Cathriona Hallahan standing in front of a window

How can the Irish public sector unleash the potential of AI?

Cathriona  Hallahan

Cathriona Hallahan

Managing Director at Microsoft Ireland

Read Time, 6 min.

How can the Irish public sector unleash the potential of AI?

Reducing cost, creating efficiencies and driving value are the perpetual concerns of every size and type of organisation in both Irish private and public sectors. Innovations such as cloud computing and artificial intelligence (AI) have been instrumental in helping organisations improve their products and services, and drive greater efficiencies.

In April 2018, the European Commission adopted its first AI strategy, focusing on increased investments; making more data available; fostering talent; and ensuring trust. Indeed, with Europe’s digital economy due to be worth €544bn by 2025, the benefits for Ireland as a champion of AI and new technologies are considerable.

We have been delighted to contribute to the work both in Brussels and with the Irish Government’s AI Top Team and their development of the AI National Strategy, which we hope will provide a framework for AI to further support innovation and the improvement of citizens services across Ireland, while also instilling a trustworthy approach to AI, based on ethics and human rights.

Research we conducted with EY earlier this year suggests that Irish public sector organisations had some challenges to address when it comes to maximising the potential of technologies like AI. There is certainly no lack of interest in the public sector for adopting and using AI. In fact, public sector organisations in Ireland have very high expectations of AI compared to European counterparts; more than 30% view AI as highly important for qualifying decisions and assuring quality. Furthermore, over half (54%) of public sector bodies in Ireland have implemented AI solutions in their organisations.

Interestingly, in previous research conducted by Microsoft in 2018, 75% of organisations in Ireland were either planning or piloting AI projects, despite that the overall investment in AI was less than our European counterparts.

As we collectively work to address the broad impact of the pandemic, successful use of AI has never been so important for the public sector as it looks to maintain the same high standards, particularly across frontline services, while also navigating social distancing and the new realities of remote working. Every branch of the public sector is facing its own unique challenges, amplified by the scale of its operations and the services it provides – but there are a few universal principles that apply in every organisation.


Getting the Data Fundamentals Right

Making AI trustworthy is a responsibility we all share. Business, government, civil society and the research community need to collaborate on shared principles and ethical frameworks. Considering the context in which AI systems are being used, investing in data sets that reflect the diversity that exists in our society is vital.

To unlock AI’s potential, organisations need to understand the fundamental importance of data management and getting the organisational culture aligned. Organisations need to see data as a key asset and take a broader view of how it is used across the organisation. You cannot put data in silos and then hope to still glean good information that will inform better decision making.

Inclusive principles are essential. If AI doesn’t take into account the full array of human experience, it can replicate biases in ways that can lead to exclusion. Employees can play a key role in helping get the maximum value out of data and realising the untapped potential of AI. All relevant roles within an organisation must be trained to understand and appreciate their duty to handle data in a responsible and ethical way.


Making AI a priority at senior levels of leadership

The research shows that the most successful organisations have leaders who are actively involved in planning, deploying and evaluating AI initiatives. This is due to the fact that unlocking the full value of AI requires a commitment not to simply work better – but to work differently.

AI can increase operational efficiencies and help make informed decisions across areas such as, detecting fraud, improving citizen services, addressing healthcare challenges, or handling simple or repetitive tasks. However, the greatest value comes when AI is used to innovate and enhance core services and citizen experiences – and when it’s designed to augment, not replace, people.

One such example is The National Transport Authority (NTA), which uses a combination of AI technologies such as domain rules and machine learning to extract more value from different operational data sets to make intelligence-based decisions concerning service planning within the Greater Dublin Area.

Through AI, the NTA is able to open up more opportunities to apply data set-based decision making to other aspects of its work, such as budget allocation and infrastructure planning.

“We are only at the beginning, and the impact that AI will have on the provision of public transport should not be underestimated.”

Mark Stopes, Head of Business Intelligence for the National Transport Authority.


The importance of fairness, transparency, and inclusion

When it comes to using algorithms and data sets, there are a lot of meaningful considerations related to fairness, privacy and safety, and transparency. For example, a hospital might be using AI to help formulate a bespoke patient treatment plan. A government body might be using the technology to help identify at-risk citizens who would most likely benefit from a particular social service. The importance of these decisions simply can’t be measured.

The fair and ethical application of an algorithm is therefore of utmost importance to ensure all people are treated equally.

Establishing clear guidance and transparent processes is an important step. To help address this, Microsoft has developed guidance on responsible AI design and use, which can be found here.


Focusing on skills

The research also showed that organisations which are leading on AI place as much emphasis on developing the skills of their people as they do on the technology itself. As you might expect in the age of AI, hard skills like data science and engineering are increasingly in-demand. But, when you consider the things that AI can’t do – such as creativity and empathy – it’s quite evident that there’s a wide-range of softer-skills that are becoming even more valuable such as negotiation, management, leadership and communications skills, and many more.

Among survey respondents across Western Europe, only 11% of respondents indicated their organisation had the right mix of AI-related skills. Clearly, this is a challenge, just as it is in the private sector.

Fortunately, there’s currently a wealth of free training and educational content available online – Microsoft’s AI Business School is a great example. This content includes a learning path specifically designed for Government.

There’s also a big opportunity to focus on reskilling. This not only helps maintain the institutional knowledge that is so vital for many public sector organisations, it’s also a great opportunity to strengthen employee engagement. Reskilling programmes offer a brilliant opportunity for employees to work with managers and help shape their own unique career paths, which is really powerful in terms of promoting talent retention.

“When it comes to ‘getting AI right,’ there is no secret to success. Rather, the successful integration of AI relies on investment in the fundamentals. Data and technology are more obvious and widely-acknowledged. However, culture, talent and ethics are equally important. With the right approach giving due attention and investment to each of these areas, organisations have the best chance of success,” John Ward, Emerging Technology Leader at EY Ireland.

AI has the power to transform, but not on its own. Success is as much about people, culture and leadership as it is about technology. For AI to deliver its full potential, it has to very much be a human endeavour.

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