Thursday, 26 September 2013

Living in a Hyper-connected World – How Cities Need to get Smarter and More Digitally Enabled

Last week, I made this presentation at the South African Gartner Symposium ITXPO 2013.
The summary of the presentation stated "Cities are where the action is. That's where innovation is happening. A city is an interconnected system of systems. Infrastructure, people, processes and technology make a city. In modern cities, there's a lot of data about everything. Lots of sensors are already deployed everywhere - in buildings, roads, and utility grids; and lots of new information-based processes are in place. Everything is more information-rich, so you have to think about information as another significant resource you use to manage city life. Citizens are also more connected than ever before, they have access to a lot more information, and have powerful platforms of their own. Big data, mobile, social media, cloud, digital inclusion, open data, broadband, etc. are powerful forces that will impact on cities and organisations now and in the future - creating both opportunities and challenges. In addition to being relevant to government leaders, this presentation will be relevant to all CIOs and business leaders across industry regarding how today’s new technologies, global competition and business models will shift the focus from an internal efficiency view to a more outside-in view of the digital world and the role of their organisation within it."

The presentation was structured in two parts. The first part was structured on what we had achieved in the City of Cape Town over the past 13 years from when we embarked upon the smart city programme. It focussed on the significant effort that has been put on utilising ICT to achieve an effective and efficient administration while enabling the operations of the organisation (improving service delivery). I used a very old Gartner slide that I had used about 13 years ago to explain to the organisation how we has to transform the IT organisation from being an Era 1 organisation to an Era 3/ Era 4 IT organisation.
This is what was needed then, and I do believe that we did achieve this very successfully, which was part 1 of my presentation. However, part 2 of my presentation was on what was coming and how CIOs need to consider what is happening outside of their organisation and how it impacts on their strategy and capability. So part two focussed on Era 5, which I added to the Gartner slide (with apologies to the very clever people at Gartner for messing witt their slide).

I will not repeat what has been achieved, as that story has been told many times over, and it is in the slides. I also will not focus on the provincial broadband project and what this means for this hyper connected world that we are talking about. This post will deal with some of the issues that I dealt with in the second part of the presentation where I dealt with the following 3 issues:
  • Interconnected Systems and the “internet of things”
  • Citizens having powerful platforms of their own
  • Big data or Big brother (power & control)

Interconnected Systems and the “internet of things”

or what Gartner has been calling the “Internet of everything”
In the future everything in a city, from the electricity grid, to the sewer pipes to roads, buildings and cars will be connected to the network. Buildings will turn off the lights for you, self-driving cars will find you that sought-after parking space and even the rubbish bins will be smart. The city becomes a living laboratory for smart technologies that can handle all major systems - water, transport, security, garbage, green buildings, clean energy, and more.

We already know a lot about CCTV cameras being deployed for traffic management and safety & security. Increasingly intelligent sensors are being deployed for a wide range of city related services traffic management, dam level monitoring, environmental monitoring, pollution management, fire detection, electricity grid management, busses, etc.

In Birmingham, lamp-posts are being fitted with sensors. In Norway, more than 40,000 bus stops are connected and even tweet. In Cape Town, usage of inner city parking bays are monitored via a wireless network that knows when the bay is empty and when it is being used, how long your car has been parked in a parking bay, etc. Potentially, you could be directed to empty parking bays as you enter the city. The data to do this already exists.

At MIT's Senseable City Lab, 5,000 pieces of rubbish in Seattle were geo-tagged and tracked around the country for three months to find out whether recycling was really efficient.

The so-called internet of things offers a new way to analyse and measure city life, from whether water pipes are leaking to how traffic is flowing on the roads and whether buildings are using energy in the most efficient way. And this data can be used in different ways.

