High potential, low code: how modular construction is easing access to advanced tech

By on 18/11/2019
As in construction, the use of pre-made digital components via ‘low code’ platforms can speed project delivery, cut costs and provide new capabilities. (Image courtesy: Cmyk4317).

Developing cutting-edge systems such as Artificial Intelligence typically requires big, expert teams of technical professionals – but ‘low code’ development platforms enable non-specialists to combine ready-made digital components, bringing advanced technologies within their reach. Marcelle von Wendland explains how civil servants can realise the technique’s potential

In recent years, the digital agenda has enabled governments to take control of their technology projects – stripping cost, time and risk out of the development process. Replacing big, monolithic procurement programmes with a blend of in-house coding and phased, modularised commissioning enables projects to adapt as needs change. Putting civil servants in the lead on development brings key decisions closer to the policy and frontline staff who best understand users’ needs. And creating an independent digital capability allows public bodies to build systems from scratch, avoiding the rigidities and constraints that come with buying ‘off the shelf’ products.

But to realise the full potential of digital techniques, government agencies need both large teams of design and coding specialists, and the commercial frameworks and capabilities to transform their approach to procurement. And emerging technologies place still greater demands on those planning and commissioning new systems: realising the potential of Artificial Intelligence and ‘Big Data’, for example, requires highly specialised skills. Few public bodies can justify developing the kind of cutting-edge capabilities needed to fashion AI systems in-house.

Hence the growing interest among civil servants in ‘low code’ development platforms: online dashboards that allow users to stitch together a set of ready-made components, creating powerful systems that can underpin an app, a business process or a new service.

Democratising access to advanced tech

Low code’s use of pre-formed components both saves time, and much reduces the technical skills required by users – enabling sectoral and domain experts to play a much more active role in the development process. So the people with intimate knowledge of your organisation’s goals, business processes and service users can take the lead in creating new digital capabilities, rather than simply feeding in their views at the design stage. And when the people actively building new systems possess deep expertise in the delivery environment and the interests of stakeholders, the results are much more likely to fit neatly around organisations’ and service users’ needs.

What’s more, low code permits users with limited technical capabilities to develop systems with very advanced functionality. Linking new systems to a range of real-time data feeds, for example, is a complex task in traditional coding: programmers must build processes to scrutinise incoming data, checking that it meets quality and formatting requirements. And when creating AI systems from scratch, digital professionals must ensure that flaws in the source data or algorithms can’t affect outcomes by, for example, skewing decision-making. But low code components come equipped with a consistent architecture and a set of quality standards, hard-wiring these safeguards and processes into the finished product – and thus opening up AI and Big Data applications to a far wider set of organisations.

Simplifying complexity

Deployed well, low code applications can support some extremely complex digital systems. Working with the European System of Central Banks (ESCB), Fincore used low code to build the ‘rules engine’ and ‘analytics engine’ underpinning the Central Securities Database (CSD). Pulling in real-time data from commercial sources and public bodies, the CSD provides European central banks with detailed, up-to-date information on debt securities, shares and mutual fund shares – holding up to 300 data points on several million financial instruments at any one time.

When working on this project, low code’s prepared components enabled us to build the system quickly. The strength and transparency of its architecture ensured that development decisions could be based on hard evidence. Its modular nature supported an incremental development process, allowing us to adapt the system as the ESCB identified user needs and potential problems. And its built-in technical standards enabled us to ensure absolute security and high-data quality. Low code may make life simpler for public bodies pursuing digital projects, but it’s quite capable of producing highly advanced services.

And the flexibility and adaptability of low code systems runs through into the procurement process. For rather than commissioning a research and build project from a single supplier, low code users can pilot a new system with one supplier, hone their approach, then go to market for a vendor to handle the roll-out. Subsequently, each component of the new system is maintained by the vendor, with regular ‘patches’ to maintain security and functionality – making public bodies much less dependent on suppliers for on-going support.

So low code enables organisations to operate far more bespoke, tailored digital services than is possible when buying services off-the-shelf. And it permits them to deploy cutting-edge systems without hiring a cutting-edge digital workforce. But public bodies do need a particular set of skills to make use of this emerging technology.

Deployment requirements

For a start, it’s a more creative process than the task of buying a system off-the-shelf: organisational leaders can’t delegate key decisions, and must shape the project’s development. Digital and domain professionals must work closely together, retaining their focus on user needs as the project evolves. Statisticians and data analysts are required to shape the way data flows through the system, applying their deep knowledge of its characteristics and dynamics. And commercial staff will need to adapt their approach in order to realise low code’s advantages – breaking the procurement into phases, for example, to separate piloting and roll-out.

Where civil servants can develop these capabilities, though, low code promises to bring advanced technologies within the reach of medium-sized organisations – enabling public bodies with limited technical capabilities and resources to, for example, create personalised and responsive services.

In recent years, the potential benefits of AI and Big Data have attracted interest across the public sector; but the challenges around buying or building cutting-edge digital systems have hampered implementation. Low code offers a flexible, user-friendly way to build these capabilities – enabling public servants to deliver complex systems in a straightforward way.

Marcelle von Wendland is a consultant for technology and software provider Fincore, and the head of Finworks’ data business. For more information, visit http://fincore.com. To get in touch, email her at [email protected]

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