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AWS Public Sector Summit: AI-enabled care homes and using big data to ease biodiversity crisis

A hospice in South Devon is working with Amazon Web Services (AWS) to create an artificial intelligence-enabled (AI) residential care home for people with dementia.

Speaking at the AWS Public Sector Summit in London on Tuesday 19 March, Gill Horne, programme director for care services at Rowcroft Hospice, said the UK is in the midst of a health and social care workforce crisis.

“At the moment, there’s a shortage of 50,000 nurses in the UK, and there is much more [of a shortage globally], and it’s due to triple by 2040,” she said.

At the same time, the UK has an ageing population because people are living longer, which – in turn – places increased pressure and demand on the amount of nursing home and residential care they may need.

To address these issues, Rowcroft Hospice, which specialises in the provision of nursing home support for people with life-limiting illnesses in Devon, is planning to use AI to automate and take care of tasks that will leave its nursing staff free to provide more hands-on care to residents. “We’re passionate about providing patients and residents with much more freedom, choice and control by automating as much as we can so we can spend [more time engaging] in human interactions [with residents],” said Horne.

The organisation has plans in place to build six digitally enabled homes that will house 60 residents with advanced dementia and other complex nursing needs – and the architectural designs for the project have already won national awards.

The project has been two and a half years in the making, Horne told delegates, with her team visiting numerous care home facilities across the country and in the Netherlands to inform their plans. “We’ve worked in care homes to look at some of the challenges, undertaken literature reviews in terms of what’s the best care model, and how we might use digital and AI,” she said.

Time, support and training

In 2023, Horne’s work in this area saw her awarded a Topol Digital Fellowship by the NHS, which provides health and social professionals with the time, support and training they need to lead digital transformations in their organisations.

“That was great, because it enabled me to ask the question: what and how do we use digital and AI in a nursing home?”

Later that same year, Rowcroft Hospice applied for an AWS Imagine Grant, and became one of the first cohort of UK charities and non-profits to benefit from the scheme, which gives these organisations grants of up to $50,000 to launch cloud-based technology projects.

Grant recipients are also gifted with promotional credits worth up to $16,000, and technical assistance from AWS technology specialists to help finesse their projects, too.

Specifically, AWS said Imagine Grants are awarded to projects that “produce scalable, repeatable solutions [that] may impact an entire industry or field”, and include the application of “advanced cloud services” such as AI, machine learning and high-performance computing (HPC).  

Horne said the organisation is using the grant to develop AI systems that will enhance the quality of life of residents, who she hopes will also be actively involved in training the systems.

“We’re going to develop an innovation hub in our hospice where we’re going to put up the AI, and invite residents and patients to come and test that for us so the AI can learn people from all different walks of life,” she said.

Addressing key challenges

These learnings will be put to use to help address two distinct challenges that care homes face, said Horne, that directly relate to facilities being understaffed.  

The first challenge relates to the fact that staffing shortages in care homes where dementia patients live means there is often a blanket rule that all doors in the facility must be locked, which is one area where it’s exploring the use of AI to manage more effectively. “This is part of a genuine concern for the safety of our residents,” said Horne. “It also relates to inadequate staffing, and it being easier to keep the doors locked.

“Those who should be free to wander have to face a locked door, and those that do need supervision to go out get quite distressed at that locked door,” she said. “That’s our first concept.”

The second challenge Rowcroft Hospice is seeking to address pertains to managing the hydration levels of its care home residents, which is an important and time-intensive task for its staff.

“Research suggests that one in five residents in care homes are dehydrated, and one in four residents are admitted to hospital due to dehydration, which can cause falls, [as well as] chest and urine tract infections,” Horne told delegates.

“It takes a lot of time to monitor fluid and then write that into the digital care record. [But using AI to do this] has the potential to say 14 hours a day of caregiver time that can be invested back into those human interactions.”

AWS confirmed at the Public Sector Summit it’s now accepting applications from UK non-profits for the second iteration of the Imagine Grant programme, which this time around will be open to applications from third-sector organisations in Ireland, too.

Big data bottlenecks in biodiversity

The National Biodiversity Network Trust (NBN Trust) was another beneficiary of the 2023 Imagine Grant programme, with its CEO Lisa Chilton telling the Public Sector Summit’s attendees about the impact it was having on the work it’s doing to tackle the UK’s biodiversity crisis.

Chilton said the Trust is both a conservation and a technology charity that works with 200 organisations across the UK to collect “species occurrence data”, which she described as being the “basic currency of decision-making in the environmental world”.

“If you don’t know what plants, animals and fungi have been seen where and when, you don’t know how that’s changing, and you can’t measure the health of the natural world,” she said. “And you can’t be sure you’re improving it through your conservation work.”  

As well as collecting this data, the Trust is also responsible for managing the UK’s largest repository of biodiversity data, known as the NBN Atlas.

Its database can be searched using postcode data, so individuals can keep tabs on the different types of flora and fauna found in their local area.

This data is supplied by 170 organisations, including government conservation agencies and departments, wildlife trusts, botanical gardens, university campus organisations and local charities, said Chilton. “It really is a treasure trove, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg as to what the data held on the NBN Atlas can do. It’s absolutely essential for decision-making in the UK,” she said.

The organisation applied for the AWS Imagine Grant while finishing up a two-year “root and branch” upgrade of NBN Atlas, with the cloud giant lending its support in the final phase to help the Trust migrate to a new data-processing pipeline. “What that will enable, with AWS support and collaboration, is for data to be published more quickly … meaning [the data] will be able to have an impact much more quickly,” said Chilton.

Presently, NBN Atlas data processing takes “a whole week”, and the Trust only does it monthly because it’s a very time-consuming process for the organisation’s developer and data team, but those timescales are anticipated to speed up significantly once this portion of the project is complete.

“One of the reasons that’s important is because we feel a responsibility to the people who actually collect that data … because this fantastic wealth of data that we have is largely collected by volunteers [and] amateur naturalists, and [there are] tens of thousands of them across the UK who spend their time recording wildlife,” she said. “We owe it to these people to make their data available as quickly as possible to enable it to have the greatest possible impact on nature.”

Speaking to Computer Weekly at the summit, John Davies, director of UK public sector at AWS, said Rowcroft Hospice and the NBN Trust are great examples of the types of organisations the Imagine Trust was set up to support.

“The ambition is definitely to give people access that wouldn’t traditionally have access or the financial profile that made this [type of digital transformation] easy for them,” he said. “What you see with Rowcroft Hospice and the National Biodiversity Network is that they’re relatively small businesses that are now able to consume that level of technology.

“We very specifically wanted to find use cases that could have an impact and support businesses that wouldn’t have access to technologists at scale or have the funds to do so,” said Davies. “We want to make sure we don’t just pick the most headline-grabbing thing. We want to pick the thing that has the most impact.”

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