Smart city connections

Smart city benefits will rely on public confidence

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If city-wide adoption of technologies that incorporate artificial intelligence and machine learning is to live up to its promise, users will have to be convinced that their personal information won’t be compromised.

A ‘smart city’ is a connected, reflexive and adaptable jurisdiction that can prepare for and respond to citizens’ needs rapidly and precisely. It doesn’t even have to be a city as such; we might also call it ‘joined-up local government’. With so many opportunities to improve city and local government services, smart cities will continue to grow and be embraced across the United Kingdom.

The trend towards truly smart cities has been accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic, which has highlighted how connectivity and collaboration between organisations of all kinds are of vital importance to people’s welfare. As city operations continue to increase in complexity, it is imperative for the various organisations that make up a jurisdiction – including councils, health and emergency services – to improve their ability to collaborate. Shared awareness and coordination enable greater efficiency, understanding and visibility of live operations. This enhanced response to public needs is the backbone of the smart city, empowering jurisdictions to withstand and mitigate adversity.

Collaboration between different organisations that make up the fabric of city governance relies on one crucial aspect - technology. The most important development in the creation of smart cities has been the acceleration, adoption and acceptance of cloud-hosted services. It is through such services that barriers to connectivity are lowered or removed and access becomes more mobile for those on the move.

Cloud technology bridges the gap between city streets and back offices and between operational functions as different organisations and sectors react to issues of governance and administration. Obvious examples include any number of IoT sensor-based monitoring systems, apps for citizen services and placing core business systems such as email in the cloud.

Among the most powerful capabilities that cloud computing enables is the ability to more easily share and act on data collaboratively. From a technology perspective, this can mean replacing legacy systems with new cloud-based versions, or even complementing existing systems with more agile capabilities such as cloud-connected collaboration spaces that can pull data from original sources such as traffic cameras or public call centres and coordinate work tasks among different organisations. This allows organisations to use their own specialised service while also drawing on shared data to communicate with other city departments.

Data is at the centre of smart cities and, to act effectively, authorities need data that’s accurate and up-to-date. For example, public transportation services can be modified and made more efficient based not only on data about public transport utilisation, but also on information about passenger actions before and after the use of services, transportation alternatives and the connectivity between public transport and walking, cycling and shared mobility.

This data can come from multiple digital sources: infrastructure sensors, surveillance cameras, GPS signals, social media posts, and more. Vast amounts of information from these different providers must be collected, managed, analysed and interpreted, which can seem like an overwhelming task.

Luckily, there are ways to reduce the burden. Artificial intelligence (AI) technology can augment human judgement by interpreting vast pools of data. For example, AI can identify anomalies in the data sets that can guide human decision making for those providing services and ‘nudge’ behaviour for those using them.

This is well understood in certain contexts, such as facial recognition for security purposes or detecting changes in satellite imagery for environmental monitoring. The opportunities for assistive AI go well beyond these traditional uses. For example, in an emergency, assistive AI can work in the background, sifting through data and helping public safety agencies make connections and respond more rapidly, with greater intelligence, to a developing crisis.

When the topic of smart cities is raised, the question of privacy concerns is never far behind. There is certainly a valid debate about how much data is being collected and how is it being used. However, it is up to any responsible administration to address these fears.

At the heart of any smart city project must be a comprehensive and easily understood policy for how a citizen controls data held about them and how it is shared. It’s important that governments communicate the purpose of data collection and use. Policies should include rigidly defined parameters, human-led processes and accountability for policy makers.

As city operations become more collaborative, organisations must be thoughtful with the data they share. The sharing of data must be a transparent process with records of what is shared and with whom. Lastly, it is vital these data processes are communicated with the citizens, who then must be given the opportunity to voice any feedback or concerns surrounding the use of their data. Once the feedback has been listened to and remedied, the process can begin.

Smart cities bring a plethora of benefits to the lives of the public. They promise safer and more efficient public transport, faster and more collaborative emergency response times and a whole host of other benefits as these services are connected to the public’s everyday lives. Providing that privacy concerns are adequately addressed, through the use of Cloud and AI technologies, the United Kingdom is on the cusp of smart city transformation.

Nick Chorley is director, EMEA public safety & security, for Hexagon’s Safety, Infrastructure & Geospatial division

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