Data & digital transformation — what do London’s local councillors think?

Theo Blackwell, the Chief Digital Officer for London, outlines the results of a recent poll of 202 local councillors in London on digital transformation, personal data use and sensors in cities.

As Chief Digital Officer for London my role is to ensure that London’s public services are open to further digital innovation through data-sharing across London’s public services. Our commitment to being a smart city is to mobilise the strengths of our city’s innovators to ensure digital change is both human-centred and transparent.

Change happens in local democratic setting so at the end of last year as part of our Smarter London Together work on city data, the GLA polled London’s local councillors on their views about digital transformation and the use of data to improve council and city services. The research follows questions asked of the public during our Listening Tour in early 2018.

Here we publish the results in full for the first time:

Summary
London’s councillors see the increasing importance of digital transformation over the next five years and there is an appetite for civic uses.
Leaving digitally-excluded residents behind remains more of a concern of councillors than any other digital change issue we asked them about, including cybersecurity, cost of technology, connectivity and loss of jobs.
Data-sharing between public bodies is seen as important to improve public services, but councillors also think councils have work to do to reassure residents that this can be done safely and securely;
There is consistent support for use of sensors for a variety of civic/environmental uses. This support becomes more qualified the more ‘personal’ the information gathered.
Councillors are supportive of the use of mobile phone data to understand how citizens move about cities.

We asked London’s local councillors of their views because London’s 32 boroughs provide a vast array of services directly to citizens and local businesses, from online payments of taxes, fees or rents and services like waste & recycling, parking, housing repairs and childcare. Councillors also play a huge role in allocating resource, deciding local planning policy and other regulatory services in their area.

Together this represents significant decision-making power and a potentially huge amount of data to improve these services. (Potentially, because practice councils have gone about digital transformation in different ways, so gaining a broad picture across London is often limited by technical, governance and cultural issues between councils).

Importance of digital transformation over the next five years

Local services constantly need to respond to a range of pressures from rising citizen expectations, and demographic change. Achieving democratically-decided outcomes on the environment, place and inequality will require a focus on integration and collaboration as well as innovative approaches outside of traditional public service silos. The greater use of data and digital services is almost unavoidable.

Our polling revealed that London’s councillors recognise the increasing importance of digital transformation for public services in the coming years, even more so than over the preceding five years: today +79% of councillors view digital transformation as important.

How important or unimportant is digital transformation (using digital technology to redesign and rebuild services) considered for your council in achieving its objectives…

Customers and citizens

Data has been used by the tech sector to meet consumer needs and wants, increasing and anticipating choice and availability of products and services on offer.

At the heart of effective public service delivery is the ability to collect and analyse data on performance and user experience. This allows for better service design, controls costs, allows for early interventions across public services. Ultimately public services could enable greater citizen self-help and to avoid acute need presenting itself later on at greater financial cost to the taxpayer or potentially avoiding harm to the citizen.

In this context, we sought views on what data councillors’ thought would be the most useful.

Generally, what would you say are the most useful ways organisations and companies can utilise personal data? (2 choices)

In reality Londoners are a variety of ‘users’ — they are customers, citizens, patients, passengers — but here perhaps we get a hint of a desire for a wider application of data-driven services in the public sphere.

Challenges

What stops councils adopting digital services quicker is a critical question.

Which of the following, if any, do you think are the biggest challenges facing your local authority with respect to digital technology? (Two choices)

When asked what the two biggest digital challenges facing local councils are, Just over half councillors regarded digital exclusion as the top challenge; this was followed by a range of other challenges ranging from cyber security, the cost of digital transformation, lack of digital skills to make, design or buy solutions, and poor handling of data & privacy concerns.

Improving connectivity and loss of jobs from automation were seen as less of a concern.

What would most improve London’s public services?

At the heart of effective public service delivery is the ability to collect and analyse data on performance and user experience. This allows for better service design, controls costs, allows for preventative interventions across public services, to enable citizen self-help and to avoid acute need presenting itself later on at financial cost to the taxpayer or increased harm.

Thinking about the use of personal data by public bodies specifically which the following, if any, would most improve London’s public services? (Two choices)

Over half councillors said sharing data between different public bodies would improve service delivery, followed by using data to improve planning of future services and integrating personal data held by councils and the NHS to better allocate treatment; measuring energy use in homes and use of smartphone location data to improve walking and cycling as lower order importance, compared to these.

Sharing personal data

We explored the topic of data-sharing further, as some of London’s toughest challenges — like tackling violent crime, preventing ill-health or improving life-chances—will require the sharing of personal data to target resources more effectively.

