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The ‘Start of the Possible’? Announcing a Scoping Exercise for a London Office of Technology and Innovation (LOTI)

A couple of weeks back, Councillor Theo Blackwell, Cabinet Member for Finance, Technology and Growth at LB Camden and the Local Government Information Unit produced a report.  You can read it here (supporting survey outputs included) to find out more about how, far from being ‘digital dinosaurs’, among local councillors there is a growing appreciation of the transformative effect of all of data, digital and technology on the quality and efficiency of public services.

A good title draws you in, and in ‘The Start of the Possible’ we have a perfect encapsulation of our current position – political support is spreading; it is doing so on the back of a growing pockets of innovative, groundbreaking activity; and there is a sense that much greater things can be achieved, if we put our collective, collaborative, minds to it.  This is why the time now feels now right to announce the procurement of a scoping exercise for a London Office of Technology and Innovation (aka LOTI).

A quick taster of just some of the new fronts opening up:

  • With Nesta and the ASI, the GLA and a group of 6 London Boroughs are reaching the end of a London Office of Data Analytics pilot (LODA*). The aims of the exercise are first, to create a data sharing culture, and second, to prove the impact machine learning techniques; in this case in identifying undeclared homes of multiple occupancy (HMOs), where fraudulent landlords could potentially be making tenants’ lives miserable and dangerous.
  • As well as promoting a range of shared services in education, the London Grid for Learning has since September 2016 used the power of aggregated data to identify £8m of potential Pupil Premium claims for hard-pressed families.
  • In Digital Greenwich, the Council has established its own delivery arm, to spur ‘smart’ initiatives from self-driving shuttles, to transform services like adult social care, and to incubate digital businesses.
  • The Local Government Digital Service Standard is at the forefront of developing the common standards needed to create the high quality digital services of the future.

There are numerous other examples of how authorities – normally through groupings of forward thinking CIOs and supportive politics, or enterprises like London Ventures – are sharing thinking and capacity to transform services and adapt ‘core business’ activities like procurement.  All are contributing to a change in the way services are designed and delivered to better meet the needs London’s communities and businesses.

That said, it feels that there is more potential to be unlocked, if we can strengthen collaboration in a way that recognises the potential of technology to deliver at scale and across boundaries.  Technology (think cloud) pays no attention to them; nor, given half a chance, does data.  Further, the communities we serve roam freely across them, so why should we in the public services not attempt to work across them to meet common challenges, share opportunities and ultimately deliver collective, significant efficiencies?

It feels that under current circumstances, there are times when the scale and complexity of London plays against us, making amplification of productivity-enhancing innovation and scale-up of demonstrator activity sluggish. More prosaically, there are instances of numerous parties replicating effort over issues like the European Commission’s General Data Protection Regulation which have universal application and consequences.  Better articulation of technology requirements linked to outcomes are needed so that public services can get the best out of market engagements steeped in a complex set of market relationships with hardware and software vendors, as well as open source and proprietary models.

A full and frank evaluation report for LODA will be delivered soon, but the following early finding is brought forward to prove a point – it took a full five months and considerable toil so that a critical mass of authorities could share and work with harmonised data in the HMO data analytics exercise.  Secure and efficient data availability across data architecture is a vital requirement in creating smart services, but the really telling point here is that new machine learning applications will only ever be as good as the data supplied to them.

In making a set of broader points, this quote from a Policy Exchange report, emphasises the need for better organisation around this important city asset:

Too many digital government initiatives focus on addressing immediate needs with little regard for what lies just around the corner. In part this is a result of having single-year budgets, but it also misses an important insight: local government digital reform is the foundation stone on which smart cities will be built. Smart cities (and indeed, ‘smart places’ when rolled out across wider hinterlands) will depend heavily on data sharing over areas covered by entire city regions and not just one local authority area (imagine regulating flows of traffic, people, energy, water and so on). London alone has 32 separate boroughs plus the City of London. If local authorities cannot even share the data they already have, the UK’s cities have little chance of being able to implement and manage the far greater demands of data generated from Internet of Things-enabled smart city infrastructure.

Looking to the future, it seems increasingly pressing that public services adopt and share an anticipatory approach to the disruptive potential – regulatory and ethical dimensions included – of new business models emerging from the data and platform economies.  On-demand and sharing services, and the arrival of automation all need to be considered in the context of organisational change in public services and adoption by customers. Nothing counter-intuitive here, but how do public servants ensure that robotics make aspects of adult social care a more ‘human’ and fulfilling experience for those wishing to extend independent living?  What are the consequences of not considering the deployment of robots vehicles quite literally out there on our streets as they take the strain on last mile logistics or collect the bins?

To take a pertinent example already with us, our collective understanding of a technology like Blockchain does not yet seem mature enough to allow us to properly explore potential applications, to gauge the impact it can have on service existing delivery models, how it will affect the relationships with those we serve, and therefore what safeguards might be needed.

These are not activities or questions that should be dealt with 33 times over (in the case of the London Boroughs).  Rather, we should try to promote ‘technology preparedness’ through a set of mutually beneficial and well balanced relationships with business, academia, and the broader tech and innovation ecosystem.  There should be an achievable alignment of motivations in exploring emerging technology and setting out core business and citizen-focused requirements one time only.  Experience and learning in the form of use cases should be shared as widely as possible across coalitions of the willing and interested.

This mixture of active curiosity in a future increasingly influenced by accelerating change and a desire to deliver the public services Londoners and London businesses deserve, has prompted a few of us in London Government to ask ourselves what a coordinating effort could achieve?

This is why the Greater London Authority and London Councils are commissioning a scoping study for LOTI.  As you will discern from this blog, in this world of blurry but rapidly shortening horizons, we have as many questions as we do answers.

For now, we are sure on a few things.  We do not want LOTI to be a physical space – accelerators and innovation centres are already abound in the capital.  Most likely a virtual organisation, we do not want LOTI be another acronym, lost in the alphabet soup of organisations that already exist.  To be real, we absolutely do want LOTI to focus adding new value – societal, economic, environmental and monetary– to a critical mass of public bodies that recognise how it rebalances discussions with the market and ecosystem that drift too readily and too often towards (technology) solutions in search of problems.  We also have a strong desire to see LOTI pushing common, open standards (e.g. to secure and diversify data supply), and fostering a culture of open innovation and co-production with the tech sector and innovation ecosystem in London.

We would also like to see LOTI act as a convening point in a post-Brexit world, making sure that London can play a role in an emerging ‘city to city’ market in ‘smart’ technologies, as well as in important trans-national and technology-focused research and innovation programmes (of which H2020 is the most obvious example).

The scoping exercise will be used to shape and test all of these propositions, define a programme of work, and develop the operating and governance models that drawn together in a LOTI will strengthen London’s public technology hand.

So there is the pitch.  We want to attract high quality, multi-disciplinary bids that match our aspiration and that will deliver what we genuinely believe to be – back to that title – ‘the start of the possible’. Get involved in the next stage of London’s data, digital and technology journey here.

*LODA’s specific focus is data analytics; subject to evaluation it may become part of a LOTI (which has a broader technology focus).