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Smart Cities and Big Data

September 17, 2014


Julian Garcia Barbosa, Big Data Senior Account Executive at Telefónica, writes, “Improving citizen security, optimising waste management, anticipating traffic jams and analysing citizen sentiment: these are just a few examples of what Big Data could do to bring our cities into the future.” [“Big data and the road to smart cities,” Telecoms Tech, 28 May 2014] The term “smart cities” is being used to describe urban areas that have embraced connectivity and analysis to try and improve the quality of life for urban residents. In the abstract for a paper entitled “The real-time city? Big data and smart urbanism,” Rob Kitchin (@RobKitchin) writes, “‘Smart cities’ is a term that has gained traction in academia, business and government to describe cities that, on the one hand, are increasingly composed of and monitored by pervasive and ubiquitous computing and, on the other, whose economy and governance is being driven by innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship, enacted by smart people.” I agree with Kitchin that you can’t have smart cities without smart people (for more on that subject read my post entitled “Smart Cities, Smart People, Smart Future“). Kitchin, a professor of geography at the National University of Ireland at Maynooth, discusses his paper in the following presentation which he delivered at the Oxford Internet Institute (oii) in March 2014.



One of the primary goals of making cities smarter is improving how urban areas use resources. Barbosa reminds us, “70% of the global population will live in urban areas by 2050. In spite of occupying only 2% of the Earth, these cities are responsible for 70% of global energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. Cities will need to tackle the big problems of managing scarce resources and providing critical public services such as security, transportation, energy and water. For this reason, ICT solutions are critical tools and Big Data is set to become, without doubt, the cornerstone of next-generation cities.” Jim Sinopoli (@jsinopoli), CEO of Smart Buildings, LLC, agrees with Barbosa. “Given those trends,” he writes, “cities will need to dramatically increase their livability and sustainability.” [“The Road to the Smart City,” Automated Buildings, July 2014] Sinopoli is obviously focused on how we can make urban structures more efficient. He writes, “Increased urbanization also means a greater number of buildings and key urban systems. There appears to be an overarching commonality in smart buildings and smart cities; it is the use of advanced technology to improve the ‘performance’ of the entity. It involves automation, information technology, communications, integration, data mining and analytics.” The common thread that weaves its way through all discussions of smart cities is the ability to analyze available data. Analytics is the sine qua non when it comes to making cities smarter through the use of big data. Barbosa notes, “Nowadays we are facing a data explosion due to the abundance of personal interactions through social networks and because of the existence of millions of M2M devices and it is in cities where most people and sensors are concentrated.” He continues:

“Besides the massive volume of data which metropolitan areas have to cope with these days, this data is also of a great range and variety. For example, more than 80% of data is unstructured in the form of videos, tweets, GPS coordinates, Excel files and emails which means that decisions need to be made at high velocity. These are the three Vs which can be found in any Big Data project. But how can cities leverage the use of Big Data technology in order to become really smart? Firstly, it is important to identify the problems which need to be solved and to define a unique strategy adopting a holistic approach in which all city council departments are involved. As with any Big Data project, in the case of smart cities it will be necessary to collect, process, share, store and analyse a vast amount of data coming from multiple different sources in order to turn Big Data into information and this information into powerful insights. These insights will play an important part in improving the decisions made by city leaders.”

Sinopoli agrees with Barbosa that the place to start is by identifying challenges. After all, no two cities are alike. “The heavy lifting is in the city developing a plan for what they really want to be in the future,” Sinopoli writes. “Technology facilitates and catalyzes process change, but it’s secondary to the change itself. Procuring technology and automation should be one of the last steps, not – as it so often is – the first. Don’t buy technology with little or no thought of the process changes that may be required for a city.” Good solutions always begin with good questions. Sinopoli adds, “A starting point in transforming a city to a smart city is to look inward. Take stock of your city. Develop a methodical approach to accomplish three things: (a) assess existing city processes and systems, (b) identify pain points and, more importantly, the root causes of those pain points, and (c) review current strategies and their alignment with current city goals and objectives.” Some of the challenges facing most urban areas are well known. Barbosa and Sinopoli each provide a list of examples of areas that require attention. They include: public safety; urban transportation, water management, energy management, waste management, and digital government services.


Barbosa also believes that cities should conduct public sentiment analysis. “By analyzing social media networks and blogs and then using Big Data technologies,” he writes, “cities would be able to measure public opinion on key issues and services such as public transportation, waste management or public safety allowing them to prioritize and shape policy.” Most smart city pundits discuss the importance of getting all stakeholders involved in making cities better — especially the people who live and work in cities. Ben Hecht, President and CEO of Living Cities, explains, “The true promise is where the numbers and patterns from this data connect and become personal – enabling us to understand and respond to human behavior and urban society in ways previously unimaginable. This type of analysis has infinite potential for improving the human condition on an ongoing basis; and strengthening people’s commitment to our democracy. Already, in U.S. cities, we are seeing many promising signs of the transformative personal application of Big Data.” [“Big Data Gets Personal in U.S. Cities,” New Cities Foundation, 30 May 2014] Michael Batty reminds us, “Most cities are not planned but grow organically from the bottom up as the product of individual and group decisions about how and where to develop.” [“Cities, Complexity, and Emergent Order,” Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis, September 2011] City planners who try to dictate how people are going to live in an urban environment are attempting a Sisyphean task. Cities will have a much better chance of getting smarter if the views of citizens are made an intimate part of the plan. Hecht concludes, “Big and open data is not just about tracking consumer habits and improving organizational effectiveness. Though certainly these things are important, we cannot miss the opportunity to harness this movement to move the needle on social problems that have long seemed intractable. Because, as the world has increasingly become a hyperconnected place, these issues are personal for us all.”

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