Big Data Can Make Cities Safer as Well as Smarter
Leading cities around the world increasingly want to be seen as smart and are following the lead of pioneers such as Singapore to harness information and communications to improve competitiveness, quality of life and also security. Singapore has become a beacon for the smart city in large part through the vision of Lee Kuan Yew, its prime minister from 1959 to 1990, who died in March 2015. During Yew’s early days in office around 50 years ago, Singapore was an impoverished island swamp with 1.6 million inhabitants, a humid equatorial climate and virtually no natural resources. Yew realized that a major transformation was needed to make the city pleasant to live in and at least mitigate the humid heat. The smart city was born years before it was even conceived anywhere else, with a mission not just to harness modern technology but also to make the city green and biodiverse. Singapore is now abundant with vegetation including tall tropical trees, exotic ferns and exuberantly flowering plants adorning the streets and exteriors of office complexes, as well as public high rises that are now home to 80% of its greatly increased 5.3 million population.
There are also artificial trees towering above even the natural jungle trees, 50 metres tall and in effect the hubs linking the natural flora with the smart city infrastructure. These are sculptures made of metal from which vertical gardens hang but which also act as temperature modulators, absorbing heat and using some of that to generate electricity. They also monitor some aspects of biodiversity, which Singapore assesses via 23 indicators ranging from changes in number of bird and butterfly species, to amount of carbon stored by the trees.
Other applications include real time traffic management and advanced water management coupled with desalination, since the City has no drinking water source of its own. All this is bound together by a fixed and mobile broadband network registering average speeds of 12.2 Mbps and 9.1 Mbps respectively in Akamai’s Global State of the Internet report, near the top of the world league.
Singapore is also taking a lead in smart security, which is seen as essential for the city’s competitiveness as well as the day to day lives of its citizens, for its ability to attract inward investment and the best talent. Singapore is not alone - other cities are also moving forward quickly with innovative security schemes that exploit their broadband infrastructure. One is Eindhoven in the Netherlands, which is currently running a pilot project called CityPulse based on big data analytics with the aim of anticipating problems such as street unrest in advance by correlating patterns of activity from multiple sources. For the pilot, data is being captured from three streams: video, audio and social media, focused at this stage on just one key street called Stratumseind, which is the liveliest at night with more than 50 bars and nightclubs attended by up to 20,000 visitors every weekend.
The project combines live ‘on the ground’ information from cameras and microphones stationed at the street’s five entrances with online data gleaned from social media, all fed in real time to a police command and control centre. Correlation is the key, such that when analysis of video and audio suggests a threshold for action is being reached, the system seeks confirmation from social media that an incident really may be brewing. The same social media channels can then be used for the response, as part of a coordinated strategy by the authorities to pre-empt any unrest or criminal activity. Actions can also be taken on the ground, such as adapting street lighting or dispatching police to the location.
The pilot appears already to be meeting the objectives of reducing crime and creating a safer nightlife for both visitors and citizens. As a result the city’s planners believe that the scheme will over time attract more visitors and stimulate new business developments around commerce and entertainment.
Of course such schemes do bring the risk of throwing out the baby with the bathwater by creating a surveillance culture that actually deters people from visiting the area, of having the opposite of the desired effect. The city was acutely aware of this danger and has taken various steps to reassure its citizens that their privacy will not be sacrificed on the altar of security. The video data for example is blurred at source to make facial recognition impossible, since it is not necessary to recognize individuals in order to identify patterns of activity. Similarly social media data can be anonymised.
The Eindhoven pilot highlights how big data can play a key role in smart security without infringing privacy, although there is more work to be done on a larger scale embracing additional data sources to make this work across the whole of a major city such as London, Shanghai or for that matter Singapore.