Making our cities smarter is more than just infrastructure. It’s also about getting real benefits to residents, not just to administrators, and that’s where mobile apps could help.
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Whether it’s a pothole, flytipping or overgrown foliage, being able to report problems in your local area, and know they will be addressed, is an important part of building a sense of community. But do you know which council it’s covered by, which department and how to get in touch?
This is where FixMyStreet comes in, as an independent app and service designed to make reporting easy and consistent (and run, incidentally, by a registered charity). Simply start the app, let it use your location, add a photo and some comments, and send the report. A few minutes later it should be with the relevant authority, who can respond and provide an update. You can also subscribe to local alerts and add updates.
Funding comes from the councils who pay to subscribe. In return they share a service that they would otherwise have to build themselves.
FixMyStreet’s users are mainly in the UK, although it is also implemented in Zurich. Other apps are popular in other countries though, for example developer SmartAppCity has Spanish, Indian and Chilean municipalities using its customisable app. As well as the basics of incident reporting, SmartAppCity can also offer a wide range of community and tourist information - museums, concerts, shopping, pharmacy opening hours and so on. You can even view local fuel prices.
Free on Android, Apple, Windows
If you want to deal with congestion, public transport has a big role to play, and if you want more people to use public transport, it needs to be reliable. Increasingly, this means operators providing up-to-date information at stations and bus stops, on buses and trains, and online. The problem is that different parts of the transport puzzle may be run by different companies or public operators, and the information a traveller needs will be scattered across multiple sites and pages.
Moovit aims to collate all this and add it to user-generated information - travellers can add reports about their experience, such as station cleanliness, bus congestion and so on. A ‘live ride’ mode allows it to track you, thereby validating the schedule information, and notify you when to get off. It is also easy to change your plans en route.
You can search by address or station/stop, or find out what stops are nearby, then drill down to see what routes serve each station, etc. You can also get service alerts and view maps and timetables - it automatically detects where you are and adjusts to list only the local services. This means it can only route within the current region, and can’t handle long distance travel.
Usefully for blind users, it now supports the screenreaders built into both Apple (VoiceOver) and Android (Google TalkBack) devices. Accessibility is important for the smart city.
As well as buses, trains and trams, Moovit will suggest walking if that is the fastest route, and also offers Uber cars as an option. Although it shows city-bike rental locations, cycling isn’t a routing option, nor is there is any fare information, except for Uber. It claims to be usable in 60 countries. As well as Android and Apple, a slightly older version is available for Windows Phone.
Free on Android, Apple
A smart city wouldn’t make people drive around for ages simply to find a parking place. It might let them know when it would be better to take the bus, because there is no parking. This is where Fastprk comes in, linking to the municipal infrastructure to show which parking spaces are available, and allowing you to pay for parking.
The one caveat is that it relies on the council installing the necessary infrastructure: a wireless sensor in each parking bay, a wireless gateway for each square kilometre or so, and display panels in the street for drivers without the app. When a vehicle parks over one of the sensors, which are rugged modules embedded in the road and with a four-year battery life, its presence is noted.
Linked to a payment system, it allows tablet-equipped wardens to monitor tickets efficiently, and the company claims that by making spaces easier to find, it increases both occupancy and ticket sales. So far there are no Fastprk deployments in the UK, but travellers can find them in Norway, Italy, Singapore and other countries.
Free on Android, Apple
Something that could make future cities more liveable is more people walking, and something that makes walking more popular is having nice routes to walk. That’s the theory behind Walkonomics, a free routing app for Android and Apple that prioritises pedestrian-friendly streets.
In particular it likes tree-lined streets and parks, but it also uses an automated tool that interprets open data (where available) for key indicators such as road safety, hilliness, popularity and tidiness. Users can feed back their own reports or reviews too - for example if a street feels cool and relaxing, or grimy and threatening - and the system blends these in. You also can view what it thinks of the streets around you (green, amber, red).
The routes it comes up with are occasionally extremely odd, especially if you leave the app’s beauty versus speed slider set to maximise the former. We found that setting the route option in the middle produced routes that were more interesting than simply choosing the shortest route, and not all that much longer. The app also seemed to recognise footpaths, unlike some navigator apps which are more oriented towards in-vehicle use.
One drawback is it only contains data for a few cities, and for certain areas within them; elsewhere you just get the fastest route. But if you’re in one the areas it covers, which include central London, Paris, New York and Hamburg, it could take you somewhere new and pleasant.