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Camden eyes the opportunities in data


Interview: Omid Shiraji, interim chief information officer at the London borough, explains how its approach to data relates to ambitions for the local economy, and its confidence in shared services

Ambitions for the local economy are closely intertwined with the council data strategy for the London Borough of Camden.

Its interim chief information officer, Omid Shiraji, sees an alignment between the prospects for the tech industry and the council’s approach to open data; and in conversation with UKAuthority he makes clear that he sees it as a significant element of the effort in London as a whole.

“It’s an ambition from (mayor) Sadiq Khan for London to be the global centre of data,” he says. “For that to be realised the boroughs need to come together to be the nexus for the data.

“It’s a sector that will be worth over £320 billion over the next three years, and there’s an interesting opportunity for Camden to play that role as the hub of data for London. This is about attracting the best businesses, working with our schools, colleges and training providers to create a curriculum, to professionalise the standards of the data industry, to incubate data organisations in their infancy.

“At the moment it’s a vision, but there’s something really interesting about the opportunity.”

Digital giants

His perspective reflects the fact that technology is a big factor in Camden’s economy, with digital giants Google, Facebook and BT having a significant presence in the borough, and business in the borough contributes about 2% to the national GDP. This is keeping it to the forefront of council leaders’ minds as they formulate its Camden Plan for the next five years, and will ensure that the borough remains strongly committed to the cause of open data.

It has been known as a leader in the field for some time, having unveiled its open data platform earlier this year, and is now making several hundred datasets available for re-use.

Shiraji says there are two domains within which it works. One is directed at supporting economic growth, and he points to a local success story as an example.

Appy Parking, a business that collates on- and off-street parking information across London, received an early boost by obtaining access to Camden’s datasets on parking bays. It now has several boroughs involved in the service and Shiraji says it would not exist without open data.

He believes there is scope to take open data further, with other London boroughs to developing similar models.

“It’s about enabling London as a centre for this and how we use data to improve businesses and create new opportunities,” he says.

Internal savings

The internal element of the open data platform is equally important. He says one of the early achievements has been in using the data to build an online notification system for the planning process, which saved the council about £200,000 per year in sending out letters.

It is now working on a data programme to build on the early progress. As part of this, Shiraji highlights the construction of a dashboard to bring together information on a household receiving support from different services across the council. It should provide social workers with a holistic view of the family to support them with interventions and regular support.

The potential could be extended much further with more cross-agency collaboration in opening up data across the city.

“We’re now talking with people like Transport for London and the London Fire Brigade about how we can create data sharing alliances, collaborate using data to make a difference for residents.

“They are looking at transforming travel, and we’re looking at things like how can we get vulnerable people from A to B. It might be possible to join up the datasets to support the social care worker and figure out what transport is available at what time and location.

“There are also possibilities for roadworks. TfL has the data around planning and closures of many roads, while local authorities have the rest. How do you get a more seamless roadwork planning process across those organisations? You get it by sharing data and starting to simulate road closures using those datasets.”

 It all reflects an ambitious approach to the use of data by the borough.

“Things like our approach to open data are about us having the ambition and the charter to expose our data to the community,” Shiraji says.

Neighbouring partners

Camden has a high profile collaboration in another area, as a partner in a shared IT service with neighbouring boroughs Islington and Haringey under the leadership of Ed Garcez. Camden is planning to follow the other two in a migration to Office 365 – scheduled for the turn of the month – and all three are looking at a consolidation of data centres with a move to the cloud.

Shiraji describes the service as “an enabling capability”, through which the councils share where possible and still have the ability to invest locally when more appropriate. It was designed by looking at the common business capabilities, where things were done in a similar manner, and laying the IT over the top.

“We didn’t start with the organisational structure, but establishing the common business capabilities,” he says. “I don’t think that’s been done before.”

He is eager for the council to take advantage of other shared services. It has given its staff access to the GovRoam capability for Wi-Fi access – run by Jisc – in a wider collaboration with two large higher education institutions – City University and the University of London. This will give staff from the different organisations Wi-Fi access in each other’s buildings, and there are moves to include local NHS bodies and extend it to other London boroughs.

Four pillars

Since joining Camden in early 2016 – having previously worked for welfare to work provider Working Links and City University – he has co-sponsored a four pillar approach to its strategy. One of these involves a transformation of the council’s working practices, of which the move to Office 365 will be a significant element.

Another has been the replacement of its HR and finance systems with the cloud based Oracle Fusion service, which he believes is a first in the public sector. The HR stage was completed in August and finance is scheduled for the first quarter of next year.

There has also been a digitisation of the post and mail processes. The council is currently looking at how digitise outbound post as far as possible, and next year will extend the effort to inbound.

Shiraji says it is a complicated process, but that he sees the potential for gains from increased automation and that there is an ambition to save hundreds of thousands of pounds in the long term.

Workspace design

Finally comes a less tangible but equally important ambition to improve collaborative working within the council by better aligning the IT estate with the design of the workspace.

“We want to see what it could look like for the future and how it fits with development thinking,” he says.

Moving all these forward is a gradual process, but Camden’s record as a pioneer on open data shows that it is not scared of breaking new ground, and able to show that it can produce tangible benefits. There is also a feeling that the presence of those big names in the digital industry have a strong influence on its thinking.

It will be among the councils to watch over the next couple of years.

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