Having received £40m from the Government’s levelling up fund to help build a ‘data corridor’ in London, Rokhsana Fiaz, the Mayor of Newham, argues open data is vital for the capital’s economy.
The Council recently launched ‘Newham Sparks’, an initiative to attract investors to develop a data corridor in London, targeted at businesses working in robotics, AI, AR and VR.
As part of the plan, businesses and investors will be collaborating with the Council to develop the framework governing the corridor.
In exclusive interview with City A.M. , Fiaz, who has been a Labour councillor since 2014 and became the first directly elected female mayor of any London borough in 2018, explains why and how local councils and businesses in the City can capitalise on Londoners’ data.
Born in Mile End Hospital to parents who had moved to London from Pakistan in the 1960s, Fiaz was awarded an OBE for services for race, faith and charity in 2009.
Many say that, in the modern economy, data is king. Why are so few public bodies and London Boroughs zooming in on Londoners’ data?
Covid-19 has seen a phenomenal and accelerated use of data by public bodies and London boroughs in the face of this challenging public health crisis, where innovative data use and data driven interventions have helped us to identify vulnerable residents needing support, and generate life-saving insights to keep our populations safe. For instance, when we went into lockdown last year, councils in London came together and agreed to share data about children receiving free school meals so that even more support could be provided as schools closed. There was a real urgency in making it work, driven by a collective mission to keep vital public services going and our youngsters safe.
Was that different before the pandemic?
Even prior to the pandemic, data and digital innovation has been a prominent area of focus for councils wanting to deliver better public services for residents and drive better outcomes for them. London’s first Chief Digital Officer at City Hall has been working with councils like Newham to develop a common framework on open data use, promoting collaboration with the tech sector. Both the London Office for Innovation and Technology and the London Data Store support these efforts, and there has been a proliferation of apps you can now download because Transport for London changed-the-game by sharing its data through its open API.
“It’s clear that data and technology will continue to play a big role in how councils and public bodies operate and deliver for our citizens; to help accelerate our recovery from Covid-19 and respond to the climate emergency.”Mayor of Newham Rokhsana Fiaz
This requires three crucial things: embedding the value of data-driven innovation in our organisations involving everyone (including equipping them with the skills); ensuring the case for more investment is made as we set budgets in financially constraining times; and developing a common framework for the use of data for the public good that addresses the fundamentals around protecting personal privacy.
There are clearly different levels of data maturity across local authorities, but it is often small scale and limited to an individual service level. Our challenges are huge, so we need to be bolder in our approaches to data use. That’s why at Newham Council, innovative data-use is fundamental, as ultimately, I want digital transformation to deliver a better experience for our residents, enhance all our services to achieve the best outcomes for them and help us deal with challenging budget constraints.
Research in the US suggests that open data could unlock $3 trillion for American states. Is this also true of London boroughs?
Back in September, we launched Newham Sparks, part of our inclusive economy strategy precisely because of the value potential the data sector will have on productivity, growth and jobs. We’ll be working with other public bodies, businesses, entrepreneurs, and communities to ensure the growth of the data economy benefits citizens, fuels innovation and creates jobs.
One key collaboration has been with University College London, where we’ve been exploring the growth potential of the open data economy, and the value of that for Newham and the UK overall. We’re looking at £10 billion of growth for the UK economy as a whole by 2035, with the potential for Newham to benefit by some £100 million of growth over that period as well.
I want our borough to become the home of the data sector in London, as new technologies will fuel the creation of high-skill jobs of the future that I want our local residents to take advantage of.Rokhsana Fiaz
It’s clear that significant growth opportunity exists in the ‘indirect’ open data economy, within businesses that may use open data but that are not data-specific companies. The research also shows that growth potential exists in sectors such as robotic process engineering, data science and visualisation.
Through Newham Sparks we’re inviting other collaborations to tackle some of the most critical issues we need to find solutions for if we are truly to unleash the potential of data. For instance, what are the skills and expertise needed for the jobs of tomorrow? If we want the data economy to thrive in our borough and in the Capital, what are the right conditions for that? Crucially, how do we make sure data is used ethically to create positive social change?
Mayor Rokhsana Fiaz OBE was elected as Mayor of Newham in May 2018. Since her election, she has addressed inequality and poverty in Newham, invested in young people to widen opportunities.
Fiaz is currently leading one the biggest affordable housing programmes in London through a number of regeneration schemes, including the Carpenters Estate and the Affordable Homes programme.
She is co-chair of London’s only Enterprise Zone in the Royal Docks and is a member of the Mayor of London’s LEAP Board. As an advocate for racial justice and equalities, Rokhsana was awarded an OBE in 2019.
How should Londoners’ data be handled differently in order to let the capital thrive?
We need to have a real conversation about how our data is used, and increase citizens’ awareness and personal control over their data use. Increasing everyone’s data literacy is key to this happening, and I think this needs to start in schools.
For example, residents want services to be joined-up, and if you take health and social care as an example there are clear benefits from knowledge sharing across agencies, but consent is crucial to this happening. I think over the next few years we will see tools that empower citizens to connect to their own data and have far greater control over what they share.
“I think increasing citizen’s control over their data is actually key to unlocking a lot of the innovation potential that data holds.”Mayor Fiaz
We also often think of data in terms of information collected in the services we use, or via our phones in messages and photos. Sources of data are becoming increasingly varied, and include information like measuring air quality or heating efficiency. There are lots of opportunities to use new data sources.
On a broader level, I think we also need to champion data being used for social good –there are so many potential opportunities for data to be used for positive change. Through Newham Sparks we want to grow the focus on using data for good across the sector.
Is cybersecurity not a big concern for you? Think of identity theft and hacking.
Cybersecurity is a massive concern for local government. We regularly experience phishing attempts and third parties trying to hack into our systems using a variety of methods. We are constantly updating policies and procedures and remain highly vigilant of cyber security concerns. We regularly learn from incidents in other public sector organisations and work to adapt to increasing sophistication in hacking methods.
Across local government we need to develop data strategies which combine the highest levels of security while harnessing data for positive uses. Using data to improve services should never come with increased cyber security risks.
The Government is making much of its Innovation Strategy – how effective will it be?
Since its publication in July, we’ve been thinking about how the Innovation Strategy can help with our Newham Sparks ambitions. So, I really welcome the focus on the local delivery of research and development and its emphasis on the vital role of the public sector in creating the right foundations for growth locally through working with businesses, entrepreneurs and other partners such as further education colleges and universities.
That said, the Innovation Strategy requires the Government to enhance its collaboration appetite with local government and provide us with the money we need to make it happen on the ground, including in areas such as research and development, which is comparatively lower than countries like Germany or Singapore. They also need to expand their bandwidth when thinking about what types of innovation supported. Be broad and diverse – innovation shouldn’t be constrained.
Lord Kalifa is amongst many to express concerns about London’s fintech sector. Looking at tech more generally, should we be equally concerned?
Well, Ron Kalifa is right to highlight that London’s prominence as a global leader can’t be taken for granted, and that it isn’t fulfilling its transformative potential. His recent comments about the lack of technology and data skills risking UK’s current leading position in the sector is as relevant to the data and digital sector more broadly. The wider ecosystem needs active support to ensure that it remains competitive with the world’s other major centres.
“Attracting global talent remains a challenge in light of the UK’s departure from the European Union, as is nurturing home grown talent with the skills needed for the sector.”Mayor Fiaz on fintech
The new Scaleup Visa announced by the Chancellor, which starts in 2022, will help, but it is not a long-term sustainable solution. We need a step-change across the education sector at all levels, and we need to make sure that we keep opening up the sector to attract diverse talent.
We need to also ensure we have the right environment to not only help start-ups, but also support those businesses within the wider sector, that are scaling up rapidly. Councils have an important role to play in this and central government needs to give us the resources to make it happen.
Newham has received £40m from the Government’s Levelling Up Fund – how will this money help support the Borough’s tech sector?
Being awarded £40 million, the full amount we applied for – and the majority of the Levelling Up allocation given to London – places Newham in a unique position. It will help in the delivery of significant projects to support our Borough-wide Covid-19 recovery mission and our Newham Sparks ambition. Specifically, the funded Connected Neighbourhood’s programme, linked to the use of data and digital technologies, will deliver key infrastructure that improves prosperity by making the borough a more enticing destination for the data and digital sectors
Finally, anything else you would like to say or share with our readers?
Yes, about data, there are a lot of conversations about the impact that data is having on climate change, and rightly so. We’re keen to explore innovative ideas that create green data, such as using excess heat from data centres to heat homes. Through Newham sparks we want to work with the private sector and entrepreneurs to use data and digital to tackle climate change. And lastly, through Newham Sparks we have opened our doors to new ideas, new partnerships and new ways of working. We’re keen to hear from anyone who has an interest in using data in innovative ways or to growing the economy.