The Tech Opportunity for Londoners – Interview with Sadiq Khan

Public

05 November 2019

Daniel Korski, co-founder of PUBLIC interviews Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan about the impact of new technologies and innovation on London’s public services – from facial recognition technology to digital-ID schemes.

You joined the GovTech Summit in Paris last year leading a large delegation of British startups. A year on, what are some of the key reforms that you have instituted to help ensure that technology benefits Londoners and the local services they rely on?

There is huge potential for the public sector and our dynamic tech companies to work together to tackle the challenges we face as a city. Earlier this year we launched the London Office of Technology & Innovation (LOTI). Based at London Councils, this new institution aims to overcome a major hurdle faced by all cities: how to foster greater collaboration between the tech and public sectors.

London’s first Chief Digital Officer, Theo Blackwell, is leading on work already underway at City Hall to improve data-sharing and other projects. What’s more, we’re supporting innovative solutions to city-wide issues being developed across the sector through my Civic Innovation Challenge and Transport for London’s Roadlab initiative.

These offer new ways of harnessing the creativity of the capital’s tech sector and developing their ideas much more quickly and effectively than we’ve done before.

Tony Blair has argued that the UK should have a country-wide digital ID scheme, helping to provide better services but also accounting for people in the country. But central government has struggled to get a scheme up and running and some boroughs have moved ahead with their own programmes. Is it time for London to have one cross-city digital ID scheme? 

My Chief Digital Officer works closely with London boroughs on digital identity and there are some interesting innovations happening at borough level to provide better services – we’re looking forward to being able to share our work on this in the future.

There is huge potential for the public sector and our dynamic tech companies to work together to tackle the challenges we face as a city.

Facial recognition has become a hot topic, with obvious advantages to private and public services but also real questions about protecting people’s privacy. How do we strike the right balance – both between effectiveness and privacy but also in ensuring that the UK doesn’t miss out on commercial opportunities?  

We commissioned an ethics panel on the facial recognition technology pilot at the Metropolitan Police – it identified a set of criteria which must be met if it’s to be deployed. There are important questions about this technology and it’s clear we also need national legislation to ensure it’s used responsibly and accountably.

For any use of artificial intelligence (AI), we have to have the public’s trust. I’ve asked my Chief Digital Officer to develop our thinking on how we use these kinds of emerging technologies in London, as well as looking at the kind of ethical framework which guides the public sector as a whole.

The ULEZ you introduced seems to have been both a policy and digital success. What is the best way to build on this, to ensure that London is at the forefront of using innovation to address climate change? 

I’m absolutely committed to cleaning up the air we breathe, including by using the latest technology. The Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) – which has led to 13,500 fewer polluting car being driven into central London each day and 36 per cent drop in harmful NO2 pollution in the zone – is part of a range bold measures we’ve put in place to tackle London’s filthy air. This also includes working with the Alan Turing Institute to improve city-wide data on air pollution, which will be critical to innovation in the future.

Using air quality sensors across London, we’re using AI and machine learning to develop ways of understanding and addressing this problem. Not only can we call on a network of sites across the capital, 250 primary school pupils helped us test air quality by wearing special backpacks fitted with sensors. The results showed these pupils are exposed to five times more harmful air pollution on the school run than at any other time of day.

All the work we’re doing is starting to drive the development of apps and services to help Londoners choose the greenest ways to travel, as well as tools to help national policymakers tackle harmful pollution at government level.

AI has the potential to transform public services but we’ve been clear that the government has a major role to play in supporting the data economy.

Crime has risen up London’s agenda recently but compared to many other police forces globally, UK police has not been an early mover when it comes to adopting new technologies that could support law enforcement. Large vendor lock-in and limited digital skills are some of the issues that have been highlighted. How do we overcome that? 

Keeping Londoners safe is my top priority. The Met are leading the way with body-worn video to improve evidence gathering and accountability – I support them and all London’s public services being bold around introducing new technologies.

Last year we also helped create the Local Digital Declaration with Whitehall to break the UK public service’s dependence on inflexible and expensive technology, meaning the public sector can use the latest innovations in a more cost-effective way.

You have made the case that the Prime Minister should give AI the attention it deserves. How do you think that AI can best be put to use to help improve public services in London? 

There is great potential for AI to help meet some of the capital’s most complex challenges – from the climate crisis, to encouraging more sustainable and active travel, and improving overall quality of life for all Londoners.

At City Hall, we are working with universities, Transport for London, the NHS and the tech sector to do this.  AI has the potential to transform public services but we’ve been clear that the government has a major role to play in supporting the data economy, starting with a robust and funded National Data Strategy.

Join us in Paris for the GovTech Summit on 14 Nov 2019, where public leaders, innovators and investors will gather to discuss how technology can re-think governments across Europe!

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