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Smart Cities Listen to People

In the near and not so sci-fi future, smart cities will deploy intelligent analytical systems fed with streaming data from electronic sensors and closed circuit TV (CCTV) to deliver more responsive governance and enhance the connectedness and wellbeing of residents.

Keith Newman01 December 2019

BB50

Ideally, a ‘smart city’ will have real-time feedback on its infrastructure, environment, assets and resources through networks of sensors and monitoring devices as part of the Internet of Things (IoT). 

Unleashing this holistic hi-tech vision will require councils and businesses to collect and release masses of non-personal data so that entrepreneurs, software developers, analysts and tech teams can better align cities to meet 21st century aspirations.

The outcomes might include enhanced water and waste management, smoother traffic flows, improved health and crime prevention, more targeted community services and better communication and transparency. 

Imagine for a moment all five Hawke’s Bay councils pooling their purchasing power to order goods and services, co-operating on essential services and visitor information and delivering a common look and feel across their websites and social media?

Does that sound like Big Brother, marketing spin or utopia in the making? 

This amalgamation by stealth is already happening as part of an organic revolution driven by council information and communications technology (ICT) leaders, without any top-down directive.

They’ve already laid the framework for a more cohesive cross-council collaboration than any political plan has been able to achieve.

Five council focus

Hastings, Napier, Hawke’s Bay Regional Council, Wairoa and Central Hawke’s Bay are working seamlessly under a Smart Charter, have staged their own Smart Cities Forum, and are continually learning from smart cities including Auckland, Hamilton and Christchurch.

They presented a progress report at the Christchurch Smart Cities Innovation Expo in September, the same month the Napier City IT team took away the ‘best digital project’ award at the ALGIM (Association for Local Government Information Management) annual conference.

Their award was for designing and hosting the five council’s websites. “The key is around simplicity, ease of use, consistency of navigation, consenting, on-line forms and web services across council sites,” says Hastings IT manager Andrew Smith.

In May the five councils agreed on a common procurement platform “so we don’t have to do things five times”. That created a shared network so key people can now work from any council location.

Smith, who came across from the health sector in Sydney two and a half years ago, was determined “to challenge the norm” and look for “opportunities to improve and innovate”.

He did this by establishing inter-council relationships to share resources and ideas with the goal of learning from one another.

He talks aspirationally about a Smart Hawke’s Bay brand, believing the potential is there once early projects are more advanced and there’s been more engagement around community needs and “tangible results”.

That branding might revolve around good governance across councils, city-wide LED street lighting for power saving, a smart CCTV network to keep people safe, connecting with people through the website and mobile apps and free public wifi in the CBD.

NOW Broadband which provides data and network services for all five councils is increasingly seeing its role as an enabler of smart cities. “A smarter city places more and more reliance on data, communication and the ability to get the most out of it,” says NOW CEO Hamish White.

And, he says, as more data is produced and sent across a smart city, the infrastructure – fibre, wireless and cellular – needs to be robust and capable enough to manage the sheer volumes expected in the decades ahead.

5G connection key

One of the new world triggers will be widespread deployment of 5G wireless interfacing with a massive network of sensors with data managed and analysed so the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. 

InternetNZ chief executive Jordan Carter says successful 5G networks will mean faster wireless speeds helping New Zealanders unlock emerging technologies such as autonomous vehicles and telehealth services.

It could also provide new opportunities for Government and local councils “to plan smart cities and enhance the quality of living for residents”.

Early in September the annual GovHack competition saw top technical minds across Australia and New Zealand gather to test their mettle on challenging problems.

EIT in Taradale hosted 106 techies, more than the rest of the country combined, and I got to chair a smart city brainstorm with about 12 of the more senior thinkers who are eager for councils, government departments and businesses to release non-personal data into the public domain.

EIT lecturer Dr Emre Erturk says Australia has changed its legislation to facilitate this and we need to do the same, making it clear what data and meta-data developers can access legally so they can get on with the job. 

“My gut feel is that half the things we talk about from the technology side aren’t that hard; it’s just logistics and the people to put it in place. If you want a smart city, focus on the people and the technology will come,” he said. 

Akash Jattan, AI consultant, Computer Concepts

What’s the problem?

Before heading in the smart city direction, Paul Stone, lead for the NZ Open Government Data Programme, says local authorities should ask, what is the problem they’re trying to solve. 

