“AI can be a job engine for us!”
The town of Bergheim is resolutely taking the initiative when it comes to digitalisation: applications based on artificial intelligence are to be used to improve administrative processes for residents and to facilitate structural change in the region.
There is a gigantic hole right next to Bergheim. The Hambach opencast lignite mine is located on the outskirts of the town and was a job engine for the region for many years. Located in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, the town is currently struggling with the effects of a dying industry. Yet, Bergheim (in German only) has got its eyes firmly set on the future and is embracing the digital transformation. Despite the coronavirus crisis, the pace has not slowed down: Bergheim’s town administration urgently needs new IT specialists to implement the many ideas it has for applications based on artificial intelligence.
The town’s two digital officers, Carina Steinert and Kevin Clemens, are running a unit within the town hall responsible for all matters relating to digitalisation and already have their hands full. Their to-do list includes items such as broadband expansion, 5G and making the town smart. A trained IT specialist, Clemens occasionally dons his work shoes and goes out to the construction sites to see how the installation of the fibre-optic network is progressing.
Bergheim wants to offer “AI you can touch”
Bergheim’s town hall has many ideas for utilising artificial intelligence as a means of optimising processes and services. For example, it can be used to improve traffic light management and the parking guidance system. AI-based applications can help the town officials by providing a preliminary validity check for processing applications or tax declarations and applications for building permits and parental allowances by identifying any information that is missing. Yet, the support provided by the technology is not always evident at first glance.
Whereas Clemens can grasp the fibre-optic lines with his hands, his colleague Carina Steinert has to do a lot of explaining. “When I tell the staff at the resident registration office that AI applications can support them in many of their activities, this is not really tangible for them at all.” That’s why Bergheim is looking for readily understandable fields in which AI can be experienced quickly in order to address these reservations. “From the outset, we have been working on overcoming fears,” says Steinert. “In Bergheim, AI will always support employees but it cannot and will not replace people.”
Less bureaucracy in the interests of the common good
The technology and the way it is applied are able to speed up processes in the interests of the general public. In addition, however, it creates new jobs for people who build, repair and improve the systems. “In fact, I think that AI could be a real job engine for us,” says Steinert.
What Bergheim lacks is the necessary venture capital. As Steinert says, “If I go to the town treasurer and say that I would like to have 100,000 euros to find and test potential applications for AI, they will not grant me any funds.” There is no money for experiments with an open outcome – and not just because the town is in the middle of a structural change which is leading it out of the coal industry.
Bergheim has been digitalising for many years
The town tries to see change as a driving force and is using the funds that it has obtained from the digital pact to hire new IT professionals. “Even after the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, we were still advertising job vacancies,” says Birgit Ritz, the head of the department for organisation and IT. She is also trying to see this crisis as an opportunity: after all, IT specialists have returned to the employment market on account of the economic problems experienced by a number of companies. Although she is not able to pay top salaries, she can at least offer attractive working conditions. “You’re assured of a secure job as long as you don’t steal the silverware,” she says with a laugh. “And we’re really quite creative.”
The fact that Bergheim is not starting from scratch is evident from the facts: its IT system has been running on a centralised basis via the municipal data processing centre (KDVZ) in Frechen since 2010. This is where towns and municipalities from three regions pool their servers, making KDVZ the neighbourhood cloud. “The staff there are very innovative and provide us with their resources for projects,” says Ritz.
Working in the cloud and digital files are part of the daily routine
Bergheim has been almost paperless for many years now. “We probably only have around five physical folders in our department,” explains Steinert. The combination of central IT and digital files allows administration staff to work flexibly anywhere there is Internet access. After all, the workplace is virtual and most information is available through the cloud.
Driven by the former digital head Theo Kratz, all these measures have pushed the town hall well and truly towards a digital future. So, it doesn’t look like Bergheim is going to be stuck in a coal mine.