Appointed in September 2017 as London’s first chief digital officer (CDO), Theo Blackwell takes the lead on London-wide digital transformation initiatives at City Hall. Running technology-led change projects for one of the world’s most exciting cities, and its 32 boroughs, is a challenging role – but it’s one that Blackwell relishes.
“There are things that City Hall can do that boroughs can’t – they provide an amazing array of frontline services, while we’re a strategic body. But there is the opportunity and the resources to think strategically in this role and the enjoyment comes from the fact that, two and a half years into this job, there’s still a tremendous amount of goodwill out there,” he says.
Blackwell says the ever-increasing nature of the close working partnership between the public and private sectors is one of the key elements to his team’s success. He says executives in the technology sector really want to help his organisation solve some of the big challenges it faces, including the fight against coronavirus – as outlined below – and the creation of innovative, public-facing services.
“Three years ago we might have had a conversation with the private sector that would have been about them wanting us to open our data so they could innovate from it. Now the conversation is about them saying they have lots of data that’s just sitting there and they want to have a discussion about how that data can be used to make London better,” he says.
“We want to use the goodwill of the private sector in a much more constructive approach to data. London-based private sector organisations have now got a much more progressive approach to using data to create innovative solutions to the city’s challenges.”
Making London work better and smarter through technology
Blackwell was appointed London CDO after a 15-year stint as councillor for the London Borough of Camden. He says the aim when he moved into City Hall was to create a joined-up approach to innovation, where the component elements were more than a set of pieces that were loosely joined together.
“The main challenge for us was how to really build the collective capability of London’s public services to innovate better, so they weren’t just like a collection of expensive pilots dotted around the city, but actually to think about how we could use this work to solve common problems at scale,” he says. “We also wanted to do that with common approaches with standard values.”
Getting that right, says Blackwell, means London’s boroughs can now do a number of things better together. He says the aim is to start designing digital products for Londoners as a whole, rather than specific solutions as services for residents in individual boroughs.
“We want to get to a stage where we’ve got the capability and desire to build London-wide platforms for things,” he says. “We want better connectivity to ensure that there’s more full-fibre broadband rolling out across the city. And we want to use data together across London – and, obviously, all those things are interconnected.”
Creating a roadmap for digital change
Blackwell says stage one involved setting out the vision for change, which his team completed through the publication of its Smarter London together roadmap in June 2018. That work on citizen-centred design and data-sharing is also focused on “fixing the plumbing”, which Blackwell says covers the infrastructure that is required to run digital transformation at scale.
The other key element of the roadmap is to start creating common approaches to innovation. The key element here has been the development of the London Office of Technology and Innovation (LOTI), which opened late last year. Blackwell says the opening of LOTI – which is a collaborative organisation that aims to strengthen the ability to innovate across London’s boroughs – is paying big dividends.
“You don’t get to have a discussion about data in London until you build at least a group of councils that are committed to working together and sharing their data, experimenting and innovating,” he says. “We didn’t want the work of the boroughs and the agencies to be out of sync with one another.”
“We didn’t want the work of the boroughs and the agencies to be out of sync with one another.”
Theo Blackwell, London City Hall
Another key step, says Blackwell, has been the creation of the Connected London team in autumn 2017, which developed a comprehensive plan for bringing connectivity to London. That work is backed-up by the Connected London initiative from Transport for London (TfL). This project uses the 400km of tunnels and ducting run by TfL to help create a full-fibre spine for London.
“We’re at a very advanced stage in terms of signing the concession for that spine,” says Blackwell. “We’ve identified about 600 public buildings near to Tube stations, which will then become local fibre hubs. That creates a lower cost of investment for connectivity providers to reach out into the underserved areas of the capital, particularly south and north-west London.”
Turning innovation into an opportunity
Blackwell says his team has been undertaking “a lot of interesting work on innovation in the background”. One of these projects is the Mayor’s Civic Innovation Challenge, which is now in its second year. He says the challenge involves an open call to the tech sector for help to solve problems that the public sector has identified.
An example includes TfL working with six tech firms to help create services that manage the movement of heavy freight around the capital. Another example is work on 3D modelling of the city to democratise the planning process, which uses visualisation tools to engage the public so that they can see what’s being planned for development in their local areas.
