Spark marketplace lets AI startups bid on UK public sector contracts

UK gov says public services need to keep pace with private sector innovation

Big Ben Westminster

The UK government has said it will make it easier for tech startups to win public sector contracts in a bid to increase the deployment of artificial intelligence and other cutting edge technologies across the sector.

The strategy will see the creation of an online market place designed to help startups sell themselves to public sector bidders, as well as the publication of research showing where and how AI is currently deployed across the UK.

Announcing the strategy at CogX 2019, one of a number of events being hosted this week as part of London Tech Week, Minister for Implementation, Oliver Dowden, said that the public sector "cannot afford to sit back".

"Adoption of new technologies by the private sector is changing how people live their lives and the public sector has to pick up the pace to stay relevant," said Dowden. "New technologies like AI can deliver better services for less and I am determined that government is at the forefront of this revolution."

In order to drive this uptake, the government has launched Spark, an online portal that allows startups to market their services to public sector companies. Although AI will feature heavily, the platform is designed to target "emerging technologies that are predicted to have the largest impact over the next 2 to 5 years". These include internet of things (IoT), automation, simulated and enhanced environments, engineering and wearables, as well as data and security.

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Startups are able to sign up to join the marketplace at any time and will be able to flag their areas of expertise as part of the application process. In order to qualify as a government supplier, companies will need to demonstrate their services either offer 'radical innovation', through replacing existing methods or technology, or offer "disruptive innovation", effectively showing it can create an entirely new market with its products.

It's very likely that any contracts will fall under the gaze of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which in March was tasked with scrutinising any technology-based public sector project that would likely affect the quality of public services.

A guide to using AI in the public sector has also been published as part of the strategy, co-authored by the Government Digital Service (GDS) and the Office for Artifical Intelligence (OAI), which sits alongside further guidance on how to create and use AI safely and ethically. This includes how to assess whether AI will help meet the needs of end users and how to make best use of the technology in business.

The government has also, for the first time, released its own research looking at existing AI deployments across the public sector. The Driver and Vehicles Standards Agency, which uses AI to maintain MOT test standards, and the Ministry of Justice, which is using the technology to analyse prison safety reports, are mentioned as part of the research.

This week's announcements come just months after a 1 billion joint pledge between the government and UK private sector companies towards the creation of an AI research fund, which will be spent on training 8,000 data scientist teachers and supporting 1,000 AI research PhDs.

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