Trend Atlas is a digital, interactive platform with rich insights on local and global trends and emerging signals to inform strategic planning, policy development and service redesign. It reduces research time, rework and duplication by breaking down information silos with centralised data and evidence. Built by policy people who upskilled in digital, it combines automation and curation with a sustainable contributor model to create a collaborative and trusted strategic intelligence service.
As the NSW Government’s first foresight and futures team our objective was to equip decision makers across the sector with an ability to navigate future uncertainty and anticipate challenges and opportunities on the horizon.
The experience of COVID-19 created an opportunity where decision makers had heightened awareness of the uncertainty of their future operating environments and of the value of foresight and scenarios to navigate that uncertainty. The challenge was that as small team we did not have the resources to embed ourselves into every decision-making process across the public sector. The answer was to combine our trend analysis techniques, horizon scanning and scenario building tools into a self-service digital platform.
Our goal was to develop a digital platform accessible to all NSW government agencies that provides a test bed for building collaborative intelligence into government systems. The digital platform has helped us to:
- Evolve strategic planning practice to be more adaptable and resilient to change and future shocks
- Increase work efficiency and productivity by reducing research duplication and speeding up research processes
- Reduce need for consultancy services to produce trend reports
- Better position and prepare for global and national competition in innovation
- Foster collaboration and insight sharing to break down silos between agencies
- Raise futures thinking and foresight practices in the NSW public sector.
To achieve this, we developed the purpose-built NSW Trend Atlas as a digital platform that brings together over 1100 fact and quality checked data sources to provide trusted and timely insights to users across NSW government.
The platform provides individually curated information on a growing number of over 275 local and global trends. Each trend is comprised of a detailed analysis highlighting its drivers, impacts and possible developments with links directly to source data and reports from over 500 trusted publishers. Multiple foresight and risk management taxonomies are also applied to the trends to enable effective user navigation and sense making. An horizon scanning database of over 3500 articles, gives users indications of weak signals of change and is the result of a comprehensive weekly scanning process that reviews over 5000 articles into a shortlist of 50 articles which are added to the platform each and every week.
This combined offering on the platform makes futures analysis easier to integrate into government decision making, strategic planning, policy development, and service redesign. Drawing on common insights and data also brings greater consistency across different government initiatives and builds foresight capability within government.
While we had the vision for the platform, budgetary constraints meant we did not have the option to procure software developers and as a result we built the application as ‘citizen developers’, a policy team that upskilled in digital tools to make it all happen. We combined several off-the-shelf Microsoft (MS) applications into a seamless user experience that looks and feels like a website. This followed a comparison of potential approaches and we found the advantage of using MS products is this immediately made the Trend Atlas accessible to every NSW government employee.
Once we built the minimum viable product we needed to sustainably keep creating the content in the form of the written trends, horizon scans, interlinked sources and, the foresight classifications and ‘Social, Technological, Economic, Ecological and Political’ (STEEP) categorisations. We addressed this in three ways, firstly we developed a sustainable contributor model where we incentivised the write ups of new trends across our public service. Secondly, we used automation and artificial intelligence to scan over 5000 articles every week and produce a short-list of 250 for manual review. Thirdly, we adopted a continuous improvement approach where we iteratively review and update the model and process to regularly optimise the experience for users and our production methods.
Initially developed for NSW government agencies, the quality, relevance and timeliness of its trends and horizon scans has placed Trend Atlas in demand for Australian, state and territory government departments beyond NSW, universities and, foresight and futures units internationally. We are now working through licensing, legal and platform implications to rise to this increased demand and plan to extend Trend Atlas’ reach and magnify its impact in 2023.
What Makes Your Project Innovative?
Trend Atlas is innovative because:
- It is the world's only government developed self-service, digital foresight and strategic intelligence platform for trend and horizon scanning. The platform is accessible across the NSW public sector to inform major public policy, service design and infrastructure decisions that shape our future without the need for costly consultants’ reports.
- It is an easy-to-use website that sits on top of a complex map of interrelationships between over 275 local and international trends and, ~1100 data sources from over 500 trusted publishers, using our detailed taxonomy of foresight and futures classifiers to simulate effects on all aspects of society and technology, built by a non-technical team entirely in-house.
- It democratises foresight across the sector to over 1000 users through an online journey that starts with an introduction to trends and builds through to more advanced scenario analysis to raise foresight capability in the NSW public service.
What is the current status of your innovation?
- Preparing for the next wave of platform enhancements including adding spatial tools and connecting interactive workbench Apps to allow deeper data re-use for users and improving collaborative intelligence systems.
- Refining and enhancing machine learning tools for the horizon scanning processes and exploring trend classification automation.
- Experimenting with a decentralised trend contributor model to broaden, diversify and scale Trend Atlas content.
