Interview: Eddie Copeland, director of the London Office of Technology and Innovation, reflects on its first year and how priorities are changing
It’s a year since the London Office of Technology and Innovation (LOTI) began work, and it has marked the occasion with the launch of a dedicated website.
The move is a profile raiser for what the team does, a step up from a basic information page on the London Councils site and a series of blogs on Medium. Director Eddie Copeland says it is aimed at getting more people to think about the issues it is addressing.
“We work with CIOs and CDOs, but often our success depends on reaching out to colleagues beyond that core technology function. So the LOTI website needs to cover the history of each project, all the documents, all the polished templates we’ve created, to make it easier to wrap your head around.
The team was set up by London boroughs and backed by the city’s mayor to encourage collaboration on data and digital projects. It has comprised just three people – Copeland, programme manager Genta Hajri and strategic engagement manager Onyeka Onyekwelu – but has recently taken on a fourth with Jay Saggar as data projects manager.
Speaking with UKAuthority on the 15 July anniversary of the team’s first day at work, Copeland says he is generally pleased with how things have gone – not just in what the group has achieved, but in how the capital’s boroughs have responded.
Fixing the plumbing
“We soon realised there are a number of issues that local government has complained about for years that boil down to the need to ‘fix the plumbing’, essentially in three areas, and I feel really pleased that we have gained momentum on those three,” he says.
First of these has been the need for all local authorities to develop their in-house digital skills, based on which LOTI got the London boroughs to commit to creating 100 digital apprenticeships by this September. It created a guide to setting up a relevant initiative, based on work by Hackney Council, and ran some challenge days with Microsoft and Amazon to raise the profile of the issue.
As a result, Copeland says there are now 73 apprenticeships in place with more expected by the beginning of September – and there are plans to follow this up with work on creating data apprenticeships.
Another piece has been around improving technology procurement, with a big step being the creation of the City Tools dashboard mapping the use of digital technologies, contracts and skills across the boroughs.
“Rather than our conversations about procurement being based on anecdote, we get the data for informed conversations,” Copeland says.
“We launched the minimum viable product version in November – just the spreadsheet with a dashboard on top – and have been working with the GLA (Greater London Authority) and a company named Nitrous to build a more sophisticated platform. This has the database of all the boroughs’ technologies and automatically pulls their new tenders and contracts together, so they can be made more accessible to SMEs and we can make it open to innovative suppliers.
“We’re onboarding boroughs over the summer and aim to launch it in London Tech Week in September.”
He says the boroughs have generally been keen to provide the data.
Appetite for change
“I know from every conversation I’ve had with local government over the past eight years that there is continued frustration about the value they received from some of the big suppliers. I think they have the real appetite for changing processes and behaviour to have the chance of working with a broader range of suppliers.
“We’ll be doing more work in year two to help boroughs think about the data and what they need to change in their processes to make their tenders accessible.”
This been accompanied by the effort to build a requirement for open APIs into future technology contracts, which LOTI has aimed to boost by creating a draft wording for inclusion in tenders. This has been receiving feedback and is nearly finalised and ready for use.
“It’s really resonated with councils,” Copeland says. “Fundamentally, if you are a supplier to local government, I struggle to see how you can say you have local authorities’ real interests at heart if you are making it difficult for them to access the data they should have a right to get to.
“Being really clear to suppliers that this is the expectation is an important move.”
The third strand has been on data collaboration, with a focus on a more streamlined and consistent approach to information governance. LOTI has agreed with various partners on a seven-step process for boroughs to follow, and is working on a new digital tool for data protection impact assessments (DPIAs) to be available at the end of the summer.
Information governance momentum
“Towards the end of year one we’re getting momentum in working with the Information Governance Group for London, the IG leads working across boroughs who have been very supportive in trying to standardise the approach to information governance using some common tools.
“One of these we’ve been working on with Greater Manchester, Leeds City Council and Norfolk County Council to create a tool that will enable boroughs to collaborate in creating data privacy impact assessments. This is a core part of rapidly assessing the legality, ethics and security of any data project. I’m very pleased with the progress we’re making.
“With all these strands it’s like painting the Forth Bridge – the work is never done – but we’re a lot further ahead than we were a year ago.”
It is no surprise that the Covid-19 pandemic has affected perceptions and influenced LOTI’s plans.
“One is that it has reinforced the importance of the fixing the plumbing agenda,” Copeland says.
“I’ve been speaking with chief executives in the past couple of weeks and some have been saying for the first time they get why it is so important. Talking about barriers to data sharing in the abstract can be difficult to wrap your head around, but during Covid leadership teams have seen how critical it is to get timely access to data and that we have to see this through.”
One of the earliest demands has been to help councils move their democratic functions online. Copeland says that making things accessible for the public is not as simple as setting up a video conference, and that LOTI has published guidance on how to do it effectively.
It plans to follow this up by looking at more advanced digital democracy techniques that have worked in places like Paris, Helsinki, Barcelona and Reykjavik. The latter’s experience of crowdsourcing ideas for public services is cited as an example of what could make a big difference.
Copeland says this would “flip around” the traditional approach in the UK of working up proposals and putting them out for consultation.
“Boroughs are really keen to make sure the citizen voice is firmly embedded in what they choose to do, given that they do not have the resources to do everything they would like to do. So starting to use the techniques in saying to the public they understand the needs of their communities better than anyone would make a difference.”
LOTI is also working with boroughs to figure out the elements of a good recovery from the pandemic, identifying the data and digital requirements in finding the right balance between economic development, high street renewal and green issues.
Vulnerability and inclusion
But its main priority is in developing new approaches to dealing with vulnerability and inclusion. This reflects the trend from the pandemic in which boroughs have looked to work more systematically with local voluntary organisations.
“In the past we’ve had informal relationships not necessarily tied into a consistent operating model, but I think now we’re seeing boroughs taking that really seriously to see what is the new operating model for addressing need in our area, and new ways of working,” Copeland says.
“Technology such as matchmaking platforms to connect people in need with those who can support them is really powerful. And I think we’re going to see local authorities playing different roles from traditional ones as deliverers and commissioners of a service.”
This comes with the need to tackle digital exclusion at a time when education, employment, training opportunities are increasingly based online, and Copeland says the solutions could come in the form of new partnership models for authorities to work with communities, the third sector and businesses. LOTI’s contribution will partly be in co-ordinating the experiments, so that different boroughs will try different models, thereby reducing costs and risk and enabling them to learn from each other.
“That will be ongoing work, but I’ve never seen this level of appetite for local authorities to engage in the conversation,” Copeland says.
Other projects include continuing LOTI’s support for internet of things projects in London, discussions with the South London Partnership of councils on using the IoT for economic recovery, and creating an open data map of electric vehicle charging points across the city.
The second year will also see an increased focus on collaborating with other cities in the UK and Europe.
“Year one we’ve been mostly on collaboration between members; but year two will give us a chance to look at how we share with other cities, he says. “And the Covid experience will be core to that.”