“Our open-call approach is a completely new way to look at innovation,” he says. “And that’s really engaged the boroughs, as well as the police force and TfL. Those things hadn’t happened before. And I think we’ve made some really good progress in the past two and a half years.”
“Most organisations have a policy for remote working and lots of staff are familiar with that. But I don’t think we’ve ever entered the territory where 95% of staff will not be working at City Hall,” says Blackwell, reflecting on preparations for the shift to remote working across London.
“So our immediate step was to meet staff demands and needs – like how to run meetings and effective conference calls, and the use of Skype and Microsoft Teams, for example – and how you do that in the most effective way from a multi-site operation.”
Another challenge, says Blackwell, is ensuring network connectivity across London. That attention is centred on providing communication to citizens in the capital about potential issues surrounding availability and managing concerns relating to the potential for networks to become overloaded as so many more people start working from home.
“That involves talking to providers to get the reassurance that the network does have the capacity for this. We want to provide one place for people to go, so they know where to get information from mobile phone providers or broadband providers as well,” he says.
More generally, Blackwell believes his organisation and the London boroughs have responded quickly and effectively to the technology challenges presented by the spread of coronavirus. He says public sector employees across the capital continue to work collaboratively to seek out innovative solutions to the key issues they encounter.
“People have responded really well,” he says. “The boroughs deliver far more frontline services and digital services than City Hall and they’ve responded in an innovative way. They’re effectively creating a much more agile approach to translating the needs, people are expressing through to the council, into actions and results.”
Blackwell also points to significant change at a local level. As well as LOTI, which now involves 16 boroughs and a series of digital projects, Blackwell says the London councils have recruited a whole new group of senior executives who don’t fit with the traditional mould of local government CIOs.
He refers to Neil Williams, chief digital officer at Croydon Council, who was the architect of Gov.uk in his former role at the Government Digital Service.
He also mentions the work of Kit Collingwood, who used to head up data at the Department for Work and Pensions, and who now leads digital and technology for Greenwich Council.
“There’s just a new look to a lot of boroughs and how they approach digital transformation,” says Blackwell.
Sharing data to meet clear objectives
So how are the residents in London boroughs benefiting from these data-led projects? Blackwell says a key element of these developments is the London Datastore, a free and open data-sharing portal, which was first introduced in 2010 and continues to be honed and improved. Blackwell says it’s important to think about what a refined data platform might mean for London during the next five to 10 years.
“We’ve got all types of data,” he says. “There’s a big push for data to be used in healthcare, policing and transport. We need to think about what a data platform looks like in London when we’ve got lots of different data owners; we’ve got 32 boroughs, more than 40 universities and major, London-wide agencies.”
Blackwell’s team in City Hall is working with transformation consultancy Public Digital, led by public-sector change expert Mike Bracken, and Bloomberg Philanthropies, the charitable arm of the finance data giant. The aim of this work is to build a new datastore that will support London’s work on big-data projects.
“We want to flip the idea of a smart-city data platform that you see elsewhere in the world – which is kind of like a big aggregator, where urban areas try and suck in all of the data and put it into one place – and instead think about what we’re going to use this data for in the first place – in short, what the drivers are,” says Blackwell.
“We think a way in which we can access more data, but do so responsibly, is by creating the datastore as the central registry of London data. If we do that, it will tell you where the data is and then you will be able to negotiate data-sharing agreements for projects on the back of that process.”
Using data to improve people’s lives
Blackwell says the London Datastore will be a base for shared projects and a demonstrator of the power of data-led initiatives that are underway. He thinks that process will help to build a practical data culture in London. Being able to combine data responsibly means his organisation can deliver projects that make a difference to people’s lives.
Blackwell gives the example of the Turing Institute, which is modelling the air quality of London and which aims to create tools imminently to help produce an air-quality report. Another example is work with the private sector around infrastructure mapping, so that utility and construction firms can share their data and collaborate to reduce disruption for citizens.
“The benefits of that work are already being realised. It means we’re digging up the road once when there’s a construction or connectivity project, rather than digging up the road many times, causing congestion for Londoners,” he says.
“Those are the kind of day-to-day issues that people used to knock on my door about when I was a local councillor – and sometimes our responses to that were quite clumsy, but we can solve those problems now. That’s what digital transformation really means to me – it’s understanding people’s needs and being able to solve them.”
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