UK’s largest planning AI hackathon at British Library

Calls for councils to join pilot programme to test AI’s potential to transform planning

The UK’s largest artificial intelligence planning hackathon takes place in London next week.

The week-long event (Dec 9-13), at the British Library, is part of a local government project being led by Agile Applications’ AI specialist division, Agile Datum, based at Exeter Science Park.

The company, which applies artificial intelligence techniques and the use of chatbots to help councils automate administrative tasks, speed up service delivery and improve citizen engagement, has just been awarded Government funding from Innovate UK to develop its Artificial Intelligence Validation Platform. It’s part of a two-year research programme with the University of Exeter and The Alan Turing Institute, the UK’s national institute for data science and artificial intelligence.

The hackathon will involve computer science academics and students from eight universities, The Alan Turing Institute and Agile Datum, using artificial intelligence techniques to investigate publicly-available data within planning applications, and find ways to radically reduce typical waiting and turnaround times. Some 40 councils are signed up to receive the findings.

Agile Datum is already working with local authorities, including the London Borough of Redbridge, as part of the pilot project.

They have developed an AI enabled chatbot, trained to answer over 200 planning related questions. Now, with the funding from Innovate UK and through the work with the Alan Turing Institute and the hackathon, the focus has broadened to automating the checking and validation of planning applications themselves.

Matthew Essex, Operational Director for Regeneration, Property and Planning at Redbridge said: “We are the fourth fastest growing borough in the country and are constantly striving to make great places for local people. The work with Agile Datum aims to automate more than 80 per cent of admin tasks currently carried out by staff through the intelligent application of AI, chatbots and data visualisation. This will allow our planners to operate at a more strategic level and focus their time on delivering good, quality buildings, infrastructure and spaces for our residents.”

Having already used AI techniques to analyse over a million UK planning applications from across 100 councils, Agile Datum estimate that around 65% of planning-related queries could be managed by self-learning chatbots, reducing waiting times for enquiries, and freeing up officers to focus on more complex applications and improving processes.

Agile Datum’s research found that 40% of the UK’s 3.5m annual applications are initially rejected due to errors and incomplete information, and that it takes three weeks on average to get confirmation from a council that it has received and is looking at an application.

This is at a time when 117 of 400 councils are missing their new building targets by upwards of 65%, and planning departments have had budgets cut by around 42% in real terms over the last ten years. Nationally, some 240,000 new builds are being achieved compared with a Government target of 450,000.

Agile Datum director, Anthony Peake said: “Artificial intelligence has the potential to transform many areas of local government and planning is undoubtedly one of them. Councils are overloaded, with backlogs of applications at a time when national house-building targets are being missed”.

“There’s a wealth of information on local authority websites and gov.uk about the many different types of domestic permitted development, so theoretically, it should be easy for people to ‘self-serve’. But in practice, the rules over dimensions and materials, concern that plans may affect the setting of a listed-building, or the risk that a local authority may have withdrawn specific rights, means that owners want to reassure themselves that permission isn’t needed or will be quickly given, adding considerably to planning officers’ workloads”.

“Our research estimates that well-implemented conversational AI can provide instant responses to an estimated 65% of such ‘standard’ planning related queries across multiple channels, having a big impact on response and waiting times”.

Other councils are invited to join the Innovate UK funded research programme with the University of Exeter. Agile Datum is set to publish the results of a detailed national survey of councils and their use of artificial intelligence and chatbots in the coming weeks.

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