BigData Analytics for Civic Innovation in Smart Cities

Big Data has been a hot buzzword in technology circles for awhile now, but can it be harnessed by city governments for the public good?

The San Jose City Council recently hosted a study session on Civic Innovation in Smart Cities and Big Data Analytics, featuring city leaders and data experts from the academic, nonprofit, and private sectors.

Here are key insights I gathered from the session and the study material distributed on the topic, along with some examples of approaches in action.  

What is a “Smart City” Anyway?

For now, a Smart City is an ideal that San Jose and other cities aspire to. A Smart City uses the latest technology to provide residents with a comfortable, safe, clean environment and an engaged, healthy lifestyle. A Smart City collects data through sensors, reports it through a wireless network, and  enables responsive management through data analytics. The real-time interaction between residents, technology, and policymakers in Smart Cities enhances delivery of government services.

Case Study: Data-Driven Governance in New York

One pioneering effort is the creation of the Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics (MODA) as New York City’s “civic intelligence center”. Data across multiple agencies is aggregated, analyzed and turned into actionable solutions, such as using predictive analytics to discover potential fire risks in buildings. MODA’s placement in Operations has also contributed to a wider shift in city government culture. Data is no longer just a part of MODA’s work: it is becoming the very core of operations in New York.

Why Should San Jose Become a Smart City?

Studies show that more than 26 global cities will be “smart” in 2025, over 50% of which will be from Europe and the US. Unfortunately, San Jose is currently not identified as one of those cities. San Jose is the capital of Silicon Valley, home to hundreds of ingenious startups and tech giants–but will it be left behind when it comes to being a Smart City?

The population of San Jose recently crossed the one million mark, and is expected to grow 33% by 2040. This rapid population growth is also leading to worsening congestion: San Jose ranked as the 7th worst traffic city in the US by the INRIX Traffic Scorecard. According to the 2015 Urban Mobility Scorecard, those traveling in San Jose experienced around 82 hours of delay per commuter as of last year. To handle this large-scale urbanization, it’s time to find new ways to manage complexity, increase efficiency, reduce expenses, and improve quality of life.

There are many opportunities for San Jose to innovate, depending on how diverse stakeholders decide to collaborate. For example, in September 2015, the White House launched a $160 million, multi-departmental initiative to fund smart cities research and technology collaborations nationwide, with the goal of using sensors and data networks to tackle problems from crime to traffic to environmental cleanup.

Efforts in Smart City, Open Data, and Technology Upgrades

For San Jose, smart is about creating a city that’s attractive for businesses, residents, and visitors. The emphasis placed on doing more with less and getting better results for everyone.

One current Smart City effort in San Jose is the implementation of the ongoing LED Streetlight RFP project, RSM sensors that provides traffic counts, and Direct Short Radio Communication that provide internet for vehicles. The goal is to make City assets (buildings, streetlights, streets, land) available for LED light conversions. The RSM sensors provide traffic counts on types of vehicles, number of pedestrians, wait time, and predictive analysis to optimize all modes of transportation. With the support from Cisco, DSRC intend to facilitate communication with signals and other vehicles on road. The plan is to make it a standard for vehicles manufactured after 2017.

My Take: Smart Cities and Citizen Engagement

How can a city government with a limited budget, skillset and staff make use of an expanding volume of data from sensors in everything from streetlights to parking spaces?

To realize the benefits of Big Data and Smart City initiatives, the City of San Jose needs support and engagement from the public in city building activities. Citizens should become prosumers (proactive consumers) of public service delivery and discover ways to actively engage the untapped pool of resources in the city.

After all, San Jose has a wealth of untapped potential in the form of highly-skilled immigrants with no work permit. The City of San Jose should harness the energy and talent of these underutilized residents to truly become a Smart City. This will require heightened levels of engagement from the public, as well as new modes of participation. One means to achieve this is through innovative platforms such as Code of San Jose.

If the City of San Jose is able to involve residents from all spheres in shaping a city that is not only smart, but also inclusive, safe, equitable and sustainable, it could set a benchmark for rest of the world.