The merging of our physical and digital worlds is accelerating faster than ever. It’s become increasingly clear that connectivity will shape our future lives and the cities we live in. We’re already seeing the Internet of Things reshaping our communities and fundamentally changing the way we interact with one another. As connectivity increases, there will be more interaction of technology on the backend helping with everything from city planning efforts to enhancing the wellbeing of citizens. We may not always see it, but we will certainly be affected by it.
I was recently on a panel discussing the topic of smart cities – specifically, how IoT is helping to advance public safety technology. Dr. Alison Brooks, research director of Smart Cities and Public Safety at IDC, and James Alfano, global lead solutions expert for Public Security and Intelligence at SAP, were also guests on the show.
Our discussion during Game-Changing Smart Cities of the Future touched on several topics around smart city safety, but there was one prevailing conclusion: We need to shift from a strategy of reacting to one of preventing.
Technology can help us accomplish this goal, and more
Industry experts are now predicting that 70% of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050. We’re looking at rapid urbanization that is beginning to cause additional challenges to the modern city – there are constrained resources to meet growing demand for services, government complexities due to the increasing population, and citizens with new digital expectations of what the city should be providing and what a city should be held accountable for.
Public safety has to be top of mind for civic leaders, as well as for service providers, workers, visitors – anybody who lives in or visits cities. It’s also not enough for just governments to be held responsible for keeping people safe – it should be a collective effort of local businesses and organizations as well. These organizations can justify their investments in technology, knowing that many of the solutions that keep people safe can also be leveraged to provide business and operational intelligence that can help businesses and economies thrive.
The definition of future success is being shaped by many factors: the need for greater safety and stability, the debate over security and privacy, and how to counter new threats like cyber-attacks that are continuing to climb to the top of national agendas, both in the United States and abroad. These factors tend to take immediate priority over longer term goals like fighting climate change and long-term economic resiliency.
That’s because public safety is a foundational requirement for thriving societies. While most cities understand how critical the issue of public safety is, they are also faced with the need to find ways to make improvements in a more cost-effective way. Technology advancements are now closing the gap, pushing citizens and stakeholders to have a more collaborative conversation with our elected officials and city governments about what needs to be done. But this does not mean that other priorities need to be ignored – cities that deploy advanced technology solutions like IoT and predictive analytics to fight crime can often leverage these same technologies to better understand traffic, environmental threats, and even the flows of people throughout a retail district in order to improve life over the long term.
Data is perhaps our greatest resource to turn these insightful conversations into actionable results. The problem, however, is that we aren’t using it to its full potential. We have enormous amounts of data – big or small, from sensors, cameras, or business systems – you name it. We are living in an era where we have become data rich. Our cities are increasing their data wealth because many have adopted systems to increase efficiency and safety – but these systems alone aren’t enough. We are gathering more and more data, but our level of actionable insight remains minimal. We are data rich, but insight poor.
How can we change this? How can our cities become as rich with holistic insight as they are with data?
The first step is to break down data silos – we need to get disparate systems connected and talking to one another. This is one of the greatest challenges we face today. Integration can unlock the insights we need to create smarter, safer, healthier, and more efficient communities.
Bringing together data from various agencies (police departments, fire departments, transit, utilities, etc.) and unifying their current systems would be a powerful first step in identifying and addressing societal challenges. It would enable us to look holistically at what the causes are and the factors that contribute to them, then to test out the different activities, policies, and programs to address them. From parking and traffic congestion, to combating crime and improving public safety, environmental sustainability, and resiliency, to education and transportation – all areas of a city ecosystem can benefit from this level of data sharing. Once we start sharing data, we lay the foundation for analytics and data mining to gain tangible civic and business insights.
In cities around the world, we’re seeing this kind of integration now starting to happen, but it could be accelerated. We are deploying more sensors than ever before; people have powerful communication devices in their pocket with access to real-time information. We have the ability to bring these factors together to create safe and thriving societies.
For example, crime tracking is now a reality. There are platforms that are leveraging machine learning to crunch a variety of informational data together in order to find patterns that humans would otherwise miss. Crime can be impacted by several variables, including weather, proximity to public transportation hubs, 911 calls, and social media. This information, while all valuable, is often too much for a human to parse through and unearth behavior patterns and predictions.
Technology can now automate this work for law enforcement, acting as a force multiplier to improve staffing and patrols – and even help prevent crimes before they happen. As advanced as this sounds, it is only the first step. When approaching crime, we should think about it in several timescales to figure out a solution to solve the challenge once and for all:
- Incident – How can we prevent an incident or crime from occurring, or if it does, give our officers the best technology to neutralize the situation quickly and keep everyone (including themselves) safer? This includes providing situational awareness through video and IoT, along with better collaboration tools and predictive analytics.
- Individual – Imagine all of the wasted human potential because individuals have, for one reason or another, chosen crime over more productive pursuits, or faced abuse and situations that shattered their potential. How can we leverage data and share what works to help people find their way and overcome obstacles? The Last Mile is a great example of this. It’s a program that trains prisoners to code. In a prison with a 65% recidivism rate, the rate for people that participate in this program is only seven percent.
- Societal – There is a three-year old out there today who will someday commit a violent crime and be sent to prison. How can we create a society in which this person will not feel compelled to do so? The kind of society with the opportunity and support they need to thrive in the world will require safety, convenient access to the economy, information to educate themselves for success, and community support that human beings instinctively need to feel esteem and satisfaction in their lives.
This may seem like a gargantuan task, but it is not impossible. There are many peaceful societies around the world that do not face similar levels of crime as the United States. There are also many that are much more dangerous than the U.S. Unifying our cities across data silos to help them learn from each other is one key step toward helping us achieve this goal. The more we start to embrace data as a strategic partner in public safety and urban planning, the better positioned we’ll be to take a proactive rather than reactive approach, and create the world that we all want to live in.
For more on how technology is shaping local communities, see Running Future Cities on Blockchain.