Rio is often used as an example of an emergent smart city of the future. Rio is set to to experience the full glare of the worldwide media in the next few years as it plays host to both the Football World Cup in 2014, followed by the Olympic Games two years later. It has built a Nasa-style control room where banks of screens suck up data from sensors and cameras located around the city. This means that officials from across the city can now collaborate to manage the movement of traffic and public transportation systems, while also ensuring that power and water supplies work more efficiently. A coordinated response can be rolled out in the event of a crisis, such as collapsing building. Transport systems can be shut down, emergency services mobilised and gas supplies can be cut off, while citizens can be informed of alternative routes via Twitter.
China is busy building dozens of new cities and is starting to adopt huge control rooms like the one in Rio.

However, there are differences in opinion on this. Andrew Hudson-Smith, director of the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis at University College, London says that while a lot of the big technology firms are looking at the control room model, this is backward thinking. "Why put the technology in one room when you can put it in the hands of everyone?" he has asks.
He and his team have created a city dashboard as part of plans to make London smarter. Like Rio's control room, the dashboard collates data such as pollution, weather and river levels. But it also looks at some things that Rio doesn't - such as what is trending on Twitter and how happy the city is.
A version of the dashboard is hooked up on a wall of iPads in the office of the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson. They claim that this as powerful as the large scale control room but significantly cheaper. But more importantly, there is also a version available on the web, so that the public has the same information as the policy-makers and that has the potential to be incredibly powerful.

And this leads me into the next key issue which deals with the Internet of users and the social web.

Citizens having powerful platforms of their own

And it is not just government that is interconnecting systems and monitoring things. Another chapter in the smart city story is being written by citizens, who are using apps, DIY sensors, smartphones and the web to solve the city problems that matter to them.

Mobilitate is an online platform that enables citizens to actively participate in improving service delivery and holding local government accountable.

Don't Flush Me is a neat little DIY sensor and app which is single-handedly helping to solve one of New York's biggest water issues. Every time there is heavy rain in the city, raw sewage is pumped into the harbour as the sewars and stomwater drains overflow. Using a sensor which measures water levels in the sewers and storm water drains and a smart phone app, Don't Flush Me lets people know when it is 'safe to flush'. The idea emerged from a group who experienced particularly sewage-laden water while canoeing.

This is also an interesting example of how Cities and their citizens can work together to manage limited and over stretched infrastructure. Eskom's Power Alert system from 5 - 9 pm on TV is a non-internet enabled example of a similar system. Eskom's CEO Brian Dames has recently stated that this system has "helped keep the lights on this winter".

The Air Quality Egg is a community-led sensor network designed to allow anyone to collect very high resolution readings of nitrogen oxide (NO2) and carbon monoxide (CO) concentrations outside of their home. These two gases are the most indicative elements related to urban air pollution that are sense-able by inexpensive, DIY sensor.

The data is sent to the internet where it is integrated on a map to show pollution levels around the world. Researchers estimate that two million people die each year as a result of air pollution and as cities get more over-crowded, the problem is likely to get worse.

Ushahidi is a nonprofit, open-source software company that develops a Web platform that makes it easy for people in any part of the world to disseminate and collect information about a crisis. Users can submit reports by text message, e-mail, or Web postings, and the software aggregates and organizes the data into a map or timeline. In addition to its crisis-mapping software, the company has also launched a product called Swift River that uses machine-learning algorithms to extract and organize accurate information from the flood of e-mails, text messages, blog posts, and tweets that can seem overwhelming in the first days of a crisis.

Ushahidi’s crisis-mapping software was first used in early 2008 to track violent outbreaks related to the disputed Kenyan election of 2007, and it has been used since to coordinate everything from disaster relief following the earthquake that struck Haiti in January 2010, to snow cleanup in New York City this past winter.