“Is it more efficient parking, cleaner air, energy and fuel efficiency, sustainability … We can have all these sensors available, but what are we trying to do with them?”

Akash Jattan, big data and AI consultant from Auckland’s Computer Concepts says a smart city is a city you can measure; it’s about connected people and resources and represents the DNA of a community.

“It’s about a continuous evolution of data that gets better and better, a city that can self-heal and self-evolve without human intervention.” That’s the challenge anyway … and it needs innovative, like-minded people, technology and investment “to figure out how to do that”.

So what’s a self-healing city? “It’s a city that knows its traffic lights have gone off and immediately changes the timing of other lights and reduces congestion or redirects that traffic to another place.”

Jattan warns, however, that you can’t apply the principles that made one city smart to another city. “It has to be based on what people want, not what is forced on them; it needs to happen more organically.” 

Quid pro quo

Kathryn MacCallum, associate professor and programme coordinator within EIT’s School of Computing, says the idea of the smart city needs to be demystified. 

People need to know where the value is for them, how it’s going to make life easier, and why they would want to contribute their personal data. 

“I would give up my data to Google if it was going to make my trip quicker or to Facebook so adverts for example were tailored to me and not about stuff I don’t need or care about.”

Napier City Council IT manager Duncan Barr says he could come up with 101 solutions but Napier isn’t quite ready for the smart city discussion until it understands the “business and community centric” outcomes.

If using technology to manage the rubbish collection wasn’t business-led then it’s a waste of time. “We’re the enablers not the drivers.” 

More responsive apps

‘How to navigate our region’ is an informal conversation underway with the HB Business Hub. 

The GovHack group agreed the way forward was not trying to bundle everything together in a big list but responding to individual user preferences, creating an experience around questions like ‘what can I do today?’ 

The idea is to provide a different experience by creating a location-based mobile app ‘eco-system’ including a schedule of products and services. 

For cruise ship tourists that might be a package of where they can shop, have a meal, be entertained, plus transport options to get to wineries or other destinations. 

And 5G sensors informing smart signs or apps suggesting alternative routes might help locals avoid congestion if 2,000 passengers are disembarking at Napier at the same time, or when five blocks are shut down over Art Deco weekend.

In a day-to-day sense, having access to the right data could help optimise travel routes between home and work or enable smart public transport so passengers could make alternative arrangements if they knew the bus was full. 

Paul Stone, NZ Open Government Data Programme

Paul Stone, NZ Open Government Data Programme

That, says Jattan, could be done using sensors or CCTV. “Las Vegas takes camera images using machine learning to identify objects and understand carparking lots, measuring … whether they should invest in more car parks in an area or charge more.”

Another application examined the logistics of rubbish collection, “reducing the time it took from ten hours to four hours per truck by optimising those routes”.

That idea already has traction in Palmerston North where a rubbish contractor has access to council data and knows where their trucks are at any time.

Sensing the feedback

From a Regional Council perspective, ‘smart’ would surely mean finding new ways to use data from soil, water and air quality sensors, monitoring stations and satellite imaging to improve quality and track and predict environmental change.

It might be helpful to know which areas have the highest use of public transport, who is generating electricity from their houses and the neighbourhoods that are self-supporting with solar-powered hot water generation.

Ian Purdon, a 30-year IT veteran and Bachelor of Computing Systems lecturer at EIT suggests such solutions, including analysing water to see where the most drugs were being consumed, could be key to developing a healthier or more energy-efficient city. 

Lower decile homes monitored through a network of cheap sensors to detect dampness, for example, might reduce the impact on the health system and create an awareness among landlords and the kind of housing that is prone to this kind of problem. 

“If you used data in the right way you might see communities competing with each other for sustainability, efficiency or healthy activity.” 

Stone suggests being a smart city doesn’t have to involve technology, just doing things smarter – using buildings better, creating spaces people can get involved in, gardens all around the city, giving people vegetable spaces.

Helping people become more aware of the resources around them could be beneficial, promoting better use of the Regional Sports Park or Park Island, school halls and other sports and recreation facilities.

Activating visionaries 

However, Purdon says the reality is councils are busy doing the day-to-day things rather than looking for new ideas. “You need visionaries who are prepared to put up money and passion to bring people together.” 

Smart Christchurch has a number of projects that align with its mantra to be a smarter, safer place to live, work and play. 

