x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Data for a smarter city

A continuous stream of data from smartphones may lead to radically more efficient road networks and real-time driving information - and that's just the start.

A busy road near the Rashid hospital in Dubai. Can smartphones help diminish congestion? Pawan Singh / The National
A busy road near the Rashid hospital in Dubai. Can smartphones help diminish congestion? Pawan Singh / The National

Every day, 200,000 people flock to cities across the planet. That’s according to the UN, which keeps a watchful eye over global urbanisation: one of the most significant societal changes of our lifetimes.

Cities are sites of enormous innovation, creativity and energy. And – as we know – they create vast quantities of waste. But it’s not just endless amounts of waste that the city exhales each day. There’s also data: the information created and transmitted via millions of smartphones, which will soon be streaming in from augmented reality glasses (Google Glass) and smart watches (Samsung Galaxy Gear) as well.

Currently, much of that goes uncollected and unused. But now, experts say that data services could transform cities in this century just as profoundly as electricity transformed them in the last, making them more efficient, more sustainable, more democratic and even more fun. So, are you ready for data-driven urban living?

A hint of what is to come can already be found in some popular digital services. Take Waze, the mapping app sold to Google for just over US$1 billion (Dh3.7bn) earlier this year. Waze crowdsources data from smartphones to update its maps with real-time traffic information and more.

Now take that example, and imagine the vast consequences for city governance and planning. Planners, for example, might use real-time information drawn from the smartphones of citizens to radically redraw public transport and other services.

In May this year IBM’s Dublin research lab used smartphone data to aid the redesign of bus routes across Abidjan, the Ivory Coast’s largest city. Researchers used time and location data – collected from calls and SMS – to assess commuters’ frequent routes and then compared these to the existing public transport infrastructure. According to the data, there were 65 possible improvements that could reduce travel time by 10 per cent.

In time, we can expect not just roads and subways, but health services, education, house building and more to be redrawn by data. Barcelona’s chief information ­officer is currently planning the introduction of smart lampposts, which will spot and transmit data on free parking spaces, the waiting times to enter museums and other public attractions – and even suspicious groups of people.

In those last few words, though, we bump into one of the key criticisms of the coming age of the smart city. Government, say the critics, knows enough about us already: the last thing we need is even more surveillance, even more analysis of data pertaining to our movements and activities.

To address those concerns, it may be necessary to evolve a fundamentally new and different idea of what government is. One answer? Government becomes a kind of digital platform on which citizens themselves can write and deploy applications that help their city run more efficiently: a kind of publicly run “app store” for the city.

David Mattin is the lead strategist at trendwatching.com

• For more trends, go to www.thenational.ae/trends

artslife@thenational.ae