London, ON takes technology beyond its city limits

From information security and AI to big-picture thinking around leadership, the city pairs technology with a thoughtful management approach to drive results beyond its borders.

London, ON takes technology beyond its city limits media 1


Set in southwestern Ontario, about two hours from Toronto, the city of $ London$  is a hotbed of talent.

Some of this talent needs no introduction: Justin Bieber was born here. So were actors Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams.

Others may not have blockbuster movie or music careers, but their accomplishments have shaped everything from medicine (one of the pioneers of insulin lived here) to beer (Canada’s largest brewery, Labatt, was founded here).

This talent also powers the local government. From artificial intelligence and machine learning, to VR and a new approach to information security, London’s public servants are constantly thinking of smart and creative solutions to address the needs of the city.

And not only does the city leverage new technology in creative ways, they've established a leadership and operations approach that promotes collaboration, communication, and empowering the staff to succeed. They’re also happy to share their work — whether it’s the tools they’ve developed, or the tactics they’ve honed to manage people and applications.

As Govlaunch works to build the global wiki for local government innovation, we’re highlighting a series of Innovators — cities, towns, and counties who are implementing transformative ideas and fostering a culture of innovation. We chatted with administrators in London’s Information Technology department to learn how they apply new technology and foster a culture of innovation.

Exploring emerging technologies

Across the city of London, the information technology department supports more than 250 applications to help the local government do its job. These include common tools like Microsoft Office and Oracle. But the city also has a practice of looking at new or emerging technologies to solve even non-technology-based problems, like $ using virtual reality to assess the effect of new buildings’ potential shade on parks$  or creating an $ open data portal that, among other things, inventories the city’s trees$ .

A great example is London’s work to address its growing homeless population. $ City leaders have convened representatives$  across churches, shelters and the city for a collaborative approach. This includes food services. Donation improvements. And now, AI.

$ Matt Ross$ , the city’s Manager, Artificial Intelligence explains:

“The City of London has developed an artificial intelligence (AI) model which predicts the probability of clients in our shelter system becoming chronically homeless 6 months in advance.”

The model ties into Canada’s $ Homeless Individuals and Families Information System (HIFIS)$  and uses machine learning to provide predictions with a 94% accuracy rate. Other cities, such as London, England and Los Angeles, have also been $ exploring how AI can help tackle homelessness$ . London, ON hopes that their solution will be applied beyond their city limits, says Ross:

“This model will be open sourced to enable any municipality in Canada who uses the HIFIS shelter management application to deploy their own machine learning model in a turn-key fashion.”

What’s more, as the recent public health emergency hit, Ross and his team were able to partner with the local medical community to $ repurpose parts of their AI infrastructure to predict patient risk using radiographs$ .

The city of London is open to embracing new technologies as solutions to its local challenges — this has led to new ways of looking at and fixing common municipal issues. And the results aren’t just benefitting London.

Creating opportunities beyond London

The AI model for homelessness isn’t the only example of London’s willingness to share its work with others. The city is now taking a collaborative new approach to one of the biggest challenges municipal IT departments face: information security.

It started when London’s Information Security team started looking into their own services — and examining what others were doing, too. An opportunity emerged.

When a city considers a new piece of technology, it has to review the product’s security to ensure city and citizen data is protected. This often involves multiple rounds of assessment. But often, two cities may be looking at the same piece of technology to solve the same problem — and they both have to go through the review process.

$ Mat Daley$ , London’s Director of Information Technology, explains:

“They realized there was a lot of repetitive work being done in information security in the municipal space, in that municipalities share similarities for the services they provide.”

This, the London team saw, was just duplicating work unnecessarily. Daley says:

“Why would three different municipalities undertake three very similar information security reviews, when they could share those? That would decrease costs and increase information.”

So the city of London set out to build an information security clearinghouse where local governments can share these reviews. $ James McCloskey$ , ITS Senior Manager of Information Security and Network at the city of London and the clearinghouse project lead explains:

“The City of London has been working with federal and provincial counterparts to enable broader sharing of application and service provider security assessments among municipal and other public sector organizations, while avoiding contractual/NDA risks to the assessing party.”

Ultimately the goal is to bring in governments across Ontario to submit to the clearinghouse; some are already using it and the plan is to bring in more. The more participants, the better, says Daley:

“The greater diversity you have, the more probability you have of getting information there that somebody else wants.”

Everyone would benefit from this sort of collaborative approach, but it’s a huge win for smaller local governments. While information security is just as important for these communities, they often don’t have the resources to conduct the same type of review. London’s clearinghouse would give them access to the information at a lower cost — or no cost.

Applying group purchasing — and negotiating in IT procurement

Beyond the clearinghouse, London is looking into other ways to find efficiencies and cost savings in the procurement process.

