Leeds City Council Chief Digital and Information Officer Dylan Roberts interview - Developing 'city as a platform'

Leeds City Council Chief Digital and Information Officer Dylan Roberts is responding to cuts to council budgets by harnessing the power of technology to deliver public services in a new way.

"We need to flip our thinking altogether and think about how we affect better outcomes for people," says Roberts, a high-flyer in the 2017 CIO 100.

"It's about integrating information technology with partners across the city around the needs of some of our citizens. But in particular, it's about how we can get citizens themselves to become more self-sufficient through using consumer-based information and technology to look after themselves or even look after their own communities."

His strategy to support them is the 'city as a platform', a holistic concept focused on achieving overall outcomes for the community rather than delivering discrete services.

The concept combines the citizens and their concerns with the digital technologies and information available from different sources across the city to develop new capabilities to solve its problems.

Information from the transport companies in Leeds could be combined with footfall data from different partners and presented to the commercial sector to develop a multimodal transport app offering residents routes that are optimised around speed, scenery, and cost. The private sector can also benefit by using the council as a facilitator to test their own products on real citizens through the city as a platform.

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The strategy addresses another major issue for public sector IT: a vendor market that isn't well aligned with current needs.

Software companies protect their position in the market by providing proprietary solutions that can integrate with only the alternative products that they allow, a trend well-known as vendor lock-in.

The transport app, for example, needs numerous different solutions from the assortment of bus companies, train operators and different data firms involved to work together.

"If they provide solutions which lock you in and they won't easily interoperate or integrate with each other then how can you have a multi-modal transport app?" asks Roberts, who was appointed Leeds City CIO in 2013.

"The current IT market is still a bit in the old world, and that is where they look to try and do everything themselves, whereas in the new world - this is my opinion now - it's impossible for one single vendor to do everything, they need to open up a lot more.

"If you look at companies like Microsoft, the super companies of the past which try to provide everything, even they realise now that they have to open up and be a bit more platform-agnostic."

Roberts believes the successful vendors of the future will need to collaborate to create products that meet individual needs through a mix of integrated software.

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He has responded to the current problems of proprietary systems, silo thinking and a focus on revenues over services by working on ways to disrupt the market with IT professional bodies such as Socitm, the British Computer Society and techUK, and in his role as chair of the local CIO Council. His ambition is to create more open, dynamic, and standards-based systems to benefit the public.

The growing digital sector in Leeds has increased its potential for collaboration to benefit both business and the public sector and contribute towards a programme dubbed "Strong Economy, Compassionate City".

Tech companies in Leeds can use the city as a platform concept to gain a deep understanding of the local issues that are relevant throughout the country. They can base themselves inside the city to test their ideas and learn from a network of collaborators and then scale them up and sell the developed product across the UK.

Among the products the council has co-produced is a "bus clock" for care settings, an analogue device that tells owners exactly when the next bus is going to arrive. The product has increased the number of older people using the buses in Leeds by 18%.

Attracting the necessary investment to help the company behind the bus clock scale and sell the product is now Roberts' principal objective.

"The big challenge for me is getting some more of these prototypes scaled to be sustainable solutions, and that's really hard, especially when you consider the mega vendors are doing everything they can to crush some of those new innovations."

Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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