Thinking about people who live in your area, to what extent, if at all, do you agree or disagree with the following statements?

However, when we asked local councillors what they believe residents thought about data sharing we found a distinct gap around trust: they consider that most residents think data-sharing will improve services but don’t also think residents trust local councils to do it securely.

This suggests our local public services have work to do both to make the case for sharing and provide necessary assurance.

Sensors

Cities across the world are beginning to see the deployment of sensor technology embedded in buildings and public spaces, enabling the gathering of data to determine patterns of behaviour and to enhanced design and opportunities for innovation.

When asked, London’s local politicians gave broad support to the range of use-cases we suggested. This support became more qualified the more ‘personal’ the data (or images) gathered, but even in relation to facial recognition and household waste and recycling remained in the net positive.

Smartphone data

Smartphone ownership has seen rapid growth across all age groups since 2013. From near ubiquity among 16–24 year-olds, the 55–75 category has seen the most growth increasing from 40% in 2013 to 77% in 2018.

Data derived from phones has the potential to revolutionise how people move about cities. Large-scale commuting studies can take a long time to complete, and are often time-consuming and expensive using techniques such as vehicle counting and surveys. Many councils learn about new trends and patterns only infrequently when a detailed studies are released — and not in real-time — and this may only give a partial picture in a federated city like London and miss, for example, the flow of people into and out of cities as well as the flow in the commercial and residential areas.

In contrast, mobile networks will know the approximate locations of all active phones in order to provide them with communication services.

The growth of smartphones means that a large amount of data is available on how individuals use cities. How useful do you personally feel phone data is in helping design public services?

When we asked councillors about their views about phone data to understand how citizens move about cities and, as with sensors, we found broad support among London’s councillors.

Some preliminary conclusions

Digital technologies are transforming how we work, do business and interact with one another. They help us use data on a previously unprecedented scale, allowing deeper understanding into citizen needs and wants. The ability to embrace and implement new products, services and technologies will be fundamental to the future shape of public services and is at the heart of what we call a smart city.

A poll like this is, of course, just a high-level snapshot of views and will by the questions asked and the limited nature of investigation miss some of the nuances associated with data use and technological change. For example, many aspects of this are balanced with concerns about citizen privacy, oversight and enforcement of protections like GDPR especially when third parties — such as the private sector- are involved. Nevertheless, when we combine these findings and a study I did with the LGIU in 2016, with our other work gauging citizens’ views of data conducted earlier in 2018 , we begin to see some patterns.

First, Londoners and their representatives are taking a pragmatic approach to sensors and the use of data. This is balanced by the need for those using their data to make the case for why it is needed and to provide appropriate assurance around how, where and for how long data will be gathered. This places an onus of better digital and data governance on local authorities and public services which will increase as innovation is adopted, and is reflected in current debates about who is driving smart cities, the data rights of citizens and algorithmic transparency.

Second, data used to tackle common problems such as patterns in poor air quality, congestion or other environmental concerns garner more support than other uses. Broadly speaking the more ‘personal’ the data gathered, the more likely it is that the case need to be made on data use and governance to gain acceptance.

Third, data sharing — especially when it comes to personal data- is both critical to the future of public services and an area that citizens and their representatives think authorities need to be better at. Improving both the practicalities of data-sharing (technical and cultural) and building trust with citizens and other users (governance and also cultural) is becoming a major priority.

Finally, digital inclusion remains a very important issue for our elected representatives. Many of public services act as a safety net for the most vulnerable, many of whom remain digitally excluded. The idea that these citizens are abruptly left behind is an understandable concern which may block change unless inclusion is designed in right from the start.

In practice inclusion can also play out in a slightly more nuanced way, not so much blocking but impeding the pace of change. Councillors do not develop policy alone, but through consultation with constituents, civic groups and agreement with their political colleagues. Plans to proceed with service transformation are debated before decision in a political setting and through public scrutiny. This presents an additional challenge of convincing skeptical colleagues both in public and private that change (or mitigation) would not disadvantage the excluded groups they are elected to serve. Effective digital leadership in our city will require time and investment with decision-makers as well as with users to design and develop inclusive services and interventions.

This is study forms a small part of our work at City Hall with London’s public services. Our first step towards becoming a smarter city is to re-focus on the foundations — design, data, connectivity, skills and collaboration. Progress is set out openly via our Smarter London Together Report Card, where these results will be published in full.

Methodology

YouGov completed online interviews with a representative sample of 202 London local councillors. The survey was completed between 26th October — 9th November 2018. Results for Councillors are weighted by council, party, and gender to give a sample that is representative of all councillors in London. It is based on a 95% confidence level results are correct to +/- 7%.