Can sensing cities become thinking and responsive cities?

Yes, with advanced analytics

It’s a fascinating example of human ingenuity: An earthquake causing complete devastation in Christchurch, New Zealand, has sparked a huge movement in infrastructure innovation. Led by innovation expert Roger Dennis, the efforts to rebuild Christchurch as a “sensing city” involve integrating a network of digital sensors into the physical infrastructure of the city as it is rebuilt. This network can generate data that will benefit not only Christchurch, but also have positive influence on the future of cities everywhere.  

In the vision of the sensing city, sensors will gather data to monitor everything from noise levels to water use, in real time and at a very granular level. The resulting data can then be integrated with other key city attributes, like traffic flow, air quality and water pollution. A key success factor is that the data must be accessible – in an “open” data store – where it can be tapped into by city officials and citizens alike.

Let’s make these new, innovative cities think and react to help us – and our planet.

As Christchurch continues to rebuild, citizens are discussing the funding of sensors in every part of the city’s infrastructures – and how private investment will have to make up the gap that city and regional officials can’t fund. A more important question to ponder is the value that sensing cities can provide: What’s the plan to use all the data that is collected from the new infrastructure, to ensure that this is not just an experiment in technology? 

Getting data from city sensors can help businesses and city planners be more efficient and more effective, and that translates to dollars and sense. But, how can all this data be used for the greater good for our planet and the human race?

Initial endeavors to use this data include a pilot project that examines the correlation between air quality, air temperature and incidences of respiratory illness. Patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease use inhalers with sensors that capture the quantity of medication dispensed along with the location and the real-time air temperature of the patient’s mouth. Analyzing this data can help drive benefits to not only to the patient, but also to medical research and the health systems of the city overall. 

Another great example is a project that encourages citizens and visitors to test water quality through easily deployed sensors. This project makes use of mobile technology to support image recognition of medical and environmental changes. Developing countries can benefit by the results of this analysis, leading to a better understanding of the quality of water sources.

Here is a marriage of emerging technology – big data, the Internet of Things, generally affordable sensors and pervasive connectivity – coming together for the greater good. The value of all of this data is enormous – but only the right business analytics approach can exploit the best possible outcomes for global citizenship. With the right answers to the questions of how this data affects our world, we can empower cities and citizens to take action to enable better lives.

The findings from all this data can help us have cleaner, healthier and safer cities. To paraphrase Roger Dennis, we are not just talking about monitoring the air quality across a city and understanding its patterns and effects on the environment. It’s knowing exactly what the air quality is at 3 p.m. across the street from the school where his son was just released for the day. Think of the possibilities! 

To know if your child, who is very sensitive to air pollutants, should be allowed to wait for the bus on any given day, or if you need to make other arrangements to be sure his time outdoors is minimized during bad air quality times. To be able to prevent disease and protect people from certain times of environmental or sociological changes could potentially save lives – or at least make their lives simpler and healthier. Likewise, knowing what traffic patterns are doing to the environment and the safety or quality of the pedestrian or driver experience can make commutes – and daily life – easier and less dangerous.

How can we make this movement catch on and provide all of us with better environments and better lives? It’s easy: advanced analytics. The data created from city infrastructure sensors is being captured at such a granular level that it requires sophisticated methods to really understand the cause and effect of each separate change. But where do we start? With business analytics using advanced methods that include technologies such as: 

  • Event stream processing to ensure that the data is analyzed in real time and that assessments can be made and outcomes changed – or prevented – as soon as things go wrong.
  • Hadoop and other big data stores to help deal with the enormous amounts of granular signals that are flying through the sensors and servers. 
  • High-performance analytics to parse through all that data with speed and power. These high-powered analytics will be essential to getting the value from data while there is still time to correct the course of action. 
  • Data visualization to make sure findings and correlations are communicated quickly and easily, and understood by everyone, not just the PhDs. 

For researchers and city planners, these technologies will bring new ways to mine data and apply advanced analytics to discover, invent, innovate and drive positive change. For example, reporting on each component of a sensor’s readout can be extremely valuable (think about changing traffic light placement and timing dynamically based on real traffic patterns). But the real value comes when we can see how traffic patterns affect things like air quality and water quality in real time. Or how can we analyze the data to build more efficient roadways and walking paths through the city?

We can also interrogate sensors to help detect where diseases start or spread and to understand the root causes of water quality or air quality issues. As we enable citizens to understand these patterns, they can stay safer and healthier by using this great collective knowledge to plan their lives. 

As you can see, the concept of the sensing city is enthralling. As citizens and technologists, our goals should be to investigate the many uses of sensor data and not jump on the bandwagon to leverage these capabilities as just a money maker. Let’s make these new, innovative cities think and react to help us – and our planet. With the amazing advanced analytics innovations we see at SAS every day, that won’t be difficult.


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