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How London Leads the Way in Techno Wizardry

Below is my article in today’s Evening Standard on the London Datastore and impact of freeing London’s data:

Help! What should I do? There I was, late for dinner with the Twitter delegation, and the docking station was full so I couldn’t park my Boris bike. I whipped out my iPhone, pressed the bike hire app, and a map indicated that down a side street behind me there was another docking station with empty spaces. Phew.

Hiring the bikes has been made easier by smartphone apps, which show in real time where the closest available bikes are, the best routes to cycle, and where there are spaces to deposit them. Smartphone apps such as these are becoming essential tools for Londoners. Others show where you can find Oyster card outlets, broadcast live images from traffic cameras so you can avoid jams, tell you the quickest way to travel by Tube, and the MRSA rate at your local hospital.

These apps are also revolutionising the way government communicates with citizens. It is an area where London is leading the world, attracting interest from across the globe.

The radical thing about these apps is that the Government doesn’t produce them.Transport for London didn’t develop the bike apps – instead, it just released the bike hire information in real time, and London’s entrepreneurial software developers did the rest. Over a weekend, various sophisticated, consumer-friendly smartphone bike hire apps appeared on the market.

Transport for London couldn’t have done this – it’s a transport company, not an IT laboratory. The developers can do it faster, cheaper, and be far more innovative in giving consumers what they want. It is not just a win for the Government and the public but also for the economy – it is helping to create a thriving developer community.

Previously we relied solely on leaflets, website and phonelines (which are still necessary so that all Londoners have access). But there is now an industrious army of entrepreneurs ensuring Londoners get the information they want, when they want it, where they want it, and in the way that is most useful to them.

Last week a new app was launched that wakes you up early if there are delays on the Tube system, ensuring you aren’t late for work.

Boris Johnson sparked the revolution a year ago when he launched the London Data Store website as a repository of London government data, provided for free. Last week, the Government launched the Public Data Corporation, and it is essential that it also commits to providing that data for free, or else it will have limited impact.

We now provide hundreds of different streams of information, covering everything from air quality and Tube timetables to voting patterns and hospital performance, from fires to road accidents. More than 1,000 firms have accessed the data so far.

This is not just of marginal, nerdy interest – a third of Londoners now have smartphones. One application, Tube Deluxe, which shows live departure boards of the Underground, the quickest routes and whether there are any delays, has been downloaded by 350,000 people.

Freeing such data has long been the dream of technological visionaries, and many governments have tried, but have usually been thwarted by bureaucratic inertia. But thanks to Londoners’ innovative and tech-savvy entrepreneurial flair, the dramatic rise of smartphones and the necessary political leadership, we are at last turning that vision into reality.