Making the most of London’s digital crown jewels

Interview: Andrew Collinge, assistant director at the Greater London Authority, says it faces some big strategic challenges that require a cohesive approach to using data and technology 

Andrew Collinge doesn’t like to talk about disruptive technology or business models. He believes it has a negative edge and that it is much better to emphasise how changes can improve the way business is carried out.

Andrew Collinge, Tower Bridge in backgroundIt’s an important distinction, as much of his work as assistant director at the Greater London Authority (GLA) is directed at laying the ground for long term change, with a strong emphasis on how to harness technology and data for new city-wide approaches to solving problems. And it is focused on ensuring that London remains internationally competitive post-Brexit, in tech and a range of other industries.

With this in mind, he says the city has pros and cons in its size and the structure of its government.

“There is something about the scale of London that is wonderful, with crown jewels to be found everywhere, in academia, public and private sector, and activity just springs up. That’s a brilliant position to be in,” he says.

“But I sometimes look at a city like Amsterdam which, although being a lot smaller, is where you can see how they coordinate smart city activities through a high profile chief technology officer, how they give things political backing, how they have a slightly more permissive approach to experimentation, and can cut to the chase because it’s the city authority and not much more in which all this activity is contained. I envy that sometimes.”

Following lengthy stints at pollster Ipsos MORI and the Local Government Information Unit he has been with the GLA for seven years, in roles that have evolved into heading up its smart technology and data programmes.

Diversity factor

The diversity of the city, and its division into 32 boroughs and the City of London, make it a challenge to develop a strategic approach in dealing with their common issues. Collinge says that some of the boroughs are pioneers in specific fields – such as Greenwich for smart city programmes and Camden for digitising services – but others trail behind.

“So for me it’s about how you get the right sort of skills, capacity and political appetite for technology in the wider grouping of London boroughs and get them to coordinate their efforts as well as you can.”

He is strongly focused on two major programmes at the moment: the creation of a London Office of Data Analytics (LODA); and a scoping exercise for a London Office of Technology and Innovation (LOTI).

The first will be supported by an extension to the London Datastore, with a City DataStore currently in alpha phase. It will be available for the secure sharing of city data and draw on the lessons from pilot projects involving multiple boroughs, the first of which was directed at using data science approaches to identify homes that could be leased by rogue landlords to several tenants without having been properly registered.

Collinge says the capacity of the boroughs to provide the data was mixed: some had excellent data warehouses, others depended on an official wandering the departments to ask for the data. It took five months to get it all together for an exercise that took a week to run, but it has produced a list that inspection teams can use in identifying possible houses of multiple occupancy.

Modernisation role

“That’s where we need to get to with data science - not just treating it as a piece of analysis but as reaching into public service modernisation and designing services in new ways,” Collinge says.

“But you need to have that high level political/managerial appreciation, a set of leaders that say these things work. You need their feedback for LODA to work, and for them to identify which issues it should deal with next.

“It’s not enough for the data community to self-organise and generate its own ideas; it needs the senior leadership now.”

Up to 20 other issues have been identified for pilots, with a serious attempt at using data science to improve the measurement of air quality a front runner.

“It’s a shared issue but one in which a lot of the emphasis at the moment sits with the GLA,” he says. “It’s not a big data exercise as such, but we want to use data science to understand how you optimise new, cheaper sensor networks to monitor air quality.”

Others could include looking at how currency fluctuations affect the tourist economy of London in real time, and using new forms of data to understand how the night time economy operates across the capital.

New disciplines

There is also an ambition to use LODA to bring together talent from organisations that have experience, or have closely studied, disciplines new to city government like machine learning. Collinge does not want a formal office, but rather a flexible structure that can pull in people from different organisations to address specific issues.

“There has to be a co-ordinating function of some sort, but what we want most is to make sure the supply of data is varied, exciting and most importantly related to policy and political priorities,” he says.

“We want to involve data experts from public services, and to make sure we have the best chance of cracking the problem we want the best talent around it. That means coming to arrangements to universities and data science companies, which could range from an IBM to a tiddler. The point is we are always looking for the best skills to answer the city’s problems.”

The plan for a London Office of Technology and Innovation is in its early stages, with a scoping exercise due to run until late in the year. The overall aim is to provide some common ground for the public sector and tech industry to identify problems and find solutions together, and the scoping should lead to a programme of work and operating and governance models for the body.

Building a coalition

“We’ve sold the idea of a scoping study to London borough chief executives,” Collinge says. “The scoping is as much about building the necessary coalition, support and momentum as it is about the discovery of what we really want boroughs to coordinate on.”

He says there will be some assessment of the boroughs’ digital capabilities and what can add value, and a focus on open standards.

“The stage I want to get to is to have some clear workstreams that groupings of local authorities think they can sign up to, and for that to be underpinned by an operating model. It would not be wise to suggest to London boroughs that we want something that would look like one of the incubators or accelerators that already exist.

“This is about coordinating the demand side to generate enough shared interest to develop open common standards which will bring about innovation at scale.”

So far there has not been much engagement with the local tech industry, and Collinge says it has to be done in phases to understand the issues for which it could help groupings of boroughs make up deficiencies in their capabilities. In some areas, such as data analytics, this could point to some clear business opportunities.

Walk the walk

“Only then do we go and talk to the tech industry as otherwise we might be seen to talk the talk, while this time walking the walk is what’s important, and that needs a clear set of priorities around what we want to do.”

He also believes it should not be rushed, and points to the example of the London Counter Fraud Hub in beginning with the involvement of a handful of boroughs to build much wider momentum.

“If there was a broad memorandum of understanding it would be great if all the boroughs signed up,” he says. “But in year one, if I have five boroughs working on city data analytics and eight on developing a digital service that could be deployed in all, then I’m really happy. If I try to get 33 boroughs to move at once we’re going nowhere.”