London On-line Local Authorities (LOLA)

[London Online Local Authorities (LOLA)]

A pioneering and innovative local council partnership
implementing a very complex on-line real-time
database system in the early 1970s.

It all began in 1968 when the London Borough of Haringey, a local council in London, UK, commenced a study into a new computer system. A system that would be a step-change from the 2nd generation LEO 3 computer it was then running. LEO was using magnetic tapes and paper tape, and producing reams of paper. Data was duplicated and inconsistent. Turnaround time was measured in days and sometimes in weeks.

They needed a system where data was consistent and authoritative. One that was citizen and property centric. Where data was held once and shared among many applications and users. They wanted a system that was paperless, available here and now, and respond in seconds!

Let's recall some of the technology at this time. Intel was just being founded. IBM had recently launched its 3rd generation of mainframe computers with the first modular encapsulated integrated circuits. A typical mid-size mainframe with peripherals cost about $0.75m ($12m today) and filled a warehouse floor. It came with 512KB memory.

Music in the late 60s was analogue: vinyl or tape, and it would be a few more years before VHS and Betamax appeared. The first video games console (The Magnavox Odyssey) would not be released until 1972.

It was only in 1969 that the first electronic communications are sent through the ARPANET. Only then had the foundations of the internet been created. It would take another 20 years before Tim Berners-Lee created the first web browser to usher in the world wide web. Mobile phones for the public would come a little earlier in 1979.

But people were thinking big. Technology would usher in a new era of leisure and abundance - if only!

Yellow Brick Road

What Haringey's report envisaged was so ambitious that it could not be achieved by a single council. They published their ideas in a document dubbed the Yellow Report 1. and started talking to other London Boroughs about sharing their dream.

In 1970 the London Boroughs of Tower Hamlets and Hackney agreed to share the journey. A little later Hillingdon also joined. The partnership was called London On-line Local Authorities (LOLA).

LOLA's ambitious vision was to create an information management system that provided a 360 degree view of all citizen's interactions with their council. Data would only be held once and updated in real-time via on-line display terminals.

At its heart was two key databases: people and properties. All other databases would link to these. As more applications were developed, so a richer picture would be created and accurate data could be shared across the council's departments and staff, providing they had valid security clearance.

Apollo Moonshot Technology

LOLA pioneered the use of IBM's then new database and transactional software called Information Management System (IMS DB/DC). IMS had evolved out of a project at Rockwell and Caterpillar in the USA for the Apollo moon landing programme.

LOLA's implementation was so sophisticated that it caused consternation with the developers in San Jose, California. So they gave LOLA a direct "hot line"! Despite major issues with database corruption and performance, plus power outages caused by the miners' strikes, the system went live as planned in April 1972.

14 Major Applications

Over the following two decades LOLA's vision became reality. They began with Domestic Rates, the local taxation system based on property values. Other applications included Business Rates, Community Charge, Community Charge Benefits, Council Tax Benefits, Creditors, Electoral Register, Financial Management Accounts, Housing and Housing Benefits, Payroll, Pensions Administration, Personnel Information & Payroll, Social Services and Stores.

In the 1980's LOLA pinoneered yet again when the PC Group was formed, with Pensions being the first PC application plus users undertaking data analysis using so called 3rd Generation Lanuages (3GL).

1990s Divergence

By the 90s large mainframe systems were seen as expensive and the partnership model was under strain as councils wanted to pursue their own agendas. Cheaper mini-computers plus the availability of a range of software packages no longer required organisations to "roll their own".

In 1993 LOLA was outsourced to CFM. CFM later became CFM London North until taken over by ICL in 1998 which in turn became part of Fujitsu in 2002.

The LOLA office in Sydney Road, Enfield were shut in 2003 and most staff relocated to the Fujitsu office in Stevenage. By that time the other boroughs had already migrated most of their systems, typically to Unix based mini-computers with PC front end.

Tower Hamlets preferred the LOLA based systems and in 2002 retained ITNET to manage the former LOLA applications. Later Tower Hamlets decided to implement the Northgate iWorld Rents and Benefits system and the data was migration from the LOLA Benefits system in 2004. By 2006 Tower Hamlets had migrated all their systems away from the LOLA ones.

Back to the Drawing Board

Packages, mini-computers and PCs have bought the benefits or choice and lower costs for councils and many commerical organisations. But now in the 21st century they are having to grapple with the problems of duplicate and inconsistent data and the difficulties of data analysis to support strategic planning. Just like the problems Haringey had in the late 60s!

Ground-breaking Achievements

Haringey’s vision for a management information system, encompassing all its properties, people and services, operated in real-time, and designed for operational, tactical and strategic use, was ambitious and revolutionary.

LOLA was one of the first customers in the world for IBM’s new Information Management System (IMS). It was one of the first, if not the first, in the world to develop an on-line real-time database information system for local government. It would be many decades before other UK councils developed similar systems.

In using the new IMS software and pushing its functionality beyond what the developers had expected, LOLA experienced considerable technology problems. Nevertheless, the Rates system went live on-time as planned.

Operationally, clerks in the Rates department moved from overnight and weekly batch processing, producing reams of paper, to a near paperless and instant access and update system using screens. Remember this was 1973!

Strategically the first Rates application, with its Property and Names databases, provided the foundation to build a system that would eventually provide a 360 degree view of each citizen’s interactions with their council.

The 4 London Boroughs who made LOLA, as well as all the LOLA employees, can be rightly proud of their ground-breaking achievements.

More Reading

The Centre for Computing History

We have been in contact with The Centre for Computing History in Cambridge. They have agreed to take the material for their archives and believe that LOLA deserves a place in computing history. If you can provide documents or memories then do contact us please (contact details are at the end of this page). We can scan and OCR the material and add it to this web site before passing on to The Centre for Computing History. All contributions will be creditted.

Incidently, The Centre for Computing History has become the official repository of material collected by the LEO Computer Society and are adding to the material, for instance by interviewing former employees.

About this Website

Alan Cooper was one of the pioneering staff at LOLA, joining at the start in 1970 as a Software Specialist / Database Administrator in the Applications Support department, until leaving in 1975.

In 2016 whilst disposing of a lifetime's accumulation of technical papers he came across some documents about LOLA. A web search showed very little information of this pioneering organisation has survived in the public domain. In 2021 he created this mini website about LOLA.

He was soon assisted by former LOLA employees who provided further information and documentation (listed on the References page). About 200 former staff have been identified and they are listed on the Staff page along with the teams they were in.

Special thanks must go to John Aldridge, Keith Callaghan, Chris Dee, Philip Gorin, Martin Jackson, Jeremy Leighton and Murali Vidhyadharan.

Contact Alan Cooper at network@ + this page's domain name or via his Linkedin page.

References

  1. Report on the Initial Study, Long Term Computer Project for the London Borough of Haringey [The Yellow Report], H. J. Dive, Director, London Borough's Management Services Unit, January 1969, ISBN 0902603000. View here [⇗]