ICTs and smart cities

Written by Dorairaj Vembu and V Sridhar | Updated: Aug 18 2014, 06:42am hrs
The Prime Ministers vision of developing one hundred smart cities, allocating about R7,060 crore in the current fiscal as outlined in the budget is a laudable initiative, given the rural-urban migration and the hyper growth of cities in our country. Of late, many countries, especially in developed countries including Dubai, Amsterdam and Barcelona have embarked on smart city initiatives. Shanghai has taken the lead in China.

However, in India, at this point, except for broad themes such as ubiquitous connectivity and community Wi-Fi, details on what smart cities should have is missing. In this article, we provide some of the important requirements of smart cities, the requisite infrastructure, metrics for measuring the smartness of the cities and the ecosystem required for the creation and maintenance of smart cities.

In general, a smart city should have: (i) efficient delivery of public utilities such as water, electricity, solid waste, sanitation, and sewerage as well as associated government services (ii) mechanism for supply-demand matching of surface transport services to provide congestion free roads, and minimal waiting time for public transport commuters (iii) active surveillance, monitoring and alerts at vantage points in the city to provide the much required public safety for citizens and (iv) on-demand availability of reliable emergency services such as ambulance, fire safety.

In all these dimensions, information and communication technologies (ICT) plays a vital role. No wonder, companies such as IBM and Cisco are investing millions of dollars in incubating technologies that support smart city initiatives.

An interesting use case is the Department of Energy, US funded smart grid network in the city of Sacramento, California where 615,000 smart meters at customer premises are connected through home area networks (HANs) which in turn are connected to advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) network. The HANs have wired intelligent thermostats among many other home appliances. These smart meters enable adjusting electricity consumption within houses in tune with grid supply so that black or brown outs are proactively avoided.

Another interesting case is Smart Amsterdam wherein the Digital Road Authority mines different types of traffic data to provide services such as on-demand parking space, and expected travel time to users, thus reducing congestion, waiting time and the associated air pollution, thereby improving road safety and quality of living of its citizens.

Various kinds of devices listed below collectively form what is called Internet of Things that are critical in shaping future smart cities:

* Sensors that monitor the condition of utilities such as electricity, water supply, load on surface transport and capture real-time data;

* Gateways that aggregate real-time data from these sensors, perform local analytics and based on the result, take localised action to prevent possible faults from further propagating into the networks ;

* Communication infrastructure to connect these gateways to server cloud for transmitting data on condition of local area;

* Server farms in a cloud based architecture that warehouses the data; perform real-time mining of such data to provide useful information to various stakeholders through various channels such as mobile devices.

These devices facilitate optimisation of service availability in the local area while confirming to the regional and macro level constraints. This provides flexibility to local community in terms of prioritising the usage of scarce resources.

The second important element is the design architecture of the different ICT components of smart city projects. Though currently only a few firms dominate the ICT platform for smart cities, it is required to build platforms with open gateways, application program interfaces, and open data sets so that expertise of numerous Indian IT firms (both small and large) and the huge developer communities can be tapped for building innovative applications and services. The sensors, communication devices, and the transmission infrastructure provide huge opportunity for local electronics manufcturing which has been identified as a focus area by the government. The data so collected if made open, provide ammunition for big data and analytics start-ups in the country.

Third is measurement of smartness of cities. The GSM Associationthe industry body of mobile operators, launched the smart cities index that consists of a set of market, social and economic indicators that track the performance of smart cities initiatives. The ICT/mobile indicators are a subset of a broader range of smart cities indicators. Their use will allow the cities to quantify the impact of ICT/mobile on the citys operations, its local economy and its citizens.

The seed funding allocated in the budget is just a small stepping stone. For these projects to bloom and become a reality, it requires both financial and working collaborations across all stakeholders. With our urban landscape growing uncontrollably it is time that we step up the pedal to make living in cities a pleasurable experience.

Dorairaj Vembu is senior manager, Sasken Communication Technologies; V Sridhar is professor, International Institute of Information Technology, Bangalore.