The internet of things could help emerging market cities leapfrog development stages
Like the numbers the computer language is based on, the big data debate is often binary. The information derived from phones, sport apps or music software can be used by customers to enlarge and enrich customers’ experience, we are told. Or it can be used by others to bombard them with ads, raise their insurance premiums or subject them to greater surveillance. There is a shared feeling that data turns into an enemy whenever it lands into the hands of third parties.
These two extremes may actually be just the tip of the iceberg, however. Perhaps the most voracious users of private data in the future will be public authorities – and more often than not, with a view to making it a public good.
In a series of case studies recently released, The Economist Intelligence Unit looks at how cities are striving to harness data to improve the daily lives of people who live in them. One is about Boston and how its administration seeks to improve traffic by collecting lumps of data about drivers’ habits, problematic intersections and planned works. Every one of the city’s traffic lights talk to the central IT system once per second, the article says.
More out-of-the-box though is how data is being put to work by emerging cities. In Jakarta, crowdsourced information is being used to map out floods and keep the city dry. This is made possible, the EIU says, by its inhabitants’ love affair with Twitter. Indonesia ranks among the world’s top five users of the micro-blogging app.
In New Delhi, crowdsourced data is being used to diminish and solve crime. It has the potential to prove more efficient than CCTV, the EIU says, by allowing citizens to report on lighting, security, sidewalk conditions, availability of public transport and perceptions of safety through a variety of apps.
In both cases, the idea is to put the pieces of a puzzle together: the information gathered from users complements what’s already available to authorities in ways no other tools could do before. The challenge for cities will now be to manage the volume, variety and velocity of inputs. “The capability is here. It’s now up to the government agencies and the civil authorities”, says Juma Assiago, coordinator of the UN Habitat Safer Cities Programme, in one of the case studies. Collecting best practice on all of these efforts – and storing it on the cloud, perhaps – could help them get on with the task.
Computers is something I will have little access to over the next two weeks, while being on holidays. I look forward to reporting back on my return – be good in the meantime!