In October 2017, Bristol quietly overtook London as the UK’s leading smart city, thanks to its integration of new technologies with frontline public services. With Bristol Is Open, the city is inviting businesses to experiment with a sensor network set up across the city, in order to come up with new ways to reduce pollution, conserve energy and improve citizen engagement.
London has fallen behind – but it isn’t standing still. A week prior to the announcement, mayor Sadiq Khan announced a partnership between the Greater London Authority (GLA) and the Alan Turing Institute to use sensors to monitor the capital’s notoriously polluted air. The move builds on an earlier commitment to provide funding of $2.1 million to small businesses working to combat climate change.
Yet, for one of the world’s largest and most developed cities, London isn’t pushing its services into the 21st century like some of its counterparts in the US and Europe. By sharing data between departments, New York City is able to predict which buildings are at risk of fire and send crews to inspect them before accidents happen. In London, such a model is only slowly emerging.
Apolitical spoke with the man responsible for changing that: Andrew Collinge, Assistant Director of the Greater London Authority and its Smart City Lead.
In 2016, you wrote that London needed to create a city data model to improve sharing of data between organisations. Has use of data in the city improved since?
We have seen an increased willingness to use data science and machine learning to tackle public sector problems and urban challenges – which we weren’t seeing so regularly 12 months ago.
One example is the data science exercise to identify rogue landlord activity that we carried out with Nesta as part of the London Office of Data Analytics (LODA) pilot. It might not sound sexy, but data sharing shifted the mindset of frontline services, allowing housing inspection teams to target rogue landlord activity more effectively. It was a really strong step forward.
What we’re not necessarily seeing are different forms of data being shared that might raise new areas of inquiry, such as data held by utilities, energy providers, land development companies, and, importantly, individuals.
“You should be able to apply a set of data science skills once, rather than everybody setting off on their own path”
For us, being as open as we possibly can in what are effectively learning exercises is vital. Part of being open is making sure that the code in the algorithm is made open as well. After having had an initial group of London boroughs take part in the first data science exercise – because the code was open – other boroughs could come along, pick it up, use it, improve it, and bend it to a local context to get results.
It’s not just about nerdy data science – it’s about changing the culture.
How difficult is it to get the data for these projects?
In London, we are trying to create an amenable data environment – one in which data can be shared efficiently and securely in a way that protects privacy and builds trust and confidence. But unless data is of sufficient quality, the old “rubbish in, rubbish out” is likely to appear in the conclusions. In our rogue landlord exercise, it took us five months to get five London boroughs to get five datasets into a position where they could be used in a data science exercise that happens in the blink of an eye.
I don’t think we’re any worse than the private sector here: the quality of data held by your average London borough is no worse than that held by a water or an electricity company. It’s just that in London, it’s about coordination at scale so that the boroughs and the GLA are on the same page: you should be able to apply a set of data science skills once, rather than everybody setting off on their own path.
What is the London Office of Technology and Innovation?
At the London Office of Technology and Innovation (LOTI) we’re trying to build a new collaborative framework, not a new “office” in a physical sense with brushed concrete floors – London is rich in incubators, accelerators and other innovation hubs – but a convening point, where we start to attack the radical rethinking of public services and the future urban challenges through machine learning, but also digital and design skills, too. Technology preparedness isn’t about data alone, it’s about coordinating skills across government and the private sector.
Is it more difficult for London than other cities?
I could draw plenty of comparisons. New York does not have 33 boroughs in the same way that London does. London’s boroughs are all free-standing organisations with many thousands of staff working for them to deliver important frontline services. New York has five boroughs, but they’re just geographical entities.
“The one thing we can’t do is make it a top-down City Hall thing – it’s got to be something that is shared”
A place like Amsterdam is much smaller and its culture emphasises simplicity in city government, the importance of technology, and the need for a permissive approach that allows them to make progress. I do not use it as an excuse, but the operating environment in London can be a bit more difficult.
You do need some sort of convening space in which those common problems and capacities are brought together. The one thing we can’t do is make it a top-down City Hall thing. It’s got to be something that is shared, and represents tangible value to each borough – they face the problem, the asset and data owners: the relationship with service users.
Is this kind of work an attempt to level the playing field between what large private technology companies can do in cities and what the public sector can achieve?
I think it is. We’re trying to create a front door for innovation in London that actually leads somewhere, rather than opening a door, stepping into an empty space and falling, as happens far too often nowadays. This is something that I feel in my position here in City Hall – businesses walk into City Hall and pronounce that they want to work with government in this marvellous bejewelled, global city called London. I end up saying, “You’re talking to the wrong person. You need to be talking to the boroughs.” With some exceptions, it’s them who are the asset owners and the people who own the relationships with London communities.
“We’re trying to create a front door for innovation in London that actually leads somewhere”
We need to create a new set of public-private partnering arrangements and a regulatory framework that anticipates and encourages the changes that technology will bring. We only need look at Sidewalk Labs’ involvement in the planned redevelopment of the Toronto Waterfront and the Google Urbanism project to understand that new data-driven and digital business models are creeping closer and closer to the city’s public services. We need to anticipate those things; understand how they will be framed by democratic accountability, and be prepared for them collectively.
What are the biggest obstacles to experimentation and collaboration in the city?
First, organisational culture is just as big an impediment as data quality. Change will be brought about by pulling political and managerial levers. What I have been trying to do in discussions with London Borough chief executives around LOTI is instil in them the need to appreciate technology and its potential.
Second, there’s a degree of risk aversion. We need to create safe spaces in which organisations can fail – together, if need be. No local authority would say, “How can we digitise parts of adult social care?” Or, “How can we create a data-driven tool that helps us to commission services better?” Even if they wanted to, they wouldn’t have the money. But if you bring multiple boroughs in around that problem, let them pool cash, share the risk, then you start to be able to do things.
“We need to create safe spaces in which organisations can fail – together, if need be”
Third, there’s a lack of knowledge. It’s quite instructive to ask a room full of London’s very senior managerial leadership if they have heard of blockchain. I’m not holding up blockchain as the answer to all of London’s public service woes at all; my point is that it needs to be understood. When you ask them they will all put their hands in the air. When you then say “describe blockchain to me”, they will talk about distributed ledgers, cryptocurrencies and bitcoin. But when you ask them what the impact of blockchain on key lines of business and the relationships you hold with the community you serve will be, there is an absence of knowledge. We need to address that.
If you could change three things in London with a click of the fingers, what would they be?
I would move from an open data environment to one in which data sharing is an acceptable option. That means you’d be able to share data in a private secure environment where it can be exploited.
I would really like to have a developed sense of technology appreciation in the political and managerial leadership right the way across London government.
Lastly, boring as it sounds, but to have an agreed approach for the development of shared data standards, around clearly identified and politically supported use cases. That will be the way in which we allow the proper exploitation of data, rather than it being a stranded asset or open data that’s never used.
(Picture Credit: Pexels/Negative Space)