- Finalising an accessibility audit upgrade and improving user experience and navigation.
- Developing self-service tutorials on use of the platform’s tools to facilitate deeper futures and foresight practice and workshops.
- Migrating to a scalable platform to enable easier user registration (including users external to NSW government) and accelerated product feature release.
- On-going user testing and deployment of platform for users across the NSW Public Service.
Collaborations & Partnerships
From within government we collaborated with agencies across diverse areas of expertise (analytics, planning, education, health) with varying levels of digital/data literacy in a user testing phase. These collaborations provided crucial feedback on content, design and functionality, with the effect of making the platform accessible for non-technical users.
Outside of government we collaborated with the market intelligence AI engine Feedly, to massively upscale our horizon scanning process.
Users, Stakeholders & Beneficiaries
- Supported transport and infrastructure agencies prepare major 40 year strategic plans by contributing trends and scenarios to guide strategic decisions and options evaluation.
- Enabled multiple agencies to conduct environmental scans for their 5 year capital and business plans without the need for external consultants.
- Informed NSW Treasury’s 2021-22 Intergenerational Report.
- Assisted in a health sector service redesign process requiring guidance on technology and demographic trends.
Results, Outcomes & Impacts
The roll out of the Trend Atlas has generated significant sector demand for foresight capability building and project partnerships. Trend content has been used in multiple government documents from strategic plans through to service redesigns.
We continually measure platform usage and user engagement through surveys and platform analytics. The popularity of the Trend Atlas within NSW government has outstripped projections, the number of registered users exceeding 1000 users within 6 months of the product’s launch in 2022. 47% are active users having used the Trend Atlas more than once.
We are aiming to grow the user base to 2000 within the next 6 months as we open to new user groups and are seeing increasing interest from public servants wanting to be Trend Atlas contributors.
Our pipeline of enhancements including new foresight workbench tools for scenario planning are expected to significantly increase user uptake and enhance capability building outcomes.
Challenges and Failures
- As this is an in-house Microsoft 365 (MS) based product there were limitations in the capability of MS software that included availability of particular visualisations (within Power BI), and simplicity of data fields structures and formats (within SharePoint lists). To respond to these limitations, the team balanced the desired design outcomes with the barriers for implementation resulting in sophisticated platform that much resembles a website rather than a Power BI report.
- Varying levels of data literacy limited the ability of some users to exploit the filtering capabilities of Trend Atlas in Power BI. To address this, the team added a module on how to use Power BI to the onboarding training sessions.
- An accessibility audit has also highlighted some inherent limitations of the use of data visualisations for the visually impaired and the team is in the process of developing more accessible versions of these.
Conditions for Success
- For inception, the alignment of the personal values of the team with the vision for the Trend Atlas catalysed the team’s persistent determination and commitment to upskilling required to build the tool within budget and technological constraints and other competing organisational demands.
- For uptake, user testing during development was pivotal in the creation of an accessible platform combined with the ability to dedicate resources to training sessions.
- To become a part of day-to-day policy, research and decision making processes across departments we needed to create habits in the use of the platform and behavioural nudges to help users to return to the platform, such as links from our monthly newsletter.
- To continue to produce high quality trends a contribution model for trend creation with partners with shared values was required for sustainability.
- Adopting an approach of continuous improvement in our horizon scan process has led to greater efficiency at lower costs.
Institutionally, the Trend Atlas has been identified in New South Wales as a State Digital Asset (SDA). The SDA designation means that Trend Atlas should be considered by all ICT system designers as a scalable and replicable solution for implementation.
Key stakeholders in NSW observed how the Trend Atlas successfully maximised the discovery of trusted data sources across government and sought to have their data and reports added to the platform to replicate the discoverability. This included adding the NSW Common Planning Assumptions datasets to the platform.
Replication beyond NSW is now in development. Following interstate presentations, the Trend Atlas is sought after by Australian and state governments. This is a testament to the international and national coverage of the trends and horizon scanning content, the utility of the platform’s analysis tools and the quality of its sources. We are actively enabling the legal, licensing and platform conditions to make this happen.
- Public sector has most of the tools it needs to make high-resolution, impactful digital tools without significant ICT expertise. This project intentionally sought to push the boundaries of MS Office 365. The project has been executed by a small team with no ICT budget, totally in-house. Governments could make significant savings to their ICT budgets by building high-resolution platforms internally before seeking technical expertise and support.
- Choice architecture and behavioural insights are critical to enduring platform designs. Our ambition to create a collaborative intelligence platform has revealed the critical importance of reflecting on user motivations, needs and outcomes.
- Scalability and networks effects are key platform design considerations. We continually ask ourselves about how we can multiply our impact by designing for scalability.
- Implementation - making the innovation happen
24 January 2023