Around the world a quiet revolution is transforming the way cities deliver services to their residents.
Although cities have long used isolated Internet of Things (IoT) technologies like smart streetlights or meters, the information they collect has typically been siloed within departments, which has created inefficiencies and made services tough to coordinate.
But today’s technology is changing the picture dramatically. Cities are now using location data and services as building blocks for applications that share information internally and interact with residents, nonprofits, and business partners. A dynamic new ecosystem has sprung up, improving everything from emergency response times to budgeting, traffic management, public health, and the environment.
“Location technology is bringing cities a digital canvas of reality, helping them to make better sense of operations, identify gaps in services, and create new solutions,” says Edzard Overbeek, CEO of HERE Technologies, a leader in mapping and location technology.
“In the past, urban design was top down — architects, engineers, and planners implemented their solutions,” he says. “In the 21st century, we need a new approach. A city should evolve in a natural way, by a system of trial and error, letting citizens decide which projects they want.”
Here are some of the ways location technology is transforming city services.
1. Emergency response.
In the past, emergency operators determined callers’ location by looking up the address where the phone was registered, then relaying the information to responders. Addresses were often out of date or irrelevant to the incident location. Location and sensor data have changed everything.
Now cities get GPS information from cell phones. Many have city vehicle tracking, cameras on streetlights and utility poles, and microphones that detect the location and intensity of gunshots.
Some first responders use indoor venue maps from HERE that guide them on the fastest route to someone in need and the locations of fire extinguishers, defibrillators, and medical kits. Police officers wear holster sensors that tell the department when they have drawn a gun, which can speed backup response.
Cities are also using IoT sensors to coordinate services after hurricanes or floods. Some use machine learning to predict when and where the next disaster might occur.
In the future, connected cars may automatically generate accident reports to responders when they collide. Ambulances may control traffic lights to get to the scene faster or send out robots to defuse bombs or gather more information.
With smart meters and geolocation, cities can “see” and analyze in real time how people use energy and water consumption levels and make better decisions about managing resources. Sensors can detect a water leak and send a technician to fix it before the customer is hit with a sky-high bill.
In developing countries, clean water is especially precious, and leaky pipes are the largest source of water waste. With sensors and analytics, cities can cut those losses by up to 25%, saving up to 80 liters of water per person each day, a McKinsey report found. It’s just one way technology can improve the lives of the underserved.
“In the future, social justice and equity will be a central focus of urban planning,” says Julian Agyeman, a professor of urban and environmental policy and planning at Tufts University.
“The thing that really excites me now is seeing synergies. And the best example I know is the transformation of Medellin, Colombia, where the public utility and private companies have worked together with a philosophy of empowering people, especially in lower-income neighborhoods.”
Medellin’s mobile data portal