A chat with Leeds City Council's Dylan Roberts on developing 'city as a platform'

Leeds City Council CIO's 'city as a platform' concept integrates cross-agency partners to deliver overall outcomes for the public benefit.

By Thomas Macaulay
July 3, 2017

dylan roberts leeds city council
Leeds City Council Chief Digital and Information Officer Dylan Roberts

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 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.

The strategy addresses another major issue for public sector IT: a vendor market that isn't well aligned to 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 2003.

"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."

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