It takes data to build a smart city, for without it, there is no way online programs and services designed to help residents could be developed. Consulting firm Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) notes that municipalities around the world have access to huge sources of urban data with the potential to improve the citizen experience – from sensors on bridges and other IoT sources, to new online databases of public information.
However, it adds, “one of the biggest smart city challenges is harnessing insights from urban data not properly governed or managed, making it unusable.”
Along that same theme, IDC recently predicted that by 2027, upwards of 75 per cent of cities will need to make critical changes to data governance, culture, and management to support what it described as “exponential growth in deployment of analytics and AI to improve data-informed outcomes.”
TCS and the Urban Data Centre at the University of Toronto’s School of Cities are currently collaborating on technology to solve this problem by creating a catalogue of urban data sets to allow people to discover relevant data, where it is located and identify any restrictions on its use – a common hurdle facing smart cities around the world.
Aside from providing technical expertise, TCS has committed C$1 million over the next five years, funds that will be used to hire new staff and expand operations at the centre, which is headed by Mark Cox, a professor of industrial engineering at the university’s faculty of applied science and engineering.
In an article published by the university outlining the initiative, Fox contends that “smart cities are only smart if they have relevant data.”
Further to that, an Urban Data Centre fact sheet states, “the plethora of sources of urban data, be it open city data, IoT data, or data from third parties, presents both opportunities and challenges for researchers and policy makers. Opportunities in what the scale, breadth and depth of the data enables practitioners and researchers to achieve, and challenges in achieving usable results due to the quality, sparseness, validity, interoperability and relevance of the data.”
Suman Mahalanabis, a TCS expert on urban data and head of project management for the firm’s digital software and solutions group, says that prior to the funding commitment, he and Fox had been in contact for several years and had shared thoughts on how to best build urban data sets.
“Over that time span, the need for what they are doing has become even more pronounced,” he said, adding that the pandemic accentuated the importance of having sound data to make decisions on a multitude of events that unfolded during the ensuing lockdown.
“We at TCS worked extensively in India and multiple geographies, and based on that experience, we saw the benefit of bringing multiple data domains together into what we call a common urban ontology.”
An example of what is possible when the right data sets are in place can be seen in the iCity initiative, a venture in which urban transportation simulation modeling capabilities developed by the University of Toronto (UofT) are used, along with design capabilities from OCAD University, and geospatial software systems from Esri Canada.
The iCity project, which is also supported by IBM Canada, Cellint and Teranet, “applies advanced data analysis and visualization capabilities to improve urban transportation system performance and design efficient, sustainable cities for the well-being of individuals and society.”
The use of intelligent data, says Mahalanabis, forms the cornerstone of what he describes as Smart City 2.0.
“The first wave (Smart City 1.0) has all been about instrumentation – the wiring up of the city, getting the operational integration done, and so on. But in the next phase, innovation, would be around ‘how do you really make your services more intelligent, and more personalized to your citizens needs?’ That’s where we see the promise.
“The bottom layer of this foundation, from a technology perspective, is about Wi-Fi connectivity. On top of that, you have sensor gateways, which are taking data from individual sensors, aggregating them on gateways, which are typically called IoT middleware. On top of IoT middleware, data and analytics infrastructure comes into play.”
Such an infrastructure, Mahalanabis says, “listens to data from all these IoT middleware and IoT gateways, and brings the data together and fuses them into what we call a common urban data model. And there’s a lot of work being done by ISO in laying down the common foundations of an urban data ontology.”
In the UofT article, Fox points out that, “for all the buzz about using machine learning to build and operate smarter cities, not many people appreciate how much effort goes into pulling relevant data together.
“About 80 per cent of the time it takes to build a smarter-city application is spent on what’s called data wrangling, which is finding the data, cleaning it and integrating it, as opposed to actually building machine learning models.”
Cole Cioran, managing partner at Info-Tech Research Group, says any initiative like this one, and others involving citizen data, must not only be accurate, but from a security perspective, absolutely tamper-proof.
“It’s the price of admission. Smart isn’t just having the neatest and slickest service available. It really is about making sure that you’ve got the whole picture. Technology is really exciting and anyone who talks ‘smart’, the singular version of it from a vendor perspective, who’s selling it, is very focused on the technology. And this was really obvious in the Sidewalk Labs play. It was all about how cool the technology would be.
“We have to value something over that technology and innovation – ‘what are the social, environmental and economic outcomes’ comes first. And ultimately, the big goal – the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow in government – is not the tech itself, for as we use (it) to deliver services, we’re actually running into a digital paradox.”
Cioran says, “people talk about the digital divide and digital equity. But I don’t think those are really strong enough words for what’s going on. The paradox of digital services in government, particularly at the municipal level, it’s the people who most need to consume the services are the ones who are least able to access them through digital channels.
“And it’s literally digital poverty that we need to overcome. That could be through programs like the Toronto District School Board’s Chromebooks program, in which every student can have a Chromebook to do their schoolwork on. It’s a huge leveler of the playing field.”
Meanwhile, Fawn Annan, chief executive officer (CEO) and chief marketing officer (CMO) at IT World Canada, said that from her discussions with the City of Toronto, “the customer experience is where great strides will be on display, addressing the end-to-end customer experience capability while addressing the equity issues of the digital divide.”
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