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Why data is set to shape the future of local government across the UK

Omid Shiraji

Omid Shiraji

Strategic adviser to the Mayor of Newham
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Image credit: BABAROGA / Shutterstock.com

It could be said that, in the modern world, data is everything. From businesses through to public bodies, institutions everywhere now retain an ever-growing Niagara of data.

In fact, at the beginning of 2020, the number of bytes in cyberspace was 40 times greater than the number of stars in the observable universe. And, contained within this data lies not just the answers to core business issues, but some of the key challenges vexing policymakers everywhere as well.

That local councils retain significant amounts of data is clear; what is perhaps less clear is whether they are consistently able to make effective use of this information.

That is not to say that no council or public body has yet found practical application for the data they collect. Rather, impressive, innovative thinking has already been displayed. Transport for London (TfL), for instance, freely releases open data for developers to use. Citymapper, an app now near ubiquitous in London, uses the power of this open transport data to run its routing services, and since its development in 2011, has expanded internationally, and grown its team. Similarly, Yellow Line Parking (now AppyWay), a parking app developed in Kentish Town, Camden, first operated by using digitised controlled parking zones accessed from Council open data.

In these cases, the release of data can be capitalised on by businesses, driving jobs and economic growth, at first locally, then potentially nationally. It can also be used to streamline and improve public processes.

The use of open data in the UK has already delivered benefits in public services, but as part of the UK National Data Strategy, there is a need for to evaluate its use and maximise the value of data.

Here local councils like Newham could provide an effective blueprint. After all, Newham launched its Youth Map, which takes inspiration from UK wide data-led projects, such as The Great British Public Toilet Map, and can function as a model for understanding how data can be made more effective for users. Other case studies from Newham which could help shape and guide the local government approach to data include the use of data analytics for homelessness prevention and rent collection; a ‘Love Newham’ app for reporting environmental crime; and assistive technology used in support of Public Health aims.

Of course, there is a balance that must be struck between, on the one hand, enabling innovation and business growth, and on the other, trust and ethics, not least because citizens are increasingly becoming aware of the value of data in their daily lives and, in the shadow of the GDPR, are more aware of their rights than ever.

Here, research and continual dialogue is essential. Nowhere has cracked this problem, but by working with University College London (UCL) and launching a research collaboration with its Institute of Global Prosperity, Newham Council is exploring in detail the societal and economic value that data can generate, and produce quantifiable, actionable insights. Newham has an opportunity to become a beacon for data investment, transparency, and public use, blazing a trail in which other public services can follow suit.

The physical infrastructure of data centres, combined with the necessary skillset surrounding the data centre industry, has the capacity to create numerous jobs and wider economic and societal benefits. With skilled workers and a growing industry locally, there is an exciting chance to tackle challenges such as climate change – for example, Newham is already working with English Cities Fund to explore the potential to recycle energy from data centres to power homes with green energy.

A data centre economy could create jobs, help sustainability goals, and tackle critical issues such as data illiteracy and trust and ethical use of citizen data. Local government must be at the forefront of data adoption in their policy and encourage investment, community initiatives, and educational programmes. This multi-tiered approach, combining skills, education, physical infrastructure, and financial investment, has the potential to foster a sustainable, virtuous circle.

In Newham, progress is already being made. Newham Sparks – an initiative launched by Mayor Rokhsana Fiaz – is a call for investors, start-ups, community groups, and businesses to join in Newham and help super charge this agenda including developing a data corridor for London. The Royal Docks and Lower Lea valley areas will be the location for a data corridor, which will provide space, power, and connectivity, functioning as the anchor of Newham’s digital and data economies. Data centres will be key occupants of space along the corridor. Building on existing data centre areas in Tower Hamlets, such as those operated by Telehouse, Newham aims to form a connected area between East London and Canary Wharf which will be the core of London’s data economy.

There is a significant rapidly growing demand for data literacy and skills – roughly 230,000 jobs – which needs a response. We must establish clearer pathways between the education system and jobs and tackle this problem. Newham’s population is young, skilled, and has a significant proportion of early digital adopters.

This untapped talent, armed with emergent data skills and provided with the correct environment for success can be a nexus of innovation benefitting local communities in a way the traditional ‘Silicon’ landmarks perhaps historically should have done. In accordance with this, Newham runs several programmes as part of a ‘digital inclusion’ strategy. With plans to work with Newham College and other partners through Newham Sparks to expand data opportunities, Newham will be an example for other councils on how to use locally led data initiatives to provide skills for the jobs of tomorrow.

Alongside making Newham the Data Borough of London, we want it to be the most economically inclusive borough in the city. Look, for example, at Silicon Valley. There is enormous wealth and big business there, and ingredients like higher education, a young population, and good connectivity – but it doesn’t benefit the local people (if anything, the opposite).

As data becomes more valuable, it is vital the same doesn’t happen in Newham, or any other local councils who are poised to ensure that data brings prosperity and jobs to people who have, historically, struggled economically. The emergent “data sector” has ignited, bringing with it incredible opportunities for all.

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