Making smart cities safer

The rise of smart cities – with billions of smart devices and objects, Internet connectivity and unprecedented amounts of data – brings opportunities and challenges to law enforcement agencies around the world.

With their dense populations, crowded traffic conditions and ubiquitous Internet connectivity, smart cities pose a special challenge for governments and organisations responsible for policing them.  

By 2020, some 50 billion smart physical objects – everything from oil rigs to refrigerators, cars, and medical devices – will soon be connected to each other and to humans, and will generate unprecedented amounts of data that need to be managed, according to Swedish telecommunication firm Ericsson.

Smart technology, such as sensors that monitor energy use and allow people to control household appliances remotely with their mobile phones, may offer convenience and make life easier, but it also exposes cities to new complex security and privacy challenges.

Indeed, according to a survey conducted by Hitachi Data Systems (HDS) during the Safe Cities Asia Summit in Singapore in May, public safety was cited as one of the top three issues that needed to be addressed with the rise of the smart city, along with transportation infrastructure and technology advancement.

And within public safety, crime investigation, transportation and traffic services, and cyber security were the top three issues that respondents felt their countries had struggled with, HDS said in a statement.

It is therefore not surprising that 44 percent of those surveyed said that investment in public safety is expected to remain high, and that their government would invest more than US$100 million in public safety projects in Asia Pacific over the next two years.

Another 22 percent of them predicted that the investment would be even higher, at between US$100 million and US$500 million, while nearly 14 percent anticipated spending of more than US$1 billion.

Of those investments on public safety in Asia Pacific, 24 percent are expected to be allocated for surveillance technology, with 19 percent earmarked for big data analytics, and another 19 percent for mobile and network technology.

This should open up huge business opportunities for companies that are innovative enough to provide solutions – ideas, products and services – that make that policing job easier and our lives in smart cities safer and more secure.

Dimensions of public safety and Big Data

Public safety in smart cities includes protection against crime, terrorism, cyberattacks, civil unrest, accidents and natural disasters.

“The threats that government agencies face today are not so different from the threats that they have traditionally faced such as espionage or money laundering,” says Gerald Wang, IDC Asia Pacific programme manager for government insights. IDC is a United States technology research firm.

“What has changed are the dimensions of these threats brought about by technology,” he added. “The tools to combat these threats have also changed, specifically the use of various forms of threat analytics, or data about threats, to understand and counter these new styles of risks.”

This means that a “well-rounded and holistic” next-generation of security systems that aggregate data from different sources and analyse data will be needed to empower policing, surveillance activities, Wang said.

The tools to combat these threats (such as espionage and money laundering) have also changed, specifically the use of various forms of threat analytics, or data about threats, to understand and counter these new styles of risks.” 

Gerald Wang, IDC Asia Pacific’s programme manager for government insights

These sources of information could be from mobile phones, social media and Internet-of-Things devices like government drones equipped with sensors – or so-called Big Data.

This huge amount of data will help law enforcement agencies monitor public areas, accurately detect incidents early on, track suspects, and respond faster through analysis of unusual activity patterns.

For example, Cisco, the United States data systems giant, has a solution that does exactly all that.  The City Safety Solution fuses data from multiple sources and integrates different applications into one user interface.

It enables law enforcement personnel to see live video from any surveillance camera and presents real-time conditions on a map, collects data on crime type and location, and monitors social media for possible threats. It also identifies threats, safety, and security incidents by fusing multiple inputs, displaying their locations on a map, and alerting operators.

It can also automatically provide recommended procedures to guide operators quickly through the response process, say, in case of a natural disaster or terrorist attack, or even a subway system breakdown.

Japanese IT firm NEC also has a software platform that integrates different solutions and products and provides real-time data to security personnel.

Ruckus Wireless, a U.S. supplier of wireless systems, has a smart positioning technology that provides locations of people in real time. A city’s government will be able to visualise in real time the human traffic flow throughout the city, identify overcrowding and determine the best paths to disperse crowds in cases of incidents or emergencies, says Dr See Ho Ting, director of location technology, Ruckus Wireless.

With sufficient data collected over time, the city government could then run analysis on the data with predictive modelling and prevent such overcrowding in the first place, he adds.

At the individual level, urbanites can use this location solution to register themselves or their family members for alerting services. “For example, parents can be informed if their young children are detected to be out from the school campus during school hours,” says Ting.

Taipei and Lucknow

One Asian city that uses Big Data in policing that IDC cited was Taiwan, which launched the New Taipei City Tech Security Program, in 2013.

The New Taipei City Police Department worked with various local agencies that were responsible for public safety to integrate their different systems.

These systems run expert databases, geographic information, mobile police devices, traffic enforcement information, the 110 police hotline, video surveillance, smart image recognition, reconnaissance and forensic systems, among others.

It involves the creation of a single platform, which will collect, analyse and present all security information to increase the speed of response of the police.

Public safety operational teams such police officers can access the information through the single platform. This empowers the local public safety force to enhance its detection rate of criminal activity, service capabilities and provide safer civic life for residents of the city.

This type of solution requires a holistic way of thinking about data, said Keith Roscarel, HDS’s APAC director of social innovation, telecommunications, media and public safety markets. Its approach is also attractive for the public sector because it doesn’t require the usual rip-and-replace cycle that most IT implementations call for, he said.

Rather, by taking a holistic approach, a city can leverage its existing infrastructure and resources to create innovative and effective public safety solutions, he said.

“The lessons learned from the Big Data revolution suggest that integration – exploiting the capabilities of a variety of interconnected systems in real time – offers far more value than standalone solutions in improving public safety,” Roscarel said.

Another Asian city that set up a smart city surveillance system is Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh, India. In April this year, Mahindra Defence – a unit of Indian IT company – installed 280 high-resolution cameras in the hot spots of the city, and police are now able to monitor vehicles entering and leaving through an automatic number plate recognition technology.

Nabbing traffic offenders used to be daunting task because of a shortage of manpower; on launch day itself, the Lucknow police were able to issue electronic notices to more than 500 traffic offenders.

To lower the city’s crime rate, video analytics, mobile surveillance systems, command control centres and data centres were also put in place to support the system.


Another area that’s rapidly growing and could be a huge opportunity for businesses is cybersecurity, which is fast becoming a critical component of public safety initiatives.

Hackers who can break into government officials’ email accounts and tap wires underneath drain covers in the street are becoming more commonplace.

These hackers can also hack into government and company servers and steal information about millions of people in an instant. A recent high-profile example is July hacking of Ashley Madison, a website that caters to married people looking for extra-marital flings. The names and email addresses of more than 30 million registered members of the site were published online by anonymous hackers.

In smart cities, where devices and electrical systems are intricately connected, cybersecurity is an even greater concern. Hackers could, for example, take out power grids or the water supply systems of municipalities, if not entire cities. This could be done as easily as hacking into a utility’s system and manipulating smart power meters.

Governments are therefore seeing a need to set up a secure and wide-reaching communications network to ensure public safety, says Dr Rishi Bhatnagar, global head of digital enterprise services at Tech Mahindra.

They are also are integrating different information databases to strengthen surveillance systems.

The idea is to connect ‘everyone to everything, everywhere, all the time’ through a seamless integration of data, Bhatnagar says.

“In a smart city, citizen safety, security and privacy rights will be at constant risk of being attacked. What needs to evolve concurrently, are the tools that combat these threats,” IDC’s Wang says.

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