Small data brings big changes to smart cities

Winnie TangEarlier this year, I returned to my alma mater - The University of Hong Kong, and once again set foot in a classroom to teach about building a smart city through IT. In the last lecture of this master degree program, students were asked to choose any city in the world to compare its smart city initiatives with those in Hong Kong and to make recommendations for our own development.

I invited five renowned guests to be the expert judges in this presentation. Among these experts include Prof. Tong Fuk-Kay, CEO of Hong Kong ASTRI; Mr. Chan Siu Bun, Chief Land Surveyor, Lands Department; Mr. Sin Chun-kai, former Legislative Councilor (IT); Mr. Wong Tak Choi, Deputy Head of Energizing Kowloon East Office and Miss Joyce Tang, Project Manager of Energizing Kowloon East Office. Within the three-hour long presentations, the judges raised different questions and provided feedback to the students’ recommendations.  It was an engaging and inspiring experience for everyone.

Students shared initiatives from cities around the world, including those in Barcelona, Helsinki, London, Singapore, and Songdo in South Korea. Most of these cities have open data policies that are much advanced, when compared to Hong Kong!

Data brings unprecedented changes to cities

The “data” that I’m referring is the spatial data or geospatial data. It is information or features (such as cars, buildings or mountains) related to different geographic locations and being displayed in a map. This information can be accessed, updated, visualized and analyzed through the use of software. When making this information available for public use, it’s important to have a policy or standards regarding its content, format and real time availability.

Harvard Kennedy School’s professor Stephen Goldsmith, also director of the Innovations in Government Program, noted that many city governments are undergoing unprecedented changes in the use of data to improve operations.

“In terms of city governance, we are at one of the most consequential periods in the last century,” Goldsmith, who also advised different governments on the use of data, told The Wall Street Journal recently.

In mid-April, Smart City Consortium (SCC) organized the Internet Economy Summit, one of the prominent speakers was Lilian Coral, Chief Data Officer of City of Los Angeles (LA). She spoke about gathering and utilizing open data in the city.

Ms Coral told the audience that her major responsibility is to report incidents as they are happening in the city and to forecast incidents that will happen in the future, in a similar manner to predicting the customer’s next book to buy.

City of LA’s public portal for location-based data GeoHub contains real-time information from government departments, like traffic blackspots, temporary road closures and accidents. This information allows government departments, public and private organizations, mobile apps developers and the public to access the latest information. Meanwhile, the public is encouraged to build mobile apps to facilitate information sharing.

One good example is the Clean Streets Index.  It allows the public to rate (from one to three) the cleanliness of each street in City of LA based on four factors: litter, weeds, bulky items and illegal dumping. The cleanliness of each street is rated in three levels, indicated by three different colors in the map, allowing the public to monitor and the government departments to make strategic resources deployment.  As a result, the street cleanliness was improved significantly. In Q4 2016, nearly 90% of the streets in City of LA were scored the highest marks of cleanliness. Meanwhile, the number of streets that were rated as "not clean" and "somewhat clean" decreased by 80%. 

Another app similar to Clean Streets Index is the Street Wize. It provides information of the on-going and upcoming road works through tracking permit activities and displaying in a map. This allows users to avoid traffic congestion.