'Planning hackathon' to examine use of artificial intelligence in processing applications

A "planning hackathon" due to take place in London next week will examine how artificial intelligence (AI) can be used to analyse data in planning applications and "radically reduce" processing times, according to the event's organisers.

The Redbridge Council planning chatbot (pic: Agile Datum)
The Redbridge Council planning chatbot (pic: Agile Datum)

The week-long event, running between Dec 9-13 at the British Library, is part of a project being led by data firm Agile Datum.

The firm said it "applies artificial intelligence techniques and the use of chatbots to help councils automate administrative tasks, speed up service delivery and improve citizen engagement".

The so-called 'hackathon' will involve computer science academics and students from eight universities, national institute for data science and artificial intelligence The Alan Turing Institute and Agile Datum, "using artificial intelligence techniques to investigate publicly-available data within planning applications, and find ways to radically reduce typical waiting and turnaround times", the company said.

Agile Datum said it is already working with local authorities, including the London Borough of Redbridge, as part of the pilot project and has developed an AI-enabled "chatbot" - a piece of software that can conduct conversations with a user - that is "trained to answer over 200 planning related questions".

It added that, now, with the funding from government body Innovate UK and through its work with the Alan Turing Institute and the hackathon, "the focus has broadened to automating the checking and validation of planning applications themselves".

The company said it has already used AI techniques to analyse over a million UK planning applications from across 100 councils.

From this, the firm estimated that around "65 per cent of planning-related queries could be managed by self-learning chatbots, reducing waiting times for enquiries, and freeing up officers to focus on more complex applications and improving processes".

Agile Datum founder Anthony Peake said: "There’s a wealth of information on local authority websites and gov.uk about the many different types of domestic permitted development, so theoretically, it should be easy for people to ‘self-serve’.

"But in practice, the rules over dimensions and materials, concern that plans may affect the setting of a listed-building, or the risk that a local authority may have withdrawn specific rights, means that owners want to reassure themselves that permission isn’t needed or will be quickly given, adding considerably to planning officers’ workloads.

"Our research estimates that well-implemented conversational AI can provide instant responses to an estimated 65 per cent of such ‘standard’ planning related queries across multiple channels, having a big impact on response and waiting times."

Matthew Essex, operational director for regeneration, property and planning at Redbridge Council, said: "The work with Agile Datum aims to automate more than 80 per cent of admin tasks currently carried out by staff through the intelligent application of AI, chatbots and data visualisation. This will allow our planners to operate at a more strategic level and focus their time on delivering good, quality buildings, infrastructure and spaces for our residents."

Agile Datum said that 40 councils are signed up to receive the findings of the event.

In September, the Royal Town Institute (RTPI) published a "shared vision for the digital future of planning", including a commitment to "standardise common built environment language, processes and data to support cooperation" across the planning and development sectors. 

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