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Sooraj Shah

Contributing Editor

Sooraj Shah is Contributing Editor of New Statesman Tech with a focus on C-level IT leader interviews. He is also a freelance technology journalist.

IT Leaders: London’s first chief digital officer Theo Blackwell on using citizens’ data to improve public services

Last May, the Mayor of London’s office announced that it was seeking “London’s first ever chief digital officer (CDO)”.

The announcement brought more questions than answers, most notably; why does London need a CDO?

More than 100 days on from Theo Blackwell’s appointment as London’s CDO, New Statesman Tech asks him this question.

“[The reason is] because while there a lot of good things going on in London, there is a collaboration deficit between the technology community, wider community, the 33 boroughs that we have, the NHS and TfL, and what we need to do is make sure we can work together at a time when technology is changing so much and people’s expectations are changing a lot,” he explains.

Blackwell added that much like New York, which hired a CDO in 2011, his remit would be to help bring together all of the disparate elements of London – a process which was already happening, but is now moving to what he called “the next level of becoming a good smart city in a global context”.

The use of the word ‘digital’ is often what perplexes outsiders; what exactly does it mean, and what experience does Blackwell have of inspiring digital change?

“It’s about ways of working, using digital tools and technology to do certain things faster, more flexibly and being more adaptable,” he says.

His experience at the London Borough of Camden, where he spent 15 years, was instrumental in getting him the London CDO job; Camden is regarded as one of the digital leaders amongst London boroughs, with both Blackwell and Camden winning several awards during his time there.

Now, he hopes to bring together the capital’s agencies and departments to help to overcome pressing challenges such as air quality, making the city safer and dealing with the threat of cyber-crime.

“These are the complex challenges that we feel we need a function for that can encourage greater collaboration between disparate elements of London,” he says.

Smarter London

Working alongside the Mayor’s Smart London Board, an advisory group of experts and leaders in data and digital technologies, Blackwell and his team have started a listening exercise for a new Smart London plan, which they will launch at London Tech Week in June.

They’re asking the tech community, citizens and practitioners what can be done to ensure better digital collaboration across London’s boroughs and public services.

He says the plan is to ensure that the city can cope with one million more citizens in the next 20 years.

“The power of data and innovative solutions is really important for us as growth and technology go hand-in-hand. We want to stay ahead of the technology, and not just follow it, which means for the first time we have to put in collaboration between all of these city-wide public institutions, research facilities and the tech sector together,” he explains.

With this in mind, Blackwell suggests there are five key ways that the Mayor’s office and Smart London Board believe that London can be deemed ‘smart’, and these are the areas that are up for discussion.

The first is the city-wide collaboration around innovation, and the Mayor’s office is proposing a new body called the London Office for Tech and Innovation is created to work with London boroughs to lead this.

The second is working out how best to use the data at the city’s disposal, this involves a conversation around data for public benefit and for economic growth.

“We feel that the public is increasingly questioning how data is used and as a city which has a lot of data, we need to be leading that conversation with what is an accepted level of data and how there can be transparency so they know where their data is being used,” he says.

Blackwell suggests that if the city had access to data that doesn’t identify people but that can be used for public benefit – for example to treat diseases  or to help transport within the city – then there needs to be a discussion on how to make this happen.

This would involve a conversation with citizens and private companies to get a better understanding of what the data is used for.

A smart London will also have to incorporate world-class connectivity, preparing for new technologies like 5G, and enhance digital skills within the city.

The fifth and final area that Blackwell’s team will be looking at is how private sector companies within London are doing business.
“We need to have a conversation about how responsible these companies are, how they pay their workers and how they treat their customers,” he says.

“Those are the big five issues for us, and starting to talk about those five issues enables us to become a smarter city,” he adds.