London CDO: More groundwork needed to gain trust for data use

London’s chief digital officer, Theo Blackwell, says organisations need to do more groundwork if a smarter city is to be real possibility

Theo Blackwell, chief digital officer in the Mayor of London’s Office, says organisations that are economically active in the capital need to overcome a public wariness of data use if smart city dreams are to become reality.

Blackwell told Computer Weekly that the Greater London Authority polled Londoners in April as part of the Smarter London Together initiative, which is aimed at “striking a new deal with citizens on city data”.

The YouGov survey, which canvassed 1,097 London adults, found Londoners to be more or less evenly split on whether sharing personal data to assist public service delivery is a positive or negative thing. About one-third saw it as positive, one-third said negative, and one-third were unsure.

The respondents expressed particular distrust for social media and large technology companies, but felt more trust for the public sector and banks. Facebook and Twitter were distrusted by 64% of respondents, and 32% said they distrusted big technology companies, such as Google and Microsoft.

Blackwell said: “Our findings suggest that for personal data to be used, more groundwork needs to be laid by organisations, including public bodies, who are using or sharing data for insights or new services.”

Respondents did express approval for the use of aggregated personal data for social good, such as aiding medical research or planning transport services. Almost half (49%) said they favoured pooling personal data for medical research purposes. Only 5% wanted their personal data to be used by private companies to improve the services they offer consumers.

The general or societal benefits from aggregated data were rated higher than the personal benefits from personal data  – for example in planning transport services, rather than providing personalised travel routes. 

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The internet of things, which has seen much hype in the tech industry in recent years, seems to have passed ordinary Londoners by. Few respondents said they knew about sensors being used to collect data on the physical environment, and 54% had no idea sensors were being used to collect data. Again, respondents were keener on general uses, such as measuring noise pollution, than individualised ones, such as mobile phone location tracking.

Blackwell said: “These findings chime with our developing thinking arising from the Smarter London Together listening tour, that cities and city government, in particular, have an emerging role to play in convening bigger discussions about the collection of citizen data and its use for civic benefit.”

In a blogpost accompanying the survey findings, which can be found in full on the London Datastore, Blackwell added: “These preliminary findings put the onus on the users of data – be they public services or the tech sector – to make the case to Londoners about the application of their data.”

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