By Craig Stewart, CTO at SnapLogic
The concept of smart cities has been around for a while, gracing the pages of comic books and TV screens. But today smart cities are a reality, though you may not realise quite how pervasive they are just by walking down your local high street. IoT devices have enabled everything from intelligent traffic management to air quality analysis to be undertaken, and with the right tools in place officials have been able to introduce new measures to improve city conditions.
In the age of COVID-19, smart city technologies have the potential to make more of an impact than ever before. But with roll outs happening at a larger scale, it brings a new phase of data challenges to be dealt with for many city planners.
Today, city management teams have access to a plethora of different data sources, all thanks to the myriad of sensors across the city. But in the last 12 months, teams have often been able to use these sensors to better understand how citizens are responding to COVID-19 restrictions.
Take, for example, public transport networks. Often the most well monitored systems in the world, public transport networks generate millions of data points, covering everything from passenger numbers and peak flow, to vehicle health and climate changes. During the last year, city leaders have been able to take this data and layer it with information coming from central governments about travel restrictions and regional growths in COVID-19 cases, to not only understand if transport networks were driving COVID cases but also which routes can be reduced to reflect a reduction in demand.
One of the best examples of this came from Newcastle in the UK. The Newcastle Urban Observatory – which applies scientific techniques in measuring planned and unplanned interventions in cities – was able to track the effectiveness of UK government policy interventions by using billions of historic and real-time urban movement data points. This analysis enabled authorities to then adapt urban governance policies in response to changes in public movement.
Data volume vs data use
The very nature of smart cities often means huge data volumes. But while having data volume can be highly beneficial to understanding the nuances of changing behaviour patterns during COVID, that understanding isn’t possible if all of the data isn’t shared in the right way.
There needs to be a constant flow of information between the multiple data sources around the city. The sheer number of endpoints generating vast quantities of complex information alone could cause serious issues for any public sector IT infrastructure. But as IoT devices continue to gather invaluable data, smart cities can only thrive if the data is analysed with context while not requiring a huge uplift from IT teams or data analysts.
Adding to this challenge, we often see the full potential of smart cities unattained because after a certain point the data stops moving. Data points owned by different departments and organisations need to be properly integrated to ensure that city-dwellers are able to get the most out of smart city technology. Equipping local city administrators and the organisations that support them with the right tools is essential for the smart city vision to be fulfilled.
Smarter cities driven by automation
The manpower required to connect all of the data points and derive vital insights poses a monumental challenge. With the help of automation, smart city data can be brought together seamlessly, reducing the time and cost in managing the vast array of endpoints. This would create a city that communicates like one entity, updating in real time when changes occur.
But the data sharing on a larger, public scale is still quite restricted. There are roadblocks in the way that limit human collaboration. It is the job of the government and local city planners to make data more accessible by removing restrictions in place that stop this data from moving freely.
Having access to all of the available data, government and city officials will have a better grasp on old and new issues that plague urban areas, including pollution, vehicular and citizen traffic and managing a global pandemic. With a holistic, integrated approach organisations and governments alike will be more empowered to make any necessary changes – enabling smart cities to truly become smart and thrive, bettering the environment for us all.