Transforming communities into smarter cities

The idea behind smart cities is really about using technology to find solutions, make urban centers more efficient and improve quality of life for everyone.

Government officials are constantly facing pressure to do more for citizens with less. And with budgets getting smaller, it takes leaders with vision and energy to make strategic investments to improve how cities function. This is where smarter cities come in.

Creating a smarter city means identifying solutions that will transform how local governments operate and building smarter infrastructure that will not only save money in the long run, but also make communities better places to live.

In doing so, cities can capitalise on new insights and collaborate with new partners to turn challenges into opportunities while building strong identities that will attract new citizens and businesses.

The key to reaching this level of success is using big data and analytics as a strategic asset to help transform the business processes within government and support economic development. Smarter tools can help officials analyse data, drive better decisions, and anticipate problems that can be solved through the coordination of resources.

Cities generate massive amounts of structured and unstructured data, and the recent rise of open data makes these quantities even larger. Consider, for example, that cities consume nearly 75 per cent of the world’s energy and some 57 per cent of city expenditures are on public safety alone.

This represents a tremendous opportunity for cities if they can harvest the right insights from the numbers. By extracting data currently available across the city, meaningful solutions to pressing problems can be more easily identified.

To aid in this effort, it is important to tap local help from academia, businesses and nonprofits that have a stake in improving the city’s sustainability and liveability. Partnering with them can lead to actionable solutions guided by research and local expertise.

These constituents are important because they are the members of the community who will benefit from the positive changes driven by deploying smarter analytics in their city. When a city is running efficiently, it leads to economic growth. More people start moving to the city, new businesses begin popping up, and members of the community are more willing to become involved in improving the city.

Smarter analytics is transformational, but in order for it to work, government leaders and communities have to be on board.

One of my favourite anecdotes on how governments and communities are using data analytics to initiate change is the addressing of the persistent problem of traffic congestion and roadway potholes.

Many cities are now using an application that analyses the location, speed and wait times of automobiles from volunteers who help spot traffic congestion and recommend alternative routes to optimise traffic flow. An ancillary benefit is the application also knows when drivers hit road bumps.

In the next couple of years, big data and analytics will simply be woven into the fabric of what we do. But in order to get us there, government officials have to take the initiative and identify ways to leverage smarter solutions that will lead to improvements in their communities.

The application then sends information on the location of the bump to a database. If enough vehicles record the same bump, the city’s public works department is notified to fix the problem.

Examples such as these demonstrate how big data, with the help of local communities and the backing of government officials, can create change in a cost-effective way.

The pothole example also shows how data can be used to achieve better business outcomes. Now that the community is identifying the potholes on the roads, it saves time and money since public works employees can be deployed more efficiently and quickly. In addition, these government workers are able to free up time to address other problems in their city.

Another example is Miami-Dade County, Florida which initially began using analytics to save nearly US$1 million per year in water costs in its Parks, Recreation and Open Spaces Department. Now the community is applying the same technology to crime response, public transportation and, most recently, to analyse and promote tourism in downtown Miami.

In Dubuque in Iowa, Istanbul in Turkey and Dublin in Ireland, planners optimise bus schedules and investigate route changes based on data about ridership and housing patterns.

In Cambridge, Ontario, multiple agencies now jointly plan long-term maintenance budgets for sewers and roads using data rather than competing for funds annually.

Visionary leaders around the world are now solving problems in their communities through the use of data analytics. It is possible to extend these successes to other cities – big and small. Here are four steps to help guide that transformation:

1. Determine which city operations have core problems that can be transformed using data. Technology alone will not solve challenges cities are facing. A more holistic approach needs to be used.

2. Envision an overall business strategy along with business requirements, which can be amplified with technology solutions. Start with business requirements, be realistic about what is possible, and identify very specific requirements to garner the best value from solutions.

3. Review examples of successful campaigns to determine common standards on what is possible and the factors lead to success. Technology employed by smarter cities is no longer in an early adaptor phase. Compared to five years ago, many government leaders now better understand smarter analytics, embrace it and are willing to make strategic investments. Examine case studies to determine how to apply existing solutions to the city’s common challenges.

4. Keep in mind that while big data will be transformational and revolutionary, the path to success is evolutionary and incremental. The smartest leaders know that to make these ambitions a reality they must identify and take on targeted, short-term projects that build credibility and generate momentum.

The time to act is now. In the next couple of years, big data and analytics will simply be woven into the fabric of what we do. But in order to get us there, government officials have to take the initiative and identify ways to leverage smarter solutions that will lead to improvements in their communities.

Janet Ang is vice-president, systems of engagement and Smarter Cities, IBM Asia Pacific.

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