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Effective and efficient cities: why does real-time data hold the key?

I really enjoyed speaking at this year’s Smart to Future Cities event on the topic:  “Effective and efficient cities: why does real-time data hold the key?”


A learned former colleague of mine, yes that’s you Julie, once wrote that ‘Smart cities are data informed, not data driven’.  And of course, I agree.

On the day of the event, as on most days, I consulted a well-known travel app supported by real-time (and fixed) data, to guide me effectively and efficiently from my home in South East London to the ILEC Centre.  As usual, the app gave me a number of options such as the train to London Bridge, followed by a combination of either tube, train, bus and/or walking. Now to engage the brain. Do I go for the quickest option, the cheapest but much longer option or the one that allows me to burn off a few more calories?

What’s the weather doing – time to refer to the weather app.  Heavy rain? Maybe avoid or minimise the walking bit.  Light rain, either now or later?  Take an umbrella?

So am I being driven by the data or simply being informed? What do you normally do? Are you one of those people that feel the need to access the internet or social media every 60 seconds? 

What infrastructure needs to be in place to collect and access real time data?

Continuing the analogy for a little while longer, my travel app clearly won’t work if we don’t have the basic infrastructure in place, such as the trains or the buses or the energy to power them.  I also won’t be aware of any delays or even cancellations if the trains or buses or even other travellers aren’t being tracked in real-time.

I also won’t be aware of delays and where to go next if the 4G (or 3G) connectivity let me down in one of those so-called not spots or because of hacking activity, as happened recently. I would then have to revert back to trying to use those grey cells to guide me, which they’re not used to doing anymore.

Therefore, reliable fit-for-purpose infrastructure is key to our cities bring effective and efficient.  I write this piece in the week that London Mayor Sadiq Khan launched the ultra-low emission zone, the first scheme of its kind in the world. The scheme charges the oldest and most polluting vehicles (including cars) for entering the centre. It is only made possible because we can accurately capture and process vehicle registration data for every vehicle entering central London (millions a day). I am proud that Siemens is providing the technology behind the ULEZ, allowing the scheme to operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The ULEZ will improve air pollution in London and it is only possible because the infrastructure behind it is fit-for-purpose, flexible and reliable.

In order to get the most out of this infrastructure, the various assets (transport, energy, buildings etc) need to be connected – cue a reference to the Internet of Things – and monitored and we need to act on the data provided to derive any benefit. 

What are the advantages of Public-Private Partnership in respect to data?

One barrier to those so-called ‘smart cities’ is a reluctance of some stakeholders to cooperate and collaborate. Some people regard data as the new oil and thus may be reluctant to share ‘their’ data for fear of losing out on potential future revenues, even if this can get in the way of the greater good. Another reason could be that the data exposes a competitive advantage or could dent a reputation e.g. a building or car may not be as energy efficient as claimed. The general public may be reluctant to enter their details in to a free wi-fi network from a privacy or a moral perspective

Nevertheless, I’ve noticed a growing willingness among stakeholders to overcome these issues. I’ve also spoken to a lot of people in cities and city districts who really get the potential benefit of working with the private and the third sector.

Examples such as the London Business Climate Leaders group where 11 companies, including Siemens, are working with the Greater London Authority and have made joint commitments to tackle climate change through improved energy efficiency of buildings, more focus on electric vehicles, increased use of renewables and improved recycling rates. Data, transparency and collaboration are key to our combined success. By “our” I mean the whole of London, and beyond.

How can local authorities improve and expand public services effectively and efficiently through the effective use of data?

Given that more and more people are using and relying on technology throughout their daily lives, it is a great opportunity and an expectation for local authorities to use data to improve and expand their public services.  Simple examples could be the reporting of potholes or waste collection.  Another good example is London’s Datastore.

To ensure people engage, clearly any approach needs to be EASY and CONVENIENT to use.  Also we need be aware of those who may not be able to access information, for whatever the reason.

However, looking at this from a slightly different approach, another application of data for cities could be to support planning decisions. Sometimes referred to as creating a ‘digital twin’ or a 3D model of a city, cities can now start to create a virtual model of their city and test various scenarios such as the impact of changing road layouts or building new buildings in a certain area.  What will their impact be on local air quality and power grids? 

Coupled with real-time data, as well as helping to design and simulate a new part of a city, such a model could then potentially be used to maintain and operate the city district, to ensure this is a perfect place to live, work and stay.

I’d like to discuss more on this topic – feel free to comment below or drop me a line with your thoughts.

Find out more at www.siemens.co.uk/cities