In Canada, provinces establish a vendor of record that any municipality can tap into. This creates bulk purchasing power, even for smaller communities. But there may be a way to reduce prices further, says Daley:

“We’re going to be releasing some RFXs that note the provincial vendor of record (VOR), and then we’re going to remove some scope elements from that VOR, and challenge the marketplace to come in under the vendor of record.”

This is a new approach to procurement — upper level procurement, as Daley calls it. It’s made possible because there’s boilerplate language in any Ontario contract that allows municipalities to also leverage the vendor’s services:

“The first thing we do, if we’re interested in buying anything related to technology, is check to see if there’s a provincial VOR associated with it. That is THE first step in buying just about anything.”

Not all local governments have the option to leverage state- or provincially sourced vendors. (Though this is something that would save huge amounts of time and money if adopted.) But all of them can adopt the collaborative approach championed by London. Daley says:

“What it comes down to is that the IT department is working closely with purchasing and supply. And that they’ve got aspects of the procurement process written in to allow that city to access RFXes from other sources — whether that’s cities, provinces, or states.”

London’s approach to leadership

London’s success isn’t just about the technology used. It’s also tied to the city’s approach to managing resources and people. London’s IT department are leaders in, well, leadership.

Here are some core principles Daley and his team follow to manage and support the department:

Leadership is all about empowering your people

When it comes to day to day operations, Daley applies five principles of management across his IT team. These are:

  • Ensuring the people he’s asking to deliver have the resources and direction that they need
  • Defining clear ownership in a project
  • Setting clear expectations
  • Establishing clear timelines
  • Scheduling follow ups in everything that the team does

But some initiatives aren’t as clear-cut; Daley calls these “cloudy goals.” They require creative thinking and strategizing, and can’t always follow a five-step approach. In this case, Daley says it’s critical for a leader to empower his or her team to do the work, without micromanaging or being too prescriptive:

“As a leader, my goal is to create an environment that has full support and maximum liberty. To get out of the way for smart people, but keep blocking for those smart people (to use a football analogy).”

Too often in local governments, tight control at the top stifles innovation and creative thinking throughout the organization. By trusting his team and not trying to do everything himself, Daley has helped foster a collaborative culture in London that drives innovative solutions.

Look at your local talent sources

All that talent in London? It’s an important part of the local government’s success.

As we’ve seen in university cities like Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Atlanta, Georgia, London’s proximity to educational institutions has been a key to its hiring success. Western University and Fanshawe College are both located in the city, offering a combined population of about 50,000 students.

“That really allows us, for a city of our size, excellent access to really highly skilled people. So although we’re not partnering directly on a specific project, we do a lot of work with these institutions and the talent coming out of their doors is a beautiful thing when you’re trying to build a team.”

While many local governments gravitate toward hiring people with local government experience, cities like London (or $ Cranberry Township$ , or Innisfil) who tap talent from outside traditional government roles infuse a greater diversity of ideas and experiences into the local government teams. This results in new and innovative approaches to local needs and services.

Always tie your work back to your strategy

With so much going on in local government, it can be easy to chase the most interesting idea or focus on the loudest voice in the room. But this approach loses sight of big-picture goals and often ends up creating more inefficiencies.

In London, teams such as the IT department first develop a strategy outlining what they want to achieve. Key citizen and business groups must be involved in this strategy development.

Then, the team creates an operating management system based on that strategy. Any measuring elements within this system must be connected to the strategy. Says Daley:

“Ensure you know where you're going, you have a clear strategy, and you have clear and consistent operating plans. The metrics of those plans must be tied back to your strategy.”

Daley explains that doing this will improve the maturity of any team, whether it’s an IT department or any other business.

To get buy in, think like a teacher

Not everyone is as quick to adopt new products or processes. This apprehension extends inside and outside local government. But it doesn’t have to be a dead end to innovation — it just takes some education.

Take London’s AI work — many citizens still aren’t sure about artificial intelligence yet. But London’s AI lead Matt Ross has been able to ease concerns by teaching others how it all works, says Daley:

“His ability to teach and articulate how these things are used creates a level of trust with both the practitioners and those to whom he’s speaking.”

There’s always going to be pushback when it comes to implementing new technologies. But the more IT managers communicate and educate their colleagues and the public, the smoother the innovation journey will be.

It’s critical for local governments to share the work they’re doing — with citizens and with other cities. At $ Govlaunch$ , we’ve seen over 2,000 such projects shared on our innovation wiki. The more cities share technology and information, as London has done across AI, information security, and other IT initiatives, the more time and money local governments save. More importantly, this collaboration drives benefits for a greater number of citizens.

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