Digital infrastructureSmart CitiesLondon CDO on the benefits of open data and local collaboration

London CDO on the benefits of open data and local collaboration

London CDO Theo Blackwell talks about how data is being used across the city to boost collaboration, drive innovation and deliver better services to citizens

How is the data-driven work in London developing?

Earlier this month we launched one of the key initiatives in the Smarter London Together Roadmap – the London Office of Data Analytics – which we’ve developed in collaboration with Nesta. Now, we have a funded team and a programme, which will look at a series of use cases. These could cover problems organisations need to sort out themselves, things that directly involve citizens, or data use cases that relate to universities and the private sector, all of which involve different approaches.

This will allow us to take London’s world-recognised approach to open data which TfL and the GLA has been developing since 2010, to the next level. This use of open data is the single most important driver in making us a leading smart city, so it makes sense to roll it out to other organisations and share our business intelligence. What will flow from that is our ability to train people in data analytics and to work in partnerships. It’s a really exciting and long-awaited step.

What do you hope is achieved by taking data to the next level?

Data sharing across London. We’ll make it easier for organisations to share data across the various use cases that we are in the process of identifying. It will also enable us to deal with new problems that are high on the public agenda. For example, with extra investment in street infrastructure we’ll be able to come up with measures to tackle poor air quality or solve crime and make people safe.

The night time economy is a really interesting area for us. We currently have limited data on a range of topics such as how people spend money or how they get home safely. It might be safer than getting home in the daytime! We just don’t know. That eight- to ten-hour period is waiting to be investigated so we can develop better policies.

Are you encountering across any barriers to buy-in?

There’s still a case in the public sector of people feeling that they already have quite a lot of data because they have all the reporting information which they give to the government. Changing people’s perception that the data that satisfies government is different to computable information that can be put next to other computable information, is proving tough. But the truth is that the more meaningful data you have, the deeper the insights that can be gained.

There’s also, in an era of austerity and demand management, a fear that data will just give you more pressures, rather than being able to solve more problems. That’s understandable given the pressures local government is up against. There’s also pressure within the workforce because you need more data analysts, which are different from performance managers.

Is this where your plans for collaboration can really help?

Exactly. We can help people go through the transition. A lot of local authorities, including City Hall, are going through change. By doing it together they don’t have to invest as much in the change process as they would trying to go it alone.

I think this actually poses some broader questions. What are the data analytic functions of local authorities? In the future do they come together to join up the function? For authorities with 250,000 people, is that enough of a data set to make meaningful analyses, especially when it comes to smaller groups with the population of vulnerable people? Should authorities be getting together in data partnerships to develop greater insight?

The size of local government has been very good for delivering administration under the old model, but in the future data sharing will be successful through scale. Big cities are able to do things cheaper because of scale. In London, it would be great if we could harness the collective power of all councils in the data revolution. London should lead the way. Our AI report shows that London has a bigger AI and data science sector than Paris and Berlin combined. It would be exciting to harness that power.

When will citizens start to benefit from the work you’re doing with open data?

They already are! TfL leads the world in the application of contactless payment in travel. The next interesting step and debate over the next year or two will be over the use of mobile data and how people move around cities. Queuing to pay parking fines or get a travel ticket are easier online, which gives people more time and reduces friction. The next step with data is getting into more complexity so that we can really help people with dementia and such like.

Our biggest challenge as a city is that it’s going to grow by 2 million people in the next 25 years. So, how do we manage growth with limited extra capacity on the underground? Investment in technology in our transport infrastructure is the fundamental way to do this. But we need data to back it up – for example, how are changing work patterns impacting on how and when we travel?

It’s important to note that we view the use of data as an ongoing process in the development of London as a smart city. There’s no end goal – it’s about constantly improving. TfL publishes real-time, machine readable data, which many external developers (both businesses and hobbyists) have used to create more than 600 apps that help Londoners navigate their city. Having an open data culture, which we still need to foster, will enable people to create applications that the state wouldn’t have otherwise funded. There’s a clear benefit.

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