Interesting anecdote about the City’s GIS information. About 11 years ago I had a discussion with the City’s GIS folk about making the GIS data and aerial photography available to the public. We felt that if we made these available, interesting applications could emerge from developers doing weird and wonderful things with it. We also thought that this could be a great tool to support the tourism industry in Cape Town as well as give developers a powerful dataset to showcase their skills. Remember that this was the days before google maps, etc. even existed. The GIS folk argued vehemently against this, saying that they had a valuable data set and that they had plans to sell this data. They argued that I was being short sighted and that they were going to generate significant revenue out of this dataset. As we all now know, today, citizens have a choice of GIS platforms that they can use with Google, Bing, etc. They can pinpoint their buildings and interest, explore 3-D renderings of the City, explore street views, upload their own pictures, use crowd sourcing of information to keep information up to date as well as for powerful things like Ushahidi. Yes, the city’s aerial photography is far superior to anything that the citizens have available on their free platforms, but the free platforms are far more useful to the citizens. And the city GIS people never did realise the massive revenues that they anticipated. They also now do expose some of this information via the web, however in a very closed and proprietary fashion (where it only works properly with Internet explorer) – and there is increasing pressure from people in the opendata world to make this information available as apis.

Hedonometer is another interesting project which this year set out to map happiness and health levels in cities across the US using data from social media platforms. Such citizen generated data could be incredibly useful to city governments - informing them in real time about condition on the ground, what policies are needed in any given area and understanding the changes in the behaviour of their citizens.

These are powerful example of citizen collected and generated data. I have tried to give examples of different types of applications. The important point is that this data is being collected without government. It’s about citizens taking matters into their own hands. In this lies both a massive opportunity for government, as well as potentially a threat. The opportunity is to work with closely with your citizens to actively manage the city (as has been demonstrated by some of the examples). The threat is something that the business world is starting to understand – you cannot control the information and data in the way that it has been tightly controlled before. Data is being taken from multiple sources, mashed together, analysed and conclusions drawn. Some of this is from sources you control, but citizens also now have their own powerful sources of data – which means that they have power.

And this is part of the big debate - Top down vs bottom up or Inside out vs Outside in, which leads me to the next key issue

Big data or Big brother (power & control)

Big data is very important, and is going to be very valuable. This is a major theme of this conference.  Big data is often referred to as the “new oil” or the “Oil of the internet age”. And this is potentially a very valuable analogy.

We also understand that in the fast moving consumer goods environment that the monetisation of this data is of paramount importance.

And yet it is precisely this “new oil” analogy and slides such as this one that concern civic activists.
In a lot of the technology company literature on smart cities, City inhabitants are “mainly addressed as consumers rather than as citizens”. Yes, the city is collecting all this data and they are building services on top of that and some of those services may be handy – but what if you want to do something else, something that’s not provided by the government themselves? If a group of citizens, for example, want to use that data to organise an action group against environmental pollution in their city the answer you get is not quite clear. In Cape Town there was a recent example of a woman who asked for data from a CCTV camera about an accident and was refused. At the moment it seems that the data platform is a closed platform and will be used for government or businesses to build services on top of them.”

Anthony Townsend, director of the Institute of the Future and author of Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia has said that "Some people want to fine tune a city like you do a race car but they are leaving citizens out of the process”.

This is an age in which very big things can come from massively co-ordinated human activity that doesn’t necessarily get planned from the top down. We need to stop thinking about building smart cities like a mainframe – which is this industry vision – and think about it more like we built the web, as loosely intercoupling networks.

What’s clear from the institutional point of view is that the Government now has competition in terms of organising and deciding – citizens can now do an awful lot themselves using new tools which they just couldn’t do before effectively. These are powerful platforms – citizens have toppled governments with these tools (like we have seen in Egypt and the occupy movements). They have real power.
And that is the issue - these are two different approaches to building smart cities and they’re playing out in this much bigger struggle over control between people and government/ corporates.

The reality is that a bit of both is needed. Some of the big infrastructural or planning decisions still need to be done in the traditional institutional approach, while a lot of other things can be done in a more bottom up or outside in view. We need to have a strategy that has both active government, as well as active citizens. However, this needs quite a radical rethink of the way we operate.  Who has access to what, when and how? Who owns the data, how is it managed? How can we share some another’s information? How can privacy and security be maintained? Etc.

These are the strategic issues that cities need to be thinking about. And they should be thinking about this together with their citizens.