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Moving towards a smart future

Courtesy: Fi-wareThe greater availability of data and the growing complexity of city management are putting a new onus on the importance of spatial analysis, modelling, and visualisation tools for smart cities

It is a widely quoted fact that more than half of the world’s population now thrives in cities. This landmark in human development marks the beginning of a major transformation of global society. While the leading developed economies already have urban population rates of over 80%, developing nations, such as China, only passed the 50% mark in 2011, and India is not expected to reach 50% urban population until 2050, while Africa’s process of urbanisation is projected to stretch well into the second half of this century. A smart city seeks to use technology to meet its strategic goals – for sustainability, citizen wellbeing, and economic development – and is a simple label for the complex forces shaping urban life in the 21st century. It acts as a framing device for many of society’s most important conversations about globalisation, technology, and the environment.

Growth chart of the city data
A key element of the smart city is the growing deployment of intelligent devices across the urban landscape, including, for example, smart meters, intelligent building controls, traffic sensors, smart street lighting, and, of course, millions of smartphones. Together, these devices provide an unprecedented amount of data on the city and its inhabitants. The ability to harness real-time, highly granular data across a widerange of city operations and services is changing the way the urban environment is managed and experienced.

The prospects for how this data may be used are enticing for any city leader:
▶ Predictive analysis of traffic and transportation patterns can reduce congestion and improve the efficiency of public transportation services.
▶ City resources for public safety, social care, and other key services can be targeted more effectively using up-to-date analysis.
▶ Energy efficiency programmes can be directed at the most vulnerable households and at suitable buildings for retrofit
▶ Increased access to city data canincrease citizen engagement and encourage new forms of creativity and innovation among developers and other service providers.

Visualising the city
The greater availability of data and the growing complexity of city management are putting a new onus on the importance of spatial analysis, modelling, and visualisation tools. Engineers, urban planners, and property developers, for example, are looking up to modelling tools and Geographic Information System (GIS) based systems for a long time. Today, new applications are emerging that focus on environmental impacts, mobility strategies, and resilience planning. Mapping and visualisation tools can also help cities deal with the diversity of data sources opening up to them. For example, social media data can be mapped to specific locations during an emergency to understand where the most immediate problems are occurring before any official inspection or response.

The challenges
However, before cities can enter the nirvana of the big data age, city managers need to address some major challenges. Some of these are the common problems that have long beset large-scale data analytic projects — such as ensuring data quality and understanding the priority objectives for any application.

There are three challenges that are particularly associated with the use of big data and data analytics for city management:

Data integration: The smart city vision holds out the promise of integrating data from multiple organisations, diverse environments, and a wide variety of intelligent devices. Yet, data integration even within organisations, is one of the hardest challenges in the IT world. The adoption of open standards across the IT and communications industry has reduced (but not removed) the technical barriers, but the political and organisational ones are often the hardest to address.

Privacy and security: The explosion in the amount of data available will continue to raise concerns over the way data is
collected, how it is used, and by whom. Security is even more of a challenge and one that has still not been adequately addressed by smart city advocates. The increasing complexity of city systems, the instrumentation of new areas of the city infrastructure, and the growing interdependency between systems all increase the vulnerability of the city to malicious attacks, system failures, or the extreme weather events.
The skills gap: Lack of data skills may well be the biggest barrier of all to the effective use of big data for city management.
Managing and analysing large data sets and developing insights for effective policy making or operational improvement requires skills that are in short supply, particularly in the public sector. Cloud-based services, public-private partnerships, and open data strategies can all help by providing access to a broader skills base. Cities can also build deeper relationships with academia. Many cities are working with local universities to establish smart city and urban informatics research programmes.

The road ahead
The momentum behind the smart cities is set to grow. Navigant Research expects the global smart city technology market to be worth more than $27.5 billion annually by 2023. As a technology market, the smart city concept offers an opportunity for a wide range of vertical and horizontal solutions providers to show how their offerings can enable cities to meet the challenges of the 21st century. However, what a smart city should look like and how it can be achieved will ultimately be answered differently by each city.

By Eric Woods
Research Director – Smart Cities, Navigant Research