London Data Commission: Sharing data to help support London’s response to Covid-19

London First’s director of connectivity and competitiveness, David Lutton, talks about establishing the London Data Commission, and its contribution to coping with the coronavirus crisis

The ongoing debates about ending the Covid-19 lockdown have shone a light on how data is used in policy decision-making. The London Data Commission believes greater sharing of data and insights between the public and private sectors could play a pivotal role making sure we make the right choices.

The commission was formed at the end of 2019 by London First to look at how London’s public authorities and businesses could come together to share and analyse anonymised data to find fresh solutions to the challenges facing the city. Without doubt, Covid-19 and London’s response is the biggest of these challenges. 

London First, along with the Oliver Wyman Forum, Arup and now Microsoft, which recently launched a global open data campaign, brought together senior technologists, analysts and decision-makers to discuss how business can best support London’s regional authorities. Data sharing requires, of course, responsibility and a respect for the individual’s privacy in a free society. With this important caveat in mind, the commission aimed to achieve true collaboration between the public- and private-sector data specialists responding to the crisis. 

Coming out of lockdown and getting London safely back to work is the priority at City Hall. Working with the mayor’s London Strategic Coordinating Group and Public Health England, London’s chief digital officer, Theo Blackwell, and his team have defined ambitious ways of using data to guide their response that seeks to heatmap movement around the city as restrictions are partially relaxed in order to monitor how people are responding to the changes.

Access to this information would be game-changing for the city, allowing more nuanced planning, targeted communications and, as we move into a recovery, a better understanding of the extent to which London is returning to normal. 

Public health priorities are, of course, the chief concern. Here, data can be critical in flattening the spread of the virus by, for example, potentially monitoring “busyness” through anonymised and aggregated mobile phone data – as well as public transport use – to help ensure social distancing measures are being well observed. It can also enable rapid and effective contact-tracing

We cannot forget that we need to find ways to boost the economy and help protect the capital’s businesses and their people. Data sharing can identify how we can best support business continuity and could shape an exit strategy for the immune population in re-establishing them in our economy at speed. 

Earlier this month, a commission meeting identified a number of private sector datasets that could add to our understanding of the city’s busyness, as part of a data project being led by the Greater London Authority (GLA) and the Alan Turing Institute.

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The discussion also identified how having such a live dataset would help businesses planning for their return to work, particularly in routing staff for safe travel and planning for the partial opening of their premises. A sub-group of the commission was established to support the GLA and the Alan Turing Institute in their conversations with private-sector data owners and to enhance our understanding of the potential uses of the busyness dataset.

Looking further ahead to London’s recovery and the strategic transformations the city potentially faces, it is clear that data sharing has a huge role to play in shaping effective policy making. The commission’s pilot schemes around improving the provision of digital skills, sharing data to best locate electric vehicle charging points and the creation of smarter “digital neighbourhoods”, all support the creation of a London best shaped to deal with the environmental, economic and resilience challenges that the years ahead will present. 

Since our first meeting in December, we have worked hard to identify how data sharing can create a safer, greener and more prosperous London. As we move towards the publication of our findings in September, one lesson we may be able to draw from the Covid-19 crisis is how data sharing allowed the authorities to better safeguard London’s population via a fuller understanding of that population.

David Lutton is London First’s director of connectivity and competitiveness. London First was set up to bring together the public sector and businesses to drive positive change in the capital. It established the London Data Commission in 2019 with the aim of it becoming the authoritative business voice on the capital’s data and to help kick-start data-led solutions to London’s key challenges.

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