How Microsoft’s Smart Cities initiative is enabling accessibility for all

How Microsoft’s Smart Cities initiative is enabling accessibility for all

We take a look at how a new accessibility toolkit is supporting Microsoft’s Smart Cities initiative

Toby Ingleton |

This article first appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of The Record.

Whether they’re looking to ease traffic congestion, increase energy efficiency or lower operating costs, global cities are constantly striving to enhance the lives of their citizens, and are increasingly turning to technology as a key enabler.

Microsoft is leading this effort. In a January 2017 study by IDC named Who Are The Most Trusted Vendors for US Smart City Transformation?, Microsoft was identified by survey respondents as being the most trusted company when it comes to enabling smart city digital transformation.

Through its CityNext initiative, Microsoft has helped transform the practices of cities worldwide for the better through the innovative use of digital technologies. And with its partner network, the company is continuously engaging with institutions and governments to find more ways of meeting the needs of today’s citizens.

To help spread its message, Microsoft presented and exhibited at the Smart Cities NYC ’17 event, which took place in New York, US, from 3-6 May 2017. Here, Microsoft promoted its CityNext Digital Transformation narrative to around 2,000 attendees from more than 250 global cities, and emphasised why it is leading the drive to make modern cities digitally and technologically enhanced.  

During the event, Microsoft joined NGO partners G3ict and World Enabled to unveil the Smart Cities for All accessibility toolkit, which forms part of the company’s involvement in the cross-industry collaborative efforts of the Smart Cities for All initiative. This initiative aims to define the state of IT accessibility and eliminate the digital divide for persons with disabilities and older persons in Smart Cities around the world.

“There are more than one billion people in the world who have a disability, whether permanent or temporary, including visual, mobility, hearing, cognitive, speech and neural,” explained Toni Townes-Whitley, corporate vice president of Microsoft Worldwide Public Sector and Industry. “We believe our focus on accessibility helps us achieve Microsoft’s mission to empower every person and every organisation on the planet to achieve more. We’re helping cities create more inclusive digital environments by building accessibility features in Microsoft technologies such as including Windows 10, Office 365, Edge and more.”

The new accessibility toolkit has been designed to provide city leaders with a strategic and actionable guide that allows them to “align technology initiatives and smart cities programmes in a way that empowers people with disabilities or people needing particular accommodations.”

Based around four key pillars, the toolkit provides IT accessibility standards which local governments can readily adopt, a model procurement policy for accessible IT, a communication guide on the advantages of incorporating IT accessibility into a city’s digital services, and a database of accessible smart city solutions.

As well as showcasing the new toolkit, Smart Cities NYC ’17 also presented the opportunity for Microsoft to share its recent work with cities from across the world.

One example came from the US city of Los Angeles, where a new City Hall Internet Personality – or ‘Chip’ – bot has been rolled out. This artificial intelligence virtual assistant is powered by Microsoft technology, and acts as the city’s new digital brand ambassador. 

The bot has been designed to help reimagine the way businesses communicate with the City of Los Angeles. Chip is set to transform and simplify the way that businesses engage with the city, and can handle questions from 100,000 businesses during business tax season. 

Moving forward, it is hoped that Chip will be used to report citizen issues, such as graffiti for example, helping to free up city staff to focus on other tasks. Townes-Whitley said: “Chip exemplifies the next wave of transformation – offering business services through technology, using human language as the interface.”

Attendees at Smart Cities NYC ’17 were also able to participate in three immersive experiences from Microsoft – the Productivity & Inclusion Experience, the new MS Patrol Vehicle and the Microsoft Digital Transformation Showcase. 

The Productivity & Inclusion Experience highlighted how key Office 365 solutions, including Power BI, Skype and accessibility features, are bringing multiple benefits to users. Attendees who took a look at the MS Patrol Vehicle learned how drones and cameras are being used and were able to understand more about the role of the cloud to create safer cities.

The new Microsoft Digital Transformation Showcase featured a 60-75 minute tour, highlighting cloud solutions from Microsoft partners, including Taqtile, Genetec, Cubic, and a range of Microsoft devices such as Surface and HoloLens.

“For the first time in history, more than 50% of the world’s population live in urban areas, and by 2050, nearly 70% of the global population – more than six billion people – will live in cities,” Townes-Whitley said. “This confluence of diverse people with diverse needs, meeting limited city resources and infrastructure, is creating new opportunities for government and business to address challenges with technology innovation and drive meaningful societal change. Digital technology can help us do both.” 



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