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How is big data helping build smart cities?

There has been a lot of activity around the concept of Smart City for some time. Cities are being identified as future smart cities. Theoretically at least, smart cities can fundamentally change our lives at many levels such as less pollution, garbage, parking problems and more energy savings. Though the prospect seems mouth-watering, the implementation of the smart city concept around the world has been sporadic at best because of several reasons. Whatever the stage the smart city implementation is at globally, big data and the Internet of Things (IoT) have the power to drive the implementation. Big data and the IoT are going to work with other software and hardware to lead the vision of smart city to fruition. However, the path ahead is full of challenges.

A real-life example of big data helping build smart city

The South Korean city of Songdo is an appropriate example of how big data has changed it. Songdo is located just 40 miles from Seoul and 7 miles from the Incheon International Airport. Songdo has 1500 acres of land reclaimed from the city and 40% of its area is earmarked as open area. Although we hear a lot about smart cities these days, the vision of building Songdo into a completely connected city started getting implemented way back in 2000 with a projected cost of $35 billion. Now, in 2015, Songdo is at the threshold of realizing that vision. Cisco has been working on the project and it is making sure that every inch of the city is wired with fiber optic broadband. So, Songdo, the smart city, is going to massively impact the lives of its 65,000 residents and the 300,000 who will commute daily to Songdo. Given below are some ways this smart city is going to behave.

  • The traffic will be measured and regulated with the help of RFID tags on the cars. The RFID tags will send the geo location data to a central monitoring unit that will identify the congested areas. Also, the citizens will always know via their smartphones and mobile devices the exact status of public transportation and its availability.
  • Even garbage collection will generate data. Residents who dispose of garbage will need to use a chip card in the containers. The city planners and architects along with Cisco are working on the concept of totally eliminating garbage trucks. Garbage trucks will not collect and dispose garbage anymore. Each house will have garbage disposal units and garbage will be sucked from them to the garbage treatment centers which will dispose it in an environment friendly way. The garbage will used to generate power for the city.
  • Data will make life more secured for the citizens. For example, children playing in the parks will wear bracelets with sensors which will allow the children to get tracked in case they go missing.
  • The smart energy grid can measure the presence of people in a particular area in a particular moment and can accordingly adjust the street lights. For example, the smart grids will ensure that areas that are scantly populated will automatically have some of the street lights turned off. This will result in a lot of energy savings.

How can big data potentially contribute to smart cities?

The example of Songdo above has already given some ideas on how can big data and IoT contribute to smart city development. Still, it is worth to explore some more areas.

  • Big data can help reduce emissions and bring down pollution. Sensors fitted in the roads will measure the total traffic at different times of a day and the total emissions. The data can be sent to a central unit which will coordinate with the traffic police. Traffic can be managed or diverted along other less congested areas to reduce carbon emissions in a particular area.
  • Parking problems can be better managed. Cars will have sensors attached which can guide the car to the nearest available parking lots.
  • The environment will cooler and greener with less energy being consumed. In Bristol, a program that involves development of a wireless network based on IoT is under way. This network will use less energy and power than the traditional Wi-Fi and mobile networks. So, batteries on mobile devices will last more and there will lesser need to charge the devices frequently.

The above list is by no means exhaustive and has been provided for illustration only.

The graphic below nicely sums up the impact big data can have in building smart cities.

Smart Cities

Smart Cities

How is the smart city concept being implemented?

So far, the Songdo model has been followed all around the world. The model is simple: the government ropes in a software and technology provider and then extends all support. In the case of Songdo, Cisco was the principal agency. All around the world, large companies such as the IBM and Cisco are working with civic planning bodies and universities to develop data-based systems for waste management, transport, law enforcement, and energy. Public money is being used to fund such projects. For example, in Glasgow, Scotland, the government has offered £24 million to implement technology to make the city smarter, more sustainable and safer.

The critics’ perspective and other challenges

Obviously, the critics do not think that the smart city and big data combine is going to work. Some even go to the extent of saying that Smart City is just a buzzword. Even if we do not consider these extreme opinions, the concept has extremely steep challenges to overcome.

  • Building a smart city needs huge funds. Way back in 2000, the Songdo city needed $35 billion, so the cost has compounded fast. Given the expenses, developing and poor countries, which already struggle to provide basic amenities to its citizens, may never be able to implement smart cities.
  • Data confidentiality and security is going to be a huge issue. It will be a tough task for the governments to maintain the balance between implementation of the smart city projects and assuring citizens of their data privacy.
  • Social issues could arise, especially in the developing and poor countries. Since many will be unable to afford the expensive sensors and other stuff, there are apprehensions that the economically backward sections will become enclaves of the elite. This, to some, could lead to social apartheid. India, which has just identified 100 cities to convert them to smart cities, seems to be a case of social apartheid. According to Laveesh Bhandari, an economist, I am describing the unfeasibility and undesirability of a thoughtless smart-city vision, When you invest so much without thinking about services and low-cost housing and governance, then you will end up creating enclaves that keep out the poor.”

Summary

Clearly, big data can make enormous contributions to the development of smart cities. However, the smart city vision faces huge challenges before it comes to fruition. It appears that availability of funds, data confidentiality and social issues are the biggest challenges. For smart cities to become a global phenomenon, the issue of affordability in third world countries needs to be addressed first. Given the cost, it is clear that the vision is still at a nascent stage and it may take several years before it becomes a global phenomenon. It has to be an inclusive concept.

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