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Making sense of the data deluge in the cities that never sleep

Frédéric Houbie from Hexagon’s Geospatial Division looks at how cities can move from collecting data to making sense of it.

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Due to our increasingly busy lifestyles, the term “the city that never sleeps” has expanded to include all large, modern cities, as they are required to work constantly and efficiently, providing us with all the services we need in our daily lives, no matter the time of day.


Citizens expect the constant availability of services in order to go about their daily business. This is not only services such as water and electricity; they also need effective transport and security systems to always be working in order to move around quickly and safely.

 

All of these critical services are key to the daily maintenance of urban citizens’ quality of life. They have grown accustomed to these things and do not tend to think about them – until they stop working.


Understanding the city


Overlooking obvious effects and discomforts such as public transport delays, some disruptions may actually cause highly dramatic security incidents. An example of this is when the city of Amsterdam had a power outage for over two hours in 2015, leading to both panic and serious disruption. The loss of electricity led to people being trapped in elevators and trams stopping in the middle of the streets, blocking traffic. This incident affected a million households, forced flights to divert from Schiphol Airport, and disrupted national public transport networks, even after the power was back on due to delays and backlog. This level of downtime isn’t acceptable in the modern city.


In order for this 24/7-style efficiency to happen, city planners and other relevant authorities need to have insight into exactly what is happening on the ground and where any issues lie, at all times.


This may seem like an impossible task given the sheer scale and complexity of cities today. However, with the rise of connected technology, movements and trends can be measured and managed with the help of the smart sensors that make up our urban environments.


Intelligent data collection


Smart cities need lots of data to properly plan, make decisions and provide services effectively. The question is: how does one go about collecting this data most efficiently? The key to managing a city and its services is to know what is happening and where at all times in order to quickly identify and manage any disturbances that may affect citizens.


Today, this information can be gathered from a variety of sources due to the rise of the IoT. For example, traffic flow can be visualised, managed, and thus optimised with the help of sensors on traffic lights. People flow can similarly be managed by analysing footage from CCTV cameras to track and manage footfall in crowded places, ensuring better pedestrian efficiency and less crowding. Even leakages from water pipes can be located and fixed through the use of geo-located data from pump sensors.


Oslo’s data-collecting buses


In order to achieve a truly smart city with these kinds of capabilities, administrators need to leverage technology which is capable of collecting and sharing in-depth urban data. This intelligence in the hands of authorities will enable them to positively impact quality of life in the city.


A great example is the city of Oslo in Norway which recently found an innovative way to improve many parts of the city using public transport vehicles. Ruter, Oslo’s mass transit company, extended the role of its bus network from simply transporting citizens around the city. Vehicles are moving around at all times so using them to generate real-time data on all sorts of aspects of the metropolis makes perfect sense. Buses now also collect data on pollution and traffic, among other things, to be shared with other companies with the objective of enhancing the quality of life of every citizen – even those that never take the bus!


As Oslo is showing with the use of smart sensors, incredibly insightful data can be collected from anywhere in vast amounts. However, simply collecting data won’t instantly improve quality of life. Administrators also need to be able to see, understand and share this data in a meaningful and clear manner without overwhelming those looking for this information.


In short, information systems need to be capable of visualising data in-depth, but also in a consumable way that people can understand. The ability to combine static images with dynamic, real-time data from connected technology is critical for situational awareness and in order to help administrators to make effective decisions. With the use of machine learning, technology can even predict future trends – for example, which streetlights will soon require maintenance – by utilising relevant historic data. This will allow administrators to use data to their advantage to create a truly smart and connected city.


Picture it


Effective visualisation and analysis of data is key to making smart cities work and, subsequently, to enhancing urban citizens’ quality of life.


Properly visualised data enables fast planning and decision making, minimising the effects of disruptions to services and allowing city administrators to proactively make improvements. By pulling together a city-wide network of data, city planners can stay informed on everything important going on in the city, allowing them to ensure that it is effectively run and is always growing smarter.

 

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