Data, data, data, data… we read a lot about data lately, don’t we? But less about what it is capable of. The power it wields. The changes it can drive. The ways it can make our lives better – and how it can quietly save them. This, arguably, is the ultimate goal of the Smart City, to provide us with an environment so efficient, so purposeful and sophisticated that not only is our quality of life impacted, but life itself. But how might we see this happen? Let’s look at a few lifesaving scenarios that smart cities are putting into action today…
Making streets safer for everyone
The New York City Connected Vehicle Project is a pilot that is testing the use of wireless comms to connect vehicles, smartphones and roadside infrastructure. Data from each is constantly transmitted between them, warning drivers of unsafe conditions. The data provided helps to anticipate crashes, breakdowns and vehicle failures, so that the appropriate action can be taken to prevent accidents by each party. Equally, the infrastructure-to-pedestrian connected technology at the city’s crosswalks makes road crossing safer for the visually impaired. And while it’s an excellent way to keep people safe as they travel today, the data from these kinds of projects can also help us transition into a driverless world more safely. The huge volumes of data the project will produce can be used to ‘train’ the machine learning algorithms in autonomous vehicles, so that they have a ready-made playbook to learn from for all kinds of real world scenarios.
Addressing the dangers we breathe
Air pollution is a killer, that much we know. The World Health Organisation has been setting air quality guidelines for over 35 years, but still there are still many, many cities that far exceed their recommendations for safe levels. Because of this, mapping live air pollution data around cities is probably one of the most urgent and fundamental ways to improve civic safety. Across this world, this is already happening, with sensors deployed throughout cities (some even built into street lighting) to detect carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, ozone, and particulate matter, as well as other air pollutants. They can provide instant alerts when air quality is poor, but perhaps more critically, they create trends data that can be used to stage ‘pollution interventions’ and help to support solutions to ongoing problems. Alongside these fixed sensors, more and more cities are introducing mobile sensors on cars, bikes and buses. For example, Google’s Street View cars around the world are kitted out to capture air quality measurements and report the data back for analysis.
Tracking health events as they happen
‘Syndromic surveillance’ sounds sinister, but it’s a cleverly effective way to collect and quickly analyse the kind of data that can potentially save hundreds, if not thousands, of lives. Emergency rooms and doctor’s surgeries – even school nurses and pharmacies – can report the details of what they are treating or issuing, where and when, right down to the zip code. Because this happens in real time, it can quickly alert to outbreaks of illnesses and other health problems or events. For example, if many hospitals are reporting similarly presenting overdoses in an area, it’s time to issue urgent warnings to the public while law enforcement locate and remove the source. Equally, it can be used to identify the origin of everything from poor air quality to food poisoning outbreaks and superspreading of highly contagious viruses (sound familiar?). This data can be even more effective when combined with that from other sources. For example, when multiple asthma inhalers are suddenly being prescribed and air quality monitors alert to high pollution. Or lots of people are sustaining road traffic injuries in the same location.
Lifesaving trash collections
Trash needs collecting, it’s just a simple fact. But if you’ve ever been stuck behind a refuse collection lorry, then you’ll know just how easily they can snarl up the clearest thoroughfares. Traditionally, this has meant that trash is collected at dawn, so that it makes minimum impact on traffic, and while that’s better for commuters, it makes no difference at all when an ambulance needs to speed a stroke victim to hospital and every second counts. In smart cities, refuse collection is scheduled a little differently, as each trashcan is monitored by sensor, so only those that are full are emptied. It means that waste management companies can schedule pick-ups efficiently and understand trends. However, that’s not the only data they use. Emergency Room data can also tell them the peak times and routes for ambulance movement to factor into their scheduling. So, cleverly adjusted waste collections can, quite literally, be the difference between life and death.
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