Helping cities to meet the needs of citizens

Kathryn Willson explains how Microsoft’s rich portfolio of services and solutions is benefitting cities

Sean Dudley
Sean Dudley
By Sean Dudley on 05 August 2016
Helping cities to meet the needs of citizens

This article first appeared in the Summer 2016 issue of The Record.

Microsoft is no stranger to working with organisations in the public sector, having done so for more than quarter of a century. In 2013, the company established its CityNext initiative, which has helped modern cities think and act more holistically about the services provided to citizens through technology.

“Instead of thinking about public safety, health education and government services in silos, and engaging those departments of governments on individual projects, it became clear that they needed to think about all of that as one,” explains Kathryn Willson, director, Microsoft CityNext. “Mayors and city leaders who are generally not technologists were starting to participate in building a vision for how technology could improve the quality of life in their communities.”

Local governments have a broad responsibility set, covering health, education, utilities, infrastructure and transportation. CityNext was established by Microsoft with the aim of working with partners to help curate and deliver solutions that address the full spectrum of need by making cities more digital.

“We have over 300 partners delivering more than 1,000 solutions in almost every country in the world,” explains Willson. “We are bringing more partners on every week – not only global companies with long standing expertise in some of these areas, but also the next generation of software and service developers who are ‘born in the cloud’ and are coming up with the next great apps. It spans commercial organisations with a global presence, all the way down to the startups looking to bring services to people in their communities.”

As a platform company, Microsoft delivers the underlying cloud infrastructure, data platform architectures, the security and privacy architectures, and familiar productivity applications such as Office to its partners in this space. These are then leveraged by the partners to help bring their own unique expertise and services to the fore.

“This paradigm provides a really healthy environment in the marketplace,” Willson says. “It provides customers with choice, which is healthy particularly when you’re talking on the scale of a city. It is a heterogeneous world from a technology perspective, so cities want to have the solutions that are going to best suit their needs, regardless of the vendor. By having all of these partners delivering solutions, we’re helping to create this environment of choice.”

Interoperability forms a key part of this, with Microsoft working to deliver the underlying platform that enables customers’ selected technology to be used in an integrated and interoperable way within a partner or customers’ environment. Once all this is in place, Microsoft’s deep stack of services and solutions can begin to take their effect and enable cities and local governments to work in a ‘smarter’ way.

“Our Azure cloud computing platform includes a number of suites of capabilities, the Internet of Things (IoT) suite and our Cortana Analytics Suite are providing the ability to ingest a high volume, a high voracity, and high varieties of data,” says Willson. “This data is stored and its encryption is maintained, before analytics is run to provide the insight that turns it into something meaningful. Our partners are leveraging more and more of these capabilities to really bring their solutions to life.”

This ability to turn complex information into actionable insight is at the core of the CityNext philosophy, and means more workers can bring about positive change in their own communities.

An example is the City of Breda in the Netherlands – a place where water forms an integral part of the city’s culture, but also needs to be managed to avoid flooding and other issues.

“Breda is situated at the confluence of two rivers, and they get a lot of rain which they attribute to climate change,” Willson explains. “They worked with Microsoft partner ireckon to leverage IoT by putting sensors throughout their water system. They’re able to, in an animated visualisation, see the movement of water through their community, and measure the energy consumption of their pumps.”

A fluctuation in energy consumption is usually indicative of a pump having performance problems or getting ready to fail. Thanks to these sensors, the city can do predictive and preemptive maintenance on the pumps and help prevent flooding.

“Just like any city that is building the vision for their community and adopting technology to take them in that direction, it’s absolutely a journey,” Willson says. “It’s a journey for them and a journey for us. We’re three years into this and we’re very pleased that the story we’ve built has resonated as well as it has with city leaders around the world.”

CityNext’s mission is to help city leaders understand the role of technology in making cities better places to live and understand that the modern city is a system of systems. With more knowledge and a vision of how they want these systems to operate, incremental changes can be made to the way cities provide services.

“Now the mission for us and for city leaders is to execute on that vision, so the next chapter for CityNext is going to be helping cities deploy solutions that are in alignment with their individual priorities,” says Willson. “We are aiming to help city leaders get the return on this planning and these early investments so that they can reap the benefits of these services.”

In the data space, this all forms part of a shift away from laborious paper-based processes and engage in a digital transformation towards a new way of managing and storing citizen data. This shift, however, comes with challenges of its own.

“The adoption of technology at this kind of scale is new, and being the steward of your citizens’ data is a new idea,” she concludes. “When you’re moving from paper-based to digital systems, it’s harder in a digital world to get your arms around what’s necessary to protect data. Our community leaders are stewards of information about their citizens, and their privacy is important – they need to earn the citizens’ trust. Without trust, citizens won’t use city services. In order to meet the vision cities are building, city leaders need to earn their trust. Microsoft is working hard to earn our customers trust so that we can be a partner in delivering those services.”

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