Its smart-city web champions aggregating and visualising data, leveraging “the collective genius”, removing barriers to access, inspiring fresh thinking, proving “benefits without borders” and sharing what it learns with whoever might benefit. 

Its Sensibel app with a 3D button device attached to bike handlebars focuses on the cycling experience, “the least-understood and potentially most transformational mode of movement in cities”. 

Rather than just route, time, distance, GPS or numbers, feedback is captured from cyclists through a positive or negative “experience point” and pinpointed on a map which can later be annotated with text and images. 

Cyclists might identify a pothole or a section where merging with cars is difficult and recommend changes to cycleways. The same approach can be used for buses or commuters. 

The Christchurch SmartView project pulls “scattered” real-time data from a range of public and private organisations into one simple site, making information about the city easy for locals and visitors to access on any browser or device. 

SmartView Hawke’s Bay 

The five Hawke’s Bay councils are collaborating with the Christchurch City IT team to develop their own SmartView so regional data is easier to find and interact with. 

The Hastings council ‘technology innovation strategy’ adopted in June 2017 – promising more efficient use of technology and a stronger focus on the community – is now embraced under the joint council Smart Charter. 

One outcome of this is the regional road closure map which could provide the basis for adding other layers of data. 

“If you’re travelling around Hawke’s Bay you don’t want different maps you want it all aggregated into one location that’s easy to find on all the web sites,” says IT manager Andrew Smith. 

This and other innovations are possible because the councils have adopted an open data approach with content available on each web page in a format the community can use. 

Hastings Council has also invested heavily in a leading-edge CCTV network across the district including Havelock North and Flaxmere. 

Currently it’s a passive network for incident management and has been pivotal in reducing criminal activity, including identifying the person responsible for the Flaxmere bottle store murder last year. 

Footage from the cameras is currently only available through a police request but there’s extensive work underway to “better use the analytics” to monitor traffic flows including bicycles, buses and cars to create “more intelligent information for planning purposes”. 

Connecting people 

Another solution is ‘smart lights’, installing LED street lighting across Hastings to reduce power consumption and provide better management down to individual light level. 

Smith says Hastings is still in the early stages of its smart city planning; rather than trying to be cutting edge it’ll continue to adopt, adapt and innovate based on the work of other councils. 

While a smart city might actively campaign to attract certain kinds of businesses, like Hastings did with wrap-around services and incentives for Kiwibank’s helpdesk, attracting and keeping good staff is something we need to get smarter about. 

Ben Gallant, product manager with Fingermark, which relocated dozens of people from Auckland, Argentina and Brazil to help develop its hi-tech customer solutions, says the company “struggles to keep the smartest people in the room”. 

They often feel isolated and unwelcome. “There’s a lack of knowledge of what the culture is and where those cultural centres are” and he says a number are looking to move to centres where there’s “cooler stuff”. 

He reckons there’s scope for an app to help newcomers with the basics like how to buy a car, find a rental property or get to know others. “It all comes back to connecting people; it needs to be fun to be here.” 

Gallant suggests a TripAdvisor style app with pre-approval to help filter out the tyre kickers and bring some relief to genuine tenants or homebuyers. 

Opposite of smart 

The opposite of a smart city might well be a stupid city or one that is inefficient, overly bureaucratic and at the mercy of guesswork because decades of data gathering is failing to inform critical decision-making, including planning for change and growth. 

Going the clever way, however, there’s always the risk of function creep when monitoring people and their activities, raising privacy and security issues, or concern that the enabling technology could be hijacked to squeeze every drop of revenue from carparking, water consumption, rubbish collection and other services. 

And if all the talk is about efficiency and cost saving, it can sound impersonal and bureaucratic, which might be contrary to getting community buy-in to appealing benefits like increasing participation, improving the environment, and enhancing the quality of life and creativity of communities. 

Like Ian Purdon says, a smart city requires a paradigm shift into “people connectedness” rather than commercial interests and “efficiency at all costs”. 

For him the focus should be on equality of access rather than a competitive model. “Somewhere we need a shift toward being more sharing and giving” and that comes back to wanting “a networked city that is aware, knows its people, is welcoming to newcomers and culturally alive.” 

NOW sponsors the BayBuzz Technology Series to enhance public understanding of our region’s technology achievements and opportunities. Analyses and views presented are those of BayBuzz and its editorial team.

Keith Newman01 December 2019

BB50

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