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The nation’s transforming capital: Q&A with the London Mayor’s Office Theo Blackwell

9 min

Canary Wharf c. Matthew Foulds, Unsplash

The London Mayor’s Office, in working through lockdown, has some pressing challenges facing the city. What does the change in working practices mean for private and public services? How do you ensure reliable connectivity for the rapid increase in remote working? And what does the future of council procurement look like? Quadrant Smart sits down with Theo Blackwell, chief digital officer, to dig deeper into the nation’s capital

Your team is heading up Project Odysseus, researching into how to better understand changing working and life practices in the Greater London Area. What is the team approach behind the project, and how does it look in practice?

TB: I think the one thing that the crisis has told us is that you need to have much more of a capability to measure immediate impacts, rather than quarterly impacts. It’s a fast-moving landscape. This last week with the reintroduction of more restrictions nationally has shown that we need to have a much more dynamic picture. So, what we’re looking at is consumption of much more real-time data.

The Turing Project, for example, works on using TfL’s camera system, which is about 900 cameras, and it measures traffic and pedestrian movement, on an anonymised basis. It gives us a picture of what footfall activity and traffic activity there is on the high street.

Theo Blackwell, chief digital officer, London Mayor’s Office

We’re combining Transport for London’s camera network with some of the borough camera network on the high streets to give us a bigger picture. In addition, that allows us to combine other datasets. So, we’ve entered a partnership with Mastercard to get spending data as another example.

Ultimately, this is data that we’re working on, using machine learning algorithms from the Alan Turing Institute, working with a range of partners such as Microsoft UK and their expertise in computing power, to give us those insights so we can compare activity compared to ‘normal’, and we can compare activity to absolute lockdown, i.e. in late March.

That project that’s been worked up over the last three months will allow us to be in a position to publish findings shortly.

What does success look like for a research project such as Project Odysseus?

TB: Success ultimately, with a big data project like that, is about how we’re able to take actionable insights from the real-time data that’s being fed through, and that we’re able to direct resources towards those areas of London, which is obviously a big and complex city, to those areas that really need them.

So, if that data is able to tell us that a particular area of West London is suffering because of its employment reliance on Heathrow Airport, or in the Central Activity Zone (CAZ), or what’s going on in the CAZ which is crucial not only to London’s economy, but the UK economy, then the output of that is giving decision-makers the ability to make decisions on stimulus packages.

In the rapid surge of working from home and remote practices, does this put a greater influence on the rollout of 5G networks, fibre programmes, and enhancing connectivity throughout the Greater London Area?

TB: We’ve got an existing programme to deal with London’s copper legacy, meaning that there’s lots of London that’s connected up by fibre, but only fibre to the cabinet, not fibre to the home. The market had invested in the areas that are the most profitable, rather than the areas of greatest need.

TfL at the moment is working on a concession – a commercial arrangement – for the use of its assets to lay a spine right across London, through funding from the GLA. That’s a programme that’s been going on for the last two years. Through extra funding from the GLA and London Councils from money raised by business rates, we are planning to connect that fibre spine along 400km of tube network, and other assets, conducting to around 600 public buildings.

The market had invested in the areas that are the most profitable, rather than the areas of greatest need

What that does is it creates a fibre network into the locality where then commercial operators can effectively put fibre into areas that do not have fibre directly into the homes. It lowers their cost of investment, by creating that basis for it, and it is basically making London more investable.

The recent statistics from Ofcom show that 16% of all fibre builds in the country is currently taking place in London. We’ve got a very confident fibre infrastructure investment scheme, and what that will give is people more choice, and it will increase their broadband service at home from fibre, which has connected people so far – but it’s pretty legacy.

For the future, it means better broadband service for people, but also it has implications for London’s ‘investability’ for 5G, because 5G is not a standalone technology. 5G requires full fibre to be in place for the small cells that 5G relies upon to be put in place across London.

When we’re talking about small cell technology for 5G, we’re talking around 200,000 small cells across the city, so they need the fibre to be in place.

That’s a very live programme, and it’s also, in terms of the Mayor’s recovery work, the recovery board which the Mayor sits on with other key players in London has highlighted the need for increased digital access for Londoners. Part of that is that connectivity to ensure that major landlords, social landlords in particular, are signing those legal agreements, and making sure that high-quality broadband is being piped into areas that need it, and homes that need it.

Earlier this week we interviewed Eddie Copeland, of the London Councils LOTI network. He spoke about the value of sharing of data – and collaboration between London boroughs more widely will become pivotal as the GLA builds back from the loss in footfall and revenue from the pandemic. What’s the perspective from the Mayor’s Office on this?

TB: We set up LOTI and fund LOTI to do more collective work in London. It’s based in London Councils, the right place for it to be based in order to win that trust and confidence of all of the independent councils in London – but, fundamentally, we need to be doing more things together.

We want to do new things together, rather than new things separately

That doesn’t necessarily mean we need to do the same thing for 32 boroughs, but we need to be doing more for more boroughs together. LOTI, established last year, is the team that enables us to make sure that we’re doing things together.

It’s not like we’re sending one document to 32 boroughs so much, and getting their comments back. We’re actually designing it with them. And I think that’s really important. If you look at the future, all of the new technologies deployed in London, we don’t want to do them in a way we’ve done them in the past.

We want to do new things together, rather than new things separately.

Eddie highlighted how local government procurement could change to become more outcomes-based, encouraging SMEs and smaller firms to collaborate with boroughs through LOTI’s Thirty3 platform, for example. Are you seeing this as well?

TB: We want to, first of all, understand the tech mix that supports public services in London – because there is no collective understanding in the UK across local government of what technology supports public services. Governments don’t know.

In London governments, we set out to find out what our existing technology mix was, and lo and behold we found that 90% of technology services were supplied by 15 suppliers. That enables us to pose the question to city leaders: do you think that’s right? Do you think there are benefits in that approach? Or do you think there are disadvantages in that approach?

Thirty3 platform, c. London Office for Technology and Innovation (LOTI)

Other cities in Europe for example, after understanding their technology mix like Barcelona, have moved towards building their own capabilities, doing more open-source and shareable software.

We also, through transparency, we want to make it easier for medium-sized enterprises, smaller ones and scale-ups, to compete for contracts

The first step is to understand what the technology mix is – the second step is to help shape it. So if more boroughs know when contracts are coming up, they can use their market power to influence the big suppliers away from some of the inflexible practices of the past, which have meant things like technology suppliers actually recharging local councils who want to access their own data for a different purpose.

Those kinds of practices we want to see gone, we want to see Open APIs and shareable data that comes from public services. We also, through transparency, we want to make it easier for medium-sized enterprises, smaller ones and scale-ups, to compete for contracts, and offer us more innovative solutions, and to introduce more competition into this.

So, the Thirty3 platform very much comes from our ambition for a more diversified gov-tech market, and we see great application of that platform in the future. Things like IoT as well; not just digital services.

Really, this is part of the shift in thinking that sees 10 years ago, IT was pretty much seen as a back office function that you outsource and then you manage the contract. And now, we see digital services as something that you create, you shape, you influence, you engage with the global tech hub that is London, and get the benefits from it. So we will create those foundations for people to do different things.

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