What are you doing watching television?

Imagine your television being able to provide 10, 20 or 30 more channels than it does today. Or imagine being able to order films and television programmes to be shown when you want to see them. Or being able to vote on issues of local interest or a television service that allows you to play electronic games. Well, these were the changes that Warner Brothers brought to TV viewers when they introduced multi-channel television to American cable viewers in 1977.

It was at the time a revolution in television viewing, and the last milestone in the development of television technology.

Now imagine your television being able to provide not 20 or 30 more channels, but 200. Or imagine using your television to make appointments with your local GP, or your local hospital or the local college. Or imagine conducting an entire college course, or getting information on your families health or checking the progress of your children at their schools, all using the domestic television. The opportunities brought by the introduction of digital television (DTV) a few years ago already allow viewers to shop, order pizza and book movies. In a few more years those same viewers will be able to use DTV technology to do even more things which will change the medium forever from being a provider of entertainment to it being a vital tool in the use of most local community services. Read more about the arrival of digital television.

Using new technology for the benefit of residents

Because of advancing digital technology the humble television is about to have a more empowering impact on peoples lives than the telephone or the personal computer.

It is because of these kinds of opportunities, and because of the speed of the changes taking place in this developing market that a consortium made up of The Housing Corporation, the London boroughs of Camden and Newham, London & Quadrant Housing Group and St Pancras Housing Association came together to create its own DTV project. The objectives behind this decision were to exploit this technology for the benefit of residents by testing its ability to provide services and enable decision making in the homes (in the front rooms if you will) of local people.

Friday 28 July 2000 saw the first fruits of this project with the birth of the Smart Communities holding company. The trading arm of Smart Communities is DKtv Limited, a separate company which will have the responsibility for joining local authorities, housing associations, health agencies and other public sector service providers together within a single digital television framework.

Why digital televison?

Digital television may not appear to be the natural territory for the public sector, it being the world of shopping, movies on demand and home banking. And then there is the fact that it is a broadcast medium dominated by commercial and audience interests and shaped by the demands of advertisers and programme makers. Whereas many public sector organisations now have some kind of experience exploiting what we recognise as the internet to provide services, the world of digital television remains a new frontier. But there are real potential benefits on offer to the sector if it chooses to engage with the technology, and the possibility that it can also improve the efficiency of organisations such as housing associations.

With Smart Communities we are creating what is known as a content aggregate which will organise community services for residents, initially in the south east of England and eventually throughout the country. We plan for the Smart Communities DKtv service to be carried by digital satellite, terrestrial and cable broadcasters and for it to be supported by the network of organisations that currently provide such services by other means.

The viewer will access the DKtv service via their digital television or set-top box and then make their choice via the on-screen menu. DKtv will then route this request to the source of the required information, or to the service needed and then carry the information or service back to the viewer.

DKtv will also be 'not for profit'. By this we mean that though the service will be geared to be as commercial as possible in its operations and generation of revenue it will not pay its profits out to shareholders. Instead we will be investing this income back into the project and into the communities that receive the DKtv service.

The business benefits for the sector

Interactive DTV will soon be the dominant information technology in the daily lives of the British population and will offer a growing range of benefits, most of which will take the form of high quality interactive services. For organisations such as local authorities, educational agencies and housing associations there clearly exists opportunities within this developing market to provide services for customers in ways that were previously impossible, and the potential business benefits are clear:

Providing a range of services

Within the planned DKtv service we plan for a range of services which can demonstrate these kinds of benefits:

A Training & Employment package

This would give information on local training and job vacancies and allow viewers to make appointments with their local Employment Service, and allow the Service to contact them.

Health services

These will allow viewers to link directly with their local health authority to access its services and information, or could allow those with specific support needs (diabetes, HIV etc.) to use services and information directly relevant to them.

Maintenance services

Using this system viewers would be able to request a repair. The service will then offer the viewer calendar options for any maintenance visit and the viewer will be able to choose which is best for them. Once this is done the viewer will simply have to wait for the visit to take place. In addition the viewer will be able to view their own account summary which would show details of works carried out on their property, by whom and for what reason. The viewer will also have the option to score these works as totheir level of satisfaction with the works completed.

Homes services

By selecting this option viewers will be able to register their property details in a personal profile, and once registered check which properties on the system they can swap with. Or, they could search for available properties in the areas they are interested in.

Such services would enable those served by organisations such as housing associations to receive an efficient and reliable service, changing drastically their opinion of the services they receive.

It is also true though that the DTV environment is in the process of being shaped, and Smart Communities wishes to play a part in this by using the technology to allow people a say in what happens in their local communities. This is because it allows for involvement, discussion and real decision making at a local level and the project will be working to make these possibilities a reality.

Development and testing

To make the project ambitions a reality the Smart Communities partners have come together to support a development project which will develop such a range of services and e-democracy options. This will then be tested in the London boroughs of Newham and Camden. Viewers living in these areas using either a cable of a satellite system will be able to make use of the package and contribute to the further development of the service. If this testing is successful then the DKtv service will be expanded and rolled out nationally to all digital viewers. Development work on these services begins this month, with testing to take place by early 2001.

The objectives of this exercise are:

1) To establish the demand of viewers of the system (i.e. what they actually want to see on it)

2) To find out how DKtv will actually be used by its viewers

3) To test the realistic possibilities of the planned SC services

4) To discover the strengths and weaknesses of the planned DKtv back-end data and routing systems

5) To test the on-screen and back-end DKtv database designs

6) To discover the experiences of different delivery mechanisms in carrying services into viewers homes

7) To discover the levels of viewer and customer support which the full service may require

To enable this model to work we will be using an application system based upon individual viewer profiles. These profiles will be records of the local services used by viewers, their choice of providers and their specific needs. By matching this information with the provider of local services we aim to provide a service that is quick, reliable and easy to use. Whereas using internet services can sometimes be laborious and reliant upon the user entering information to receive the required service, with DKtv the viewer will be 'recognised' by the system and their requests routed directly to the best provider of their service. It will be a genuinely smart and friendly system that will recognise each viewer as an individual.

Which is one of the (many) challenges that face the project.

Because putting aside the very real and precise issues around the appropriate management of such personal information, actually basing a system so precisely on the needs of the residents across such a broad range of services is rife with difficulties:


The scope for all the kinds of project difficulties that can predictably arise from such a combination of factors are well recognised. So making Smart Communities a success is going to be extremely demanding and is far from assured. But if we can make it work we will be able to deliver a new way for people to engage with and get the best from their local communities and their political representatives.

Smart Communities is an ambitious and demanding project. Whereas there is already a diverse range of commercial DTV services and with even more in the pipeline, DKtv will be bringing an entirely new kind of public service to viewers. This will be diverse, comprehensive and will change the way that viewers see digital television. It will become for them a place where they can reach through to their local council, their housing association, their GP, their local school and to their MP easily and without charge.

We are lucky with the project in that we started it when we did. The DTV environment is being shaped before our eyes. It is a completely new medium whose potentials are yet to be fully explored. But by entering it now, in partnership with the broadcasters and service providers who are invested in making DKtv a success we believe that we can create a real and sustainable space for the public sector in this digital universe.

Web resources:

contact smart communities

London and Quadrant Housing Group

Camden Council

Newham Council


on digital