A chat with London on Digital Day

19 March 2021

After participating to the City Dialogue on the Digital Decade with colleagues from Barcelona and The Hague, we spoke to Theo Blackwell, Chief Digital Officer of London, about his role in London’s digital transformation.

Blackwell is the first Chief Digital Officer in London, a role he covers since 2017 when both public services and the technology community felt a need for strategic coordination as the city digitally transformed. Fundamentally, Blackwell’s role is to guide common standards, common approaches, and create common opportunities for innovation that ultimately benefit Londoners.

Theo Blackwell © Greater London Assembly

London’s digital transformation strategy, Smarter London Together, is a very comprehensive strategy, but if you had to choose one priority what would it be?

The main aspect of the Smarter London Together roadmap was putting the user at the centre, both in terms of designing solutions, and in terms of providing tools to listen to their needs. For example, this week we relaunched TalkLondon, our community online engagement platform.

We already have 60,000 Londoners who talk to us online and regularly help us shape our policies. The users reflect the variety of people who live in London, not just selected groups who happen to be online, because we designed the service around people’s needs to make it easier for them to interact and to register. TalkLondon has helped us to open the city up to its citizens.

During yesterday’s City Dialogue on the Digital Decade, the Director for Connectivity at the European Commission, Rita Wezenbeek, has reiterated the importance to bring high connectivity to everyone, especially in the face if the pandemic. How is London tackling this challenge?

The pandemic has really exposed the issue of digital divide in a way that most cities had not anticipated. The mayor of London has set a very strong goal for the city to start addressing the digital access divide. We have to start looking at digital access as a big innovation and service challenge that’s facing us in the next decade. So, how do we develop a package to guarantee that everyone has at least access to the basic service? Policy must pivot towards initiatives where public and private collaborate more, and where digital inclusion is seen as a new service to citizens.

The pandemic has accelerated the digital transformation and exposed certain challenges, but also created opportunities in cities, can you think of any such examples in London?

The pandemic highlighted the need for cities to access more granular data – detailed data, or the lowest level that data can be in a target set – and share it with its various partners. An example is our Odysseus project, which brought together private and public datasets to study the impact of the pandemic, and specifically lockdown measures, on the economic activity in the city centre.

In collaboration with the Turing Institute, Microsoft, Mastercard, O2 and Transport for London, the city had access to and could study data related to transport, spending, and people’s movement. This data is effectively shaping how the mayors’ recovery budget of £500 million, €584 million, will be spent.

We wouldn’t be able to understand which areas have been under most financial distress and which has it worst without all this data. If we had just relied on public datasets, which come out on a monthly or quarterly basis, we wouldn’t have had enough insight and we wouldn’t have been able to make critical decisions about how to help areas that were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. It was an important innovation to bring in private datasets under a trusted umbrella.

Speaking of data, London has an interesting challenge in that it has to deal with many data owners, can you run me through the idea of the London Datastore and how it helps you tackle this specific challenge?

London is a city, but it’s also – in a European sense – more akin to a big regional authority, so the question London has is: how do you bring together the data and share it from lots of different administrative entities so that you can coordinate wide planning about the environment, transport, infrastructures and jobs?

The London Datastore was created in 2010 as one of the first big open data platforms from any major city in the world. With growing numbers of datasets available in the last decade, the platform has also increased its scope to include the sharing of private datasets on the basis of specific projects. For example, the Datastore now allows the sharing of private data from construction firms and utility firms so that they dig up the road once, and not five times, when putting in gas pipes or electricity, or broadband, or when creating a new underground tunnel or road. The question is: what are you using the data for? The Datastore is purpose led. The idea is to promote purpose-led data projects that benefit citizens.

How does it work in practice? Does London then own the data?

The London Datastore does not collect all the data from all administrative bodies and businesses, it is basically a register. It is a collection of metadata and descriptions on where the data is. We have also created some principles of data collaboration so that the data sharing agreement process is smooth. With the London Datastore we are able to do more projects based on data without creating a big data warehouse, which has everyone’s data. It’s a federated way of holding and using data.

“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,” you said in an interview to Computer Weekly in April 2020. What are next steps in the public-private collaboration?

I think the next step is talking about the green transition. There’s potential in feeding environmental data, or data around air quality coming from companies into our understanding about how to tackle air quality is in London, for example. So, I think climate change is where the future of data sharing is. Where a mark of a good business in London is to live its climate change ambitions.

You mentioned public-private collaboration as an important asset for the digital transformation in London, what about international collaboration, in particular under Brexit?

Our ambition is to keep working with fellow European cities wherever we can. Alone we wouldn’t be able to meet our common goals on climate change and build our digital capabilities. Whatever has happened at national level, London’s relationship with European cities, especially in the smart cities space, is stronger than ever. We just want to build on that because there’s so many shared interests and commonalities and we all work on the same challenges.


Wilma Dragonetti Eurocities Writer