the necessities of travelling to the office every day and looking to rely on technology in ways they never thought possible before. Support workers in social care and health are re-thinking how they can cater to those in need with the added help of technology and teachers are now more aware of how they can continue their essential tutoring through online methods.

We have been through a period of extreme disruption that has pushed us all to assess the way we live and work. By shedding light on our potential for change, technology has shown us that it can enable a community to work together in a time of complete uncertainty and beyond.