Will Urgency for Real-Time Insights in a Crisis Push Cities to Connect the Dots with Data?

By Larry O'Brien

Industry Trends

The following is a guest blog post by Ashvini Saxena, Group Head, TCS Digital Software & Solutions Group  Ashvini oversees strategy, sales, customer relationships and marketing for customer analytics and smart city software. At TCS he has held leadership roles in digital transformation, strategy and planning, consulting, development, sales, solution delivery and system integration. 

In the wake of disruption from COVID-19, hospitals are struggling with shortages of respirators and masks, while consumers are hard-pressed to find essentials like toilet paper and hand sanitizer. For cities facing the crisis, there’s another critical asset in short supply: insights. 

COVID-19 Insights
Data Insights from COVID-19 Can Be A Rare Commodity
​​​​​​(​Source: TCS)


When a disaster hits, the ability of city leaders to access real-time insights – not just facts – is paramount. Citizens glued to their TVs and smartphones for the latest updates expect mayors and other public officials thrust into the spotlight to not simply recite the latest facts and figures. They can get that from social media. When panic strikes, people expect local government leaders to step up their game with insights and context that will inform and reassure them, and most importantly, keep them safe. 

Data are the raw ingredients that makeup insights. Yet COVID-19 is forcing city administrations to make sense of a torrent of multiple, disparate sources of data at once -- from daily reported cases and 311 information to the location of supplies and places they are needed most. Not only is their ability to make sense of this real-time information and take remediation measures severely compromised, but their existing business processes also aren’t designed to handle it. 

It might seem logical that the smart cities movement was tailor-made for the occasion. Yet despite billions of dollars invested in smart city technology around the world, most city leaders struggle to quickly make sense of the deluge of data confronting them. For a tech-savvy population grown accustomed to information on demand, city leaders can appear sluggish in their response to citizen needs. 

Mayors may be primed with plenty of facts and soundbites, but too often insights are lacking. 

Over the past two decades, cities in every corner of the globe have been busy plugging all forms of urban infrastructure into the Internet of Things (IoT). As the concept of a city as a platform took root, municipal departments instrumented roads, bridges, buses, trains, streetlights, water systems, and electric utilities, forming connected city ecosystems powered by analytics that was supposed to make sense of it all. 

Without question, employing sensors and analytics to predict when aging water mains might burst or to optimize bus routes is serious innovation. So is software that makes streetlights brighten automatically when their sensors sense traffic or people in proximity to improve public safety. Or technology that makes it easier to find precious parking spaces, which can save time and reduce carbon emissions. 

As impressive as it all sounds (and indeed, it is), much of the progress in smart cities remains confined to urban silos – pockets of innovation in utilities, transportation, and water management. Sure, data from these domains are being turned into insights that improve things that people really care about, like traffic or the environment. But cities have yet to tap the collective insights from across these domains for smarter decision making. They’re simply not employing tools that could allow them to see the big picture.

When a crisis starts brewing, this shortcoming is brought into stark relief. As the volume of real-time data accelerates, it exposes a widening gap in the ability of city leaders to connect the dots with data. Spotting correlations is exacerbated in times of crisis because the volume of data increases as quickly as the need to make sense of it. With time being one of the most precious resources in an emergency, making sense of real-time data almost as quickly as it flows in can not only keep citizens better informed, it could save lives. 

Reimaging the Role of Smart City Data

Connecting insights across urban domains to make better decisions is a mandate that extends beyond times of crisis. It can help cities be more effective at meeting the rising expectations of citizens, most of whom have grown accustomed to an environment in which various enterprises around them respond to their needs and meet them at every stage of their interactions with them. 

As taxpayers, why wouldn’t they expect the same of their cities? 

Imagine if a city manager could understand the cascading effects of a water main break on bus routes. Armed with those insights, she could reroute buses or notify passengers who use a city app. Local retailers with access to the same knowledge could alert consumers to shop at stores in unaffected areas. For a widespread impact event, similar insights could help isolate hotspots, redirect city resources and alert citizens about safe zones and measures.

From extreme events and weather impacts to infrastructure failures, supply crunches, and other emergencies, none of the daily challenges facing cities occurs in a vacuum. Each one causes multiple cascading effects which impair the ability of city leaders to make informed decisions because they can’t see the big picture. Scenario planning and standard operating procedures can help guide city leaders on the recommended steps to take, but the complexity of cities means that few crises are routine. Each can have unique consequences for city life. 

Fortunately, advances in analytics, artificial intelligence and data management – coupled with open source technology and low code environments – are beginning to make it less cumbersome for cities to deploy smart city platforms that pool insights from all kinds of new sources. When city information can be overlaid with geospatial data and supplemented with external sources such as CCTV video and social media streams, suddenly a singular event like a downed utility pole at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Broadway is seen in a broader context. 

A city official with a consolidated view of this data on a dashboard might be able to simultaneously access video of the situation, check Twitter for relevant postings and photos and get a view of what citizens are perceiving in real-time. This could help them determine the need for additional first responders or decide whether traffic should be rerouted. 

In a rapidly evolving crisis such as COVID-19, tapping cross-domain insights in real-time could enable a mayor or city manager to understand and proactively address growing concerns among city departments and residents before they become acute – such as redeploying medical equipment to disease hotspots.

Now is the right time for a new approach to city data that makes the power of collective urban intelligence its core principle. Not just to handle emergency events and crisis situations in an optimized manner, but to start treating the city as a platform for transparency, inter-department collaboration, citizen participation, and wellness. 

City leaders intent on seeing the big picture should embrace the challenge. 


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