Govtech to protect citizens: how can governments better use innovation?

By Julie Durban - 16 December 2020

Govtech startups bring together innovative initiatives serving society in the public space. Today, more than 10,000 startups are creating products or services for the public sector in order to better serve or protect citizens. 

What is Govtech?

In the field of public sector innovation, there are fewer Govtech startups than civic tech ones. In Govtech, the government is at the centre. It should therefore not be confused with civic tech, which has citizens as its direct beneficiaries.

Civic tech deals with issues of participatory and digital democracy. However, Govtech is operations-oriented and seeks to improve internal efficiency within the government. It indirectly serves the citizens and is in a way the operating system, the OS of the government. 

Several areas are addressed by Govtech, such as mobility, public health, education and safety. It is the security segment that is of interest to us here, bit it for citizen safety or surveillance of public spaces.

How can Govtech protect citizens without hindering their individual freedoms? Well, governments are seeking answers within the startup ecosystem.

Two worlds, one goal for the common good

The Govtech sector’s vocation is to improve public action and shape the public services of tomorrow. Within this ecosystem, digitalisation is the keystone of change in the way the government interacts with its citizens and delivers public services.

At first glance, startups and government seem to embody two worlds with two speeds, unlikely to meet. But the dialogue between these seemingly distant worlds is essential to address the transformation needed in the public space. Indeed, Govtech entrepreneurs and government officials share the same goal.

With growing awareness of this potential, governments across the globe are ramping up investments in startups to improve the daily life and security of citizens. For instance, the Govtech market was estimated at 16 billion euros in France in 2019. In 2024, it could represent up to 20 billion euros (source: Roland Berger).

Meanwhile, the UK market is a bit further ahead as it was estimated to be already worth 20 billion pounds in 2019 (about 22.2 billion euros). Last year, the British government also created a 20 million pound fund to invest in this tech market, via its GovTech Catalyst innovation programme.

So, these signs clearly show a commitment from European governments and defence players to boost Govtech and better protect citizens.

Optimising rescue operations with innovation

One of the key challenges faced by governments is protecting their citizens and providing emergency support in crisis situations. Therefore, they must explore new technologies to increase their rescue capacities.

In fact, the growth prospects for startups operating in the security sector are positive, as evidenced by the €83 million raised by startups in this field in 2019.

One of the areas of innovation with the biggest potential for citizen security is that of participatory systems. Applications developed by startups are enabling citizens to signal danger in real-time. The police or emergency services concerned can thus be mobilised in record time.

Critical innovation for crisis situations

Other startups serve public bodies subject to on-call duty such as firemen, police or ambulance services. This is the case of AUM Biosync, rated by Early Metrics. The startup develops software solutions to support professionals vulnerable to sleep pattern disruption.

Its solutions are designed both for on-call firefighters, informing them of their probability of being needed in the field, but also for paramedics. For the latter, AUM Biosync provides simulation tools to determine the ideal distribution of emergency personnel and vehicles or the suitability of a staff member for the job. In this way, intervention times are optimised. This enables exposed professionals to maintain a balance between their periods of activity and rest.

permis de sauver - govtech to protect citizens
The Permis de Sauver application is used by the Departmental Fire and Rescue Service of Reunion Island.

On the citizens’ side, Permis de Sauver (rated by Early Metrics) aims to optimise the resources available in case of danger. The startup’s mobile app enables a network of volunteers to be geolocated to support the traditional rescue process. It enables emergency call centre operators to warn nearby paramedic volunteers. The operators can then guide them via a chat and photo/ or video sharing. The app also shows the location of defibrillators close to the user.

In the same spirit, Keyclic, ranked in the top 16% of rated startups, designed an application that allows information to be fed back into a public or private space. This collaborative app gives a voice to citizens who can report a malfunction or incident in real-time. The information is then automatically forwarded to the operators responsible for resolving it. The startup fits within the Govtech ethos of providing tech solutions to improve the safety of citizens and their quality of life.

Protective force or Orwellian state?

Whenever there is talk of the government using safety technology, the issue of surveillance is obviously raised. Drones and cameras have a bad reputation when it comes to capturing images of citizens without their consent. It feels like there is only a thin line between government watching out for us and Big Brother watching us.

What happens to the data collected? What is it used for? And is my privacy protected? So many questions that every citizen asks themselves before accepting to be tracked via an application or a facial recognition camera.

So far, computer vision has mainly been developed with marketing use cases in mind, to analyse customers’ emotions in-store for instance. Nevertheless, observation technologies hold tremendous potential for public protection.

Among the emerging companies in this space, we find Delair – one of the top 20% of startups rated by Early Metrics. Delair manufactures professional drones that can operate over long distances and out of sight. These UAVs are equipped with cameras or LiDAR sensors and coupled with a SaaS platform for image analysis. The solutions developed by the startup thus make it possible to meet the challenges of mapping, inspection, surveillance and safety via analytical dashboards.

Delair has developed professional drones and image analysis software to detect dangers in a landscape.

More concretely, Delair’s drones can help firemen manage risk, for example. The drones’ thermographic cameras can show the progress of a fire and help firefighters make better-informed decisions. These cameras are also currently attracting interest in fever detection as this could be an unintrusive method to detect potential Covid-19 cases in shared spaces.

Govtech to protect citizens from modern threats

Lately, we have witnessed startups switching their target from private to public sector, adapting to new demand. This was the case for R-Pur (pronounced “air pure”). Initially, the startup was developing anti-pollution masks connected to a mobile application. These were intended for city dwellers and commuters on bikes, scooters or motorcycles. Its technology makes it possible to filter out toxic and fine particles, pollen, allergens and bacteria.

During the Covid-19 crisis, the startup quickly adapted to provide FFP2 and surgical masks to healthcare professionals and at-risk jobs. R-Pur is now attracting the interest of the French army and defence forces as well as firemen. Indeed, its nano-filtration appears to be ten times more effective than the highest European standard currently in place.

Initially designed for urban users, R-Pur masks are now attracting the attention of special forces and fire brigades.

With a global pandemic still raging and a terrorism threat that remains high across Europe, identification and tracking solutions are top of mind for government innovators. In this context, Faception, rated by Early Metrics, is developing an artificial intelligence solution capable of associating facial features with behavioural characteristics. The startup is therefore able to identify risk profiles (terrorists, paedophiles, etc.) based on the analysis of video streams or photographs.

If we broaden the scope of Govtech, we can also say that security is a key issue in the digital world. The surge in cyberattacks, the intensification of regulation and the desire to make the customer journey more fluid, is pushing digital players to identify fast and effective authentication solutions. A vast innovation field that’s bound to have a huge impact both on the private and public sectors.

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