City-wide data in London: pandemic response & recovery (Part 1)

Chief Digital Officer for London, Theo Blackwell, discusses the role of city data in the current pandemic.

As the Mayor sets up a Recovery Board with London’s boroughs and other major stakeholders, I’m setting out in a series of short posts how data during London’s response; where we want to get to; how we are going to do it; working with the data ecosystem and finally a roadmap to advance city data.

There can be no doubt Londons response to coronavirus has relied heavily on how public agencies share data effectively, with each other and with external partners — the NHS, Whitehall departments, businesses, community groups and citizens themselves.

The crisis more than ever demonstrated there is a very clear need for data in real time (or as near to real time) as possible to help inform decisions. It showed that problems-to-be-solved can’t be solved by the data one organisation holds alone: inevitably joining-up data from other sources is required. It also told us that without greater data collaboration our routes to creative, scalable solutions will remain limited.

London’s data challenges

The UK’s unusually fragmented approach to public sector data means often we talk more about how data is not shared or is not available than how it is more seamlessly used to understand common needs or meet shared objectives.

Fundamentally important data often lies behind departmental or technology walls and there are differing interpretations of information governance rules by public bodies. Organisational posture and priorities also play a part.

The crisis provides us with an opportunity to address this in London. For recovery — and stronger resilience against further shocks — the city’s big challenges around the economy, housing, vulnerability and inequality all require data to be treated truly as a city asset, with suitable investment in collective architecture, governance, capability and a common sense of purpose.

Data and the response

Previously I’ve written about London’s rich tradition of using open data so let’s now explore, in the context of the current crisis, how better data sharing across the data spectrum has aided decision-makers.

Take action — the immediate response involved the assembly a huge range of data-flows for key decision-makers to understand how existing services were responding and interacting on a London-wide level: such as homelessness, how the entire transport system was coping, pressure on care beds, deaths and mortuary capacity. Good data-flows augment the work of analysts, for example the work highlighting the link between deaths and BAME and low income Londoners with insecure jobs.

London Datastore projects with partners during the crisis

See the big picture — the GLA is working on a new Data Partnership for High Streets, bringing together domain experts in planning and regeneration with Business Improvement Districts, business representatives and data analysts to join up data to support decisions. The outcomes of this work, using the GLA’s new data-as-a-service approach to design the key questions, will support the work of the Recovery Taskforce as well as offer a more dynamic dataset for more long-term urban planning.

Meet citizen needs — data gave us a clearer picture of vulnerability, when it became clear very early on that relying only on the Government’s Shielded List was not an effective identifier of the totality of emerging needs. Information coming from citizens, newly formed mutual aid groups and community organisations had to be triaged to provide a clearer picture, requiring new systems and approaches.

Creation of new services — good data practices helps us understand emerging needs from citizens and develop new online and physical services to meet them. Camden council’s ‘Beacon’ prototype service model, spun up in the early weeks of the crisis with Hackney council and Futuregov and capable of scaling, focuses on the end-to-end journey from initial resident contact through to resident need being met from both a service and technology perspective. Here digital technology and data pulled from a variety of sources, including the local voluntary and community sector (VCS), can be used to create a single view of needs to foster collaboration across services and organisations. The potential for this includes resident and practitioner tools with previously siloed data made shareable and actionable through APIs.

Transparency & visualisation of complex problems — data processes allowed non-data expert audiences and the public to manage complexity. Because of regular changes to the way the Government released COVID-19 cases data during, City Hall set out to download, check, clean and establish a consistent time series for the public and others to use, resulting in an API and interactive London dashboard on cases and hospital treatments, making use of previous design guidelines on good data visualisation.

London Datastore visualisation — Covid-19 Cases by London Borough (01/03/2020 to 25/05/2020)

Mobilise new data partnerships with research institutes — new partnerships have been formed to gain detailed insights into the pandemic. For example, City Hall is using aggregated data from Vodafone, O2 and Mastercard payments to add to our view of the observance of lockdown restrictions and add our understanding of the health of local economies. Work (known as ‘Project Odysseus’) with the Turing Institute, London First and Microsoft UK repurposes our ongoing work on air quality forecasting to assess the ‘busy-ness’ of areas of the city, also allowing insight into restrictions and economic recovery.

An example of the output from Project Odysseus’ image processing algorithms. The map shows locations of JamCams (run by Transport for London) and the image shows a snapshot from one of the cameras. The plot in the bottom right shows the number of buses, cars, motorbikes, people and trucks detected by the image processing algorithms.

While the above examples show that a focus on data collaboration can start to make a real difference, none of these projects were without difficulty — whether in negotiating data-sharing arrangements, encountering technology barriers, securing available time from very limited data resources, down (in some cases) to identifying the right officers responsible for data in some organisations.

Next up — I’ll discuss where we want to get to, and how the foundations to ‘fix the data plumbing’ of London have already started to be laid.

@MayorofLondon CDO & Smart London Board putting data & technology at the heart of making London an even better place to live, work and visit

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