London is Open Data

Jun 13, 2017 · Guest blog from George Johnston, CEO of Tech City Ventures,

London

London’s leadership has committed to an idea of openness, recognising the value of new ideas and perspectives in furthering its position as a world-class city.

And, for a multitude of reasons, it has been able to join an elite group of technological ecosystems responsible for driving seismic changes in the world as we know it. At its foundation, the capital’s infrastructure is an extraordinary feat of engineering perfectly designed to fuel growth.

Over 600 square miles are connected by a complex network of trains, tubes and roads, navigated by buses, cars, taxis, cycles and pedestrians. And this network is connected to the rest of the country, as the national hub for rail, air and road. It’s an extensive system - but it’s also one that needs help with scaling up as demand continues to grow exponentially.

Added to this is a well-established set of industries in the financial, professional services and media spaces and a hugely diverse population with distinctive pockets of cultural significance. And of course, it is the home to a government playing a key role on the global political stage.

Open talent

It should come as little surprise, therefore, that the capital has developed a strong reputation as a technology powerhouse with an exceptional talent pool.

Critical to this have been the roles played by government – both locally and nationally – and industry. There’s been significant investment in digital skills programmes for several years now; recent examples include the Mayor’s Digital Talent Programme (£7 million), the National College for Digital Skills (£18 million), and training programmes from industry leaders including Google, Lloyds Banking Group and Barclays to help bridge the ‘digital divide.’

In the interest of continued growth, this talent must be carefully protected, nurtured and enhanced. City Hall’s message around London’s openness in the context of Brexit remains important in this space, as international talent only serves to further innovation.

Digital openness

Yet it’s important to provide this talent the right resources. This is when cities and industry can thrive. After all, all parties are ultimately working towards societal improvement.

We are at a pivotal juncture where talent, physical environments and the digital world can achieve this as efficiently as possible. The challenge now is to deliver this efficiency.

There are two elements to consider. Firstly, talent must be equipped to consider the breadth of opportunities open to them, and to be comfortable with redefining what constitutes digital skills.

Great work has been done to date around communicating the value of coding or digital marketing to individuals and businesses.

But the wider understanding of what constitutes a digital education should go beyond this. It should also place statistical learning at its core; collection, data cleaning, analysis and drawing conclusions, as an example.

Investing in data exploration is arguably the most valuable way by which we can accelerate societal improvements, rather than having to invest in new ideas as a first port of call.

Secondly, there must be a shift in mindset whereby we put individuals’ needs ahead of the theorising and headline-grabbing ideas that can excite in the short-term, but have less of an impact in the long-term.

Open cities

To do this requires a high degree of openness at two levels – in the talent field, and across organisations.

Although London is fuelled by an exceptional talent pool from the United Kingdom, Europe and beyond, the current climate of political uncertainty is raising serious questions about the impact upon this pool, and the city’s competitiveness.

Not only is there an impact upon European Union citizens who are currently playing important roles within this ecosystem, but also upon those considering London as a destination to live and work in the future.

Maintaining channels of openness to and from the capital – to the benefit of all involved – is absolutely critical.

This goes beyond immigration, although this does remain an important element that cannot be overlooked. However, also considered should be educational and industrial institutions – and the initiatives they are using to collaborate with the skilled individuals that can help to further their cause both inside and outside of the capital.

What’s more, since the ‘talent’ being referred to are also citizens, there must be a concerted effort to encourage wider participation in developing and implementing new ideas.

The second piece here is around facilitating truly open data in a way that helps to solve societal challenges, without threatening data privacy. Although many have already begun, discussions between complementary organisations must take place to understand the potential available. Government is best placed to lead the charge; with its explicit mandate to serve society, it can bring in the partners it deems most relevant.

This is already beginning to take place and programmes like Nitrous – which match startups to specific governmental challenges, founded upon a deep understanding of life on both sides of the coin – present a clear opportunity to smart cities.

Connected cities

Much has been made of the Internet of Things (IoT) and the contribution of these devices to the smart city. This is certainly important. But the way in which ‘connectivity’ is defined must go beyond this.

There is a huge opportunity to overlay urban planning with this technological upskilling at play; to embed innovation into the framework of the smart city.

As urban spaces continue to grow at an alarming rate, we must be clever about how to use resources, utilising data to make the right decisions around the change process.

Data has been collected about transport, population, buildings and more – and smartphones and other technologies are presenting further opportunities for data collection. In many cases, this can be done without user input, further strengthening the sheer volume. The real value, however, lies in exploring the possibilities it can uncover, and using insights to power decision-making.

And the opportunities are great. In 2014, the market for smart cities was worth $8.8 billion in 2014. A review for the UK Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) by Arup, valued the global market for smart city technologies and services at $408 billion by 2020. (Source: Nesta, Rethinking smart cities from the ground up, 2015).

Once this openness has been developed, it must continue to go further. It’s all very well having open elements but they must talk to each other. This is where there is an interesting intersection between open data and IoT.

How do you do this? The devil is in the detail – and it comes down to assigning ownership to the right groups and maintaining a degree of autonomy. And it’s very much possible, particularly for London.

There is no doubt that it is in a strong position to supercharge its reputation as a smart city. We can now build upon the foundations created by considering everything from data and talent through to infrastructure and ideas.

It is only in this way that we can confidently say that London really is open.

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