Why data integration and collaboration are essential to the success of the smart city

In today’s always on world, we live with an ever-growing number of connected devices. We no longer just use and connect up our smartphones, tablets and laptops. Our homes, workplaces and cities are full of connected devices and systems. This can range from AI audio systems to smart fridges to intelligent air-conditioning units and smart streetlamps. Gartner predicts there will be 8.4 billion connected ‘things’ in use in 2017, up 31 per cent from 2016. This trend will only accelerate as the cost to acquire, power, analyse and store data is set to fall further over the next few years.  

The data generated by the Internet of Things (IoT) will undoubtedly improve our lives in the future. This is particularly pertinent for the majority of the global population that will be living in the world’s urban areas by 2050. By utilising IoT devices to develop smart cities, city planners can ensure the modern metropolis meets the needs of its inhabitants.

All over the world, cities are already experiencing benefits of this new interconnected world. Take the smart street lights currently being piloted in Glasgow. The LED lights, which will replace old sodium lamps, will not only cut carbon emissions and drain less energy, but dim and brighten dynamically. In New Zealand, paint “smelling” sensors are being deployed to combat instances of vandalism and graffiti. In Finland, self-driving, electric buses are cutting carbon emissions and costs for commuters. In London, we can already see the benefits of smart parking spaces and contactless payments on public transport. 

But this is just the start. The potential of IoT is far greater than this. Smart cities will feature a raft of vastly improved public services in the future, from healthcare systems that can help pre-empt illnesses to road travel with far less congestion and hazards.

It all sounds great. But, there is one underlying principle that allows a truly smart city to flourish – the underlying systems and data must be fully connected and integrated. Smart cities will generate billions and billions of data points, so capturing and managing this information to gain meaningful insights is paramount. With an exponential volume of data, it would be easy to segregate information by department. Transport data to the public transportation department, weather data to the environment department, healthcare data to the department for health and so forth.

But the real intelligence of a smart city is when information is brought together. Putting data into disconnected silos can cause problems. In a recent research report we found that organisations in the UK and the US are losing $140 billion to disconnected data. We found that for more than four in ten (41%), critical company data is trapped in legacy systems that cannot be accessed or linked to cloud services. More than three quarters (76%) of respondents have at least some data trapped in this way.

If this continues then we will never see the full benefits of a smart city. Without breaking down data silos and ensuring proper integration, the data cannot be analysed to make informed decisions. Take the healthcare of citizens for example. According to the World Health Organisation, there is 7.3 million deaths each year due to air pollution. Many of these occur in large cities, where exhaust from cars, factories, and power plants fills the air with hazardous particles.

In response to this, many cities have improved their efforts to measure pollution using the Internet of Things (IoT)—networks of connected sensors that gather and send data. Using this data, cities can map areas of high pollution, track changes over time, identify polluters, and analyse potential interventions. However, it is important that whatever method and sensors are used to obtain the relevant data, the data is then shared across a common platform with all relevant stakeholders and can be easily interpreted so that meaningful insights surface and the right actions are taken.

Sharing and integrating data isn’t just about human collaboration. With smart cities still in their infancy, city planners and leaders need to get the right technology infrastructure and best practises in place now. In that way, hopefully everyone’s lives will be enriched immeasurably from living in the smart cities of the future.

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