How the DVSA uses AI and agile to support ‘a lifetime of driving’

Written by Sam Trendall on 21 May 2020 in Interview
Interview

The Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency has already done a great deal of work implementing technology across its operations. But digital chief Alex Fiddes tells Sam Trendall it has even bigger ambitions

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Many motorists might assume that their interaction with the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency ends the moment they pass their driving test.

But, as the organisation’s head of digital operations Alex Fiddes points out, this is just the start of “a lifetime of driving”. 

A lot can change in a lifetime, and motoring is an area where legislators make frequent tweaks and additions. The DVSA runs a Safe Driving for Life website where drivers can access or buy learning materials, and take free practice theory tests.

Fiddes does so regularly, and would like the agency to encourage more people to do the same. 

“We need to look at how we better inform people” of the available resources, he adds. “I am constantly looking at the new material, and going in and doing a bit of learning now and then.”

Although the DVSA administers the theory test, its delivery is outsourced to Pearson Vue. The computer-based testing specialist has worked with the agency since 2004 and the most recent extension of its engagement, signed in 2016, was worth about £30m a year.

From September of this year, however, delivery of the test – which is sat 2.5 million times each year – is being taken back in house.

Doing so is a major undertaking, but it will bring greater flexibility and control.

“In the new world, we will be able to make incremental changes if we see questions or areas [where additional focus is needed],” Fiddes says.

Work on updating the test has already begun, with 30-second video clips – each depicting a different driving scenario – introduced a few weeks back to replace written case studies. 

The DVSA is exploring how to take this concept further still, and is looking at the possibility of implementing virtual-reality headsets to make the experience more lifelike and immersive.

In the longer-term future, the agency will look to ascertain the feasibility of enabling learners and drivers to take test remotely – they currently have to sit it in person. To date, the potential for fraud has effectively rendered this impossible. But the development of biometric tools could provide a solution to the security challenges.

“Eye tracking and facial recognition…. on a small scale these products are available, but that hasn’t really scaled up into a really secure service,” Fiddes says. “We have done some very early trials; we as an organisation have an appetite to use digital, and an appetite for transformation.”

The goal is not to use flashy technology for the sake of it – but to improve users’ experience.

“If we look at it in terms of accessibility to government services, we have people in the Highlands and islands who are waiting for a mobile classroom to travel round once a month,” the digital chief says. “But we will look at the risks, and if something is too high risk, we won’t explore that further.”

The practical driving test has already undergone a technological transformation; the DVSA’s fleet of almost 1,700 driving examiners are now all equipped with iPads with which they can mark candidates. 

Testing times

Not only has replacing pens and clipboards enabled the organisation to cut back its paper usage by three million sheets a year, but it also allows for information to move more freely, quickly and securely.

“The in-car iPads… allow examiners, at the end of the test, to automatically transfer the data to the DVSA and email the candidate with their result,” Fiddes says.

Members of the agency’s enforcement team, who are charged with performing checks on vehicles suspected of being on the road illegally, have also been equipped with technology tools. A mobile search app allowing them to quickly check a vehicle’s information and status at the roadside was launched in September 2019, and continues to be reiterated and improved; the latest version added functionality for reporting “clear” encounters – where a vehicle is found to have no prohibitions or faults and is thus allowed to continue on its way.

About 10,000 searches are conducted each day, and the standards body claims that the technology has effective eliminated what was previously a 15-minute administrative process.

“We have also developed a mobile solution to collect roadside fines in an easy manner,” Fiddes says.

In its capacity administering MOTs, the DVSA recently trialled an approach in which technology and automation was used to inform and influence – and try and pre-empt any enforcement action before it was needed. Working with the same artificial intelligence and camera technology that powers police automatic number plate recognition systems, drivers with expired MOTs were identified and sent a – friendly – letter of reminder.

Within a short timeframe thereafter, 80% of them had renewed their MOT, according to Fiddes.

AI and machine learning is also being used to analyse data and calculate a risk score for garages and testers providing MOT services, allowing enforcement officers to focus attention on those found to have suspicious patterns – which might indicate poor performance or, in some cases, deliberate fraud.

The agency works with specialist suppliers such as BJSS, who support the DVSA’s in-house team of software developers. The standards organisation is committed to following agile principles including two-week sprints, and continuous improvement.

“We always start off by doing a really good discovery phase, and we have a really strong emphasis on user design,” Fiddes says. “And we think about the whole end-to-end service, not just the core application; if we are clear that the solution is a digital solution – because it is not always the case – then we will seek funding to make that into a product.”

Throughout the process, the digital chief stresses the importance of remaining focused on the end – and not the means.

“You should never lose sight of the objective you are trying to achieve,” he says. “Because we do fortnightly sprints, we are always looking at the success of what we are doing – and we are always two weeks away from continuing, or stopping, or going in a different direction.”

Fiddes adds: “Digital is not the right approach for everything, and sometimes you have to brave enough to say ‘we need to stop’.”

The work of digital professionals also needs to ensure it is meeting the needs of not just users, but also colleagues in policy and operational delivery professions.

“It is absolutely essential that the policy leads are involved, either themselves on the project board, or that members of their team are involved in delivery,” Fiddes says. “They need to be involved in setting the outcomes – because most things that we do are all about achieving outcomes, not just delivering software.”

And, no matter their profession or specialism, DVSA’s 4,600 civil servants are all ultimately striving for the same outcome.

“This is all about making the road safer and making drivers safer, and giving them a better experience during a lifetime of driving.” 

This was part of the PublicTechnology ‘How to Design a Government Service’ project. Over the course of a week of dedicated content, the project featured a range of exclusive research, analysis, interviews, and features. Click here to access all the content

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Sam Trendall
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