The concept of smart cities has long-been seen as the epitome of human civilisation: collecting data about citizens – their shopping choices, the way they travel and how they think communities could be improved – and using it to improve public sector services. Organisations like Microsoft are realising this kind of innovation.
“There are many challenges that smart cities could help to solve,” says Kirk Arthur, senior director of business development for government at Microsoft. “They range from reducing congestion through data-enabled transportation systems and managing urban waste more efficiently, to caring for vulnerable populations and improving cybersecurity for citizens and governments.”
Many technologies can be employed to create this type of hyper-aware urban infrastructure, including the internet of things (IoT), according to Arthur.
“IoT solutions can help connect infrastructures to better regulate traffic, make emergency systems more efficient and reduce emergency response times,” he explains. “Microsoft gives its customers access to a comprehensive portfolio of products, services and solutions to make the most of those IoT opportunities across devices, cloud, analytics and back-end systems. We make it possible for governments to bring IoT to any device and any platform so they can use their existing infrastructure and have a flexible and scalable solution that adapts to their needs and processes.”
Having worked with various governments and public sector organisations for over 40 years, Microsoft has a wealth of experience in providing smart technologies to solve problems facing communities, including public safety in emergency situations. In partnership with IT solution provider Insight, Microsoft deployed an IoT-enabled alert and emergency response system built on the Microsoft Azure platform called ActiveShield in the Aldine Independent School District in Texas, USA.
“Combined with data from cameras, motion sensors and alarms, Insight Connected Safety enables two-way communication and real-time alerts designed to protect students, staff and first responders in the event of an emergency,” says Arthur. “This is just one of the ways that we are using our solutions to realise smart cities based on data-enabled decisions.”
IoT can also transform urban transportation by reducing congestion and emissions. The Belgian city of Antwerp employed the expertise of Microsoft and mobility expert Be-Mobile to enhance the city’s transportation network with smart technology.
“The city was facing increasing congestion, aggravated by the need for roadway repairs,” explains Arthur. “To head off gridlock, Be-Mobile designed a solution based on Microsoft Azure that guides traffic to off-street parking, provides mobility insights and suggests alternative transport modes. As a result, there are fewer cars entering the city centre, improved mobility flow and an increase in the use of active transport modes.”
Artificial intelligence (AI) is also rising in popularity as it enables improved decision-making and accelerated operations through automation and instant business insights. However, according to Martin Neale, CEO of AI solution provider ICS.AI, public sector uptake of the technology has been much slower than the private sector. This is partly a result of a lack of awareness about what AI can do for local authorities.
“Most people have an Alexa and know what it does, or have seen Terminator,” he says. “Anything between and beyond those extremes is alien. People, including those leading public sector organisations, simply aren’t aware of what they can do with AI and how it can be used to create a smart city.
“But resources are also a consideration. Money is a critical factor for local government and while AI can ultimately improve how resources are prioritised, the potential cost of its implementation often inhibits further consideration.”
Attitudes are changing though, with the help of companies like ICS.AI and Microsoft, and smart city solutions are on the rise.
“We have deployed citizen assistants with many of our public sector customers,” says Neale. “These are AI bots that can answer people’s local government queries quickly and around the clock. It is a really good example of how councils can use AI to reduce costs and improve customer service in one fell swoop.”
The benefits of IoT and AI for smart cities are not limited to reduced costs, increased efficiency and more informed decisions. These technologies are also essential to ensure civilised society operates as usual in times of global uncertainty, such as the current Covid-19 outbreak.
“Online communication becomes not only desirable, but critical while people self-isolate to prevent the spread of the disease,” says Neale. “In situations like these online access is likely to play a major part in how people will continue to be relevant and knowledgeable in the workplace, and ensure that government, education and healthcare services continue to operate effectively.”
This article was originally published in the Spring 2020 issue of The Record. Subscribe for FREE here to get the next issues delivered directly to your inbox.
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