How London's tech is adapting to the coronavirus challenge

Remote working, connectivity, security and cross-borough innovation.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor

"What we're seeing is not just an IT and plumbing response, but a real commitment to meeting people's needs. Not necessarily by using technology but by using design brainpower to effectively create new services. They've jumped into action swiftly within days, which is amazing," says London chief digital officer (CDO) Theo Blackwell.

As London's CDO, Blackwell leads the digital transformation agenda for the capital's public services across the Greater London Authority.

While his organisation has a well-established policy for home working, no one could have anticipated a situation where, as a result of the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak, as many as 95% of the workforce in London's City Hall are now having to work remotely.

The immediate action has been to ensure staff in City Hall and across London's boroughs can connect and collaborate. That's involved making sure that staff know how to run online meetings and conference calls using collaborative tools such as Skype – which Blackwell uses for his interview with ZDNet – and Microsoft Teams.

SEE: Coronavirus: Business and technology in a pandemic

"That collaboration is absolutely critical because we need to make sure that the information flow is getting through to the right people, so the Mayor of London can make decisions," he says.

"We've immediately done work on building people's capabilities. People have been trained for this but it has happened at such scale that we need to invest time in that approach. So that means sharing some really good practice from the boroughs," he says. 

Blackwell says his organisation is fortunate to be able to tap into best-practice lessons from across London's boroughs. These shared lessons are already paying dividends in terms of efficiency and effectiveness.

"It means we're not all doing the same piece of work in isolation," says Blackwell. "There's been some really good work and we've been able to share or copy from the boroughs that have saved us time, so we can devote more time to sorting out Londoners' needs."

When it comes immediate external focuses, Blackwell says his efforts have been focused on two important areas: connectivity and security.

For issues around connectivity, he has spent time talking with mobile network and broadband providers about capacity. Blackwell has sought reassurances that networks will not be overloaded given the recent and ongoing surge in home working.

"That's the sort of thing where the boroughs might not themselves have a means of gathering that information. Whereas we can do that at City Hall and then we can cascade that information through to citizens," he says.

Now that staff are working from home, making sure they can do so securely is another consideration to take into account. The National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) is already warning that criminals are looking to exploit the spread of coronavirus to conduct cyberattacks and hacking campaigns.

"This crisis is an opportunity for rogue agents, criminals and others to exploit people through online fraud or malware and viruses," he says. "We need to make sure the information being shared out there is being shared in good faith and we need to make sure that people are working online as safely as possible."

All UK organisations are still in the very early days of adapting to the new way of working brought about by the spread of coronavirus. Changes being put in place now are likely to become the platform for business-as-usual working practices for many months to come.

Blackwell says the early signs in London are good; employees and local government organisations are rising to the challenge. The boroughs have more responsibility for delivering frontline and digital services than City Hall on a daily basis – and Blackwell says they're responding to the challenge of coronavirus with some innovative ideas.

He directs attention to "some very interesting work" that's taking place in the London boroughs of Hackney and Camden. Here, well-tested agile development principles that originated in IT departments are being taken on by public sector staff outside technology departments and being adapted to help create new services that meet fast-changing demands.

"They're using design principles and saying 'right we've identified a problem. We're going to work in a sprint to solve that problem, such as, how do we provide food to isolated older people'. They're identifying the problem, sending in design teams and talking to users about the most effective way and designing something really, really quickly," says Blackwell.

SEE: Your IT department is stuck in a time-warp. Agile and DevOps might be able to save it

That focus on innovation chimes with one of Blackwell's key responsibilities as London CDO, which is to build support for data-led approaches to service delivery and public engagement. A key element of that approach is the London Office of Technology and Innovation (LOTI), a cross-borough initiative that was launched last year.

LOTI is a city-wide venture that hopes to strengthen the boroughs' ability to innovate and to scale-up digital innovation across the city's public services. Blackwell says LOTI is going to play a crucial role in ensuring the innovative practices being used to respond to the coronavirus now are recorded and shared across the UK going forward.

"That's all still work in progress and through LOTI we're capturing all of that so we can spread what works as widely as possible, both inside and outside the public sector. So the fact that we've created a way of linking the cutting-edge innovation in our boroughs is serving us really well in terms of resilience," he says. "In the longer term, we will be in a position to communicate beyond the borders of London about the things that we're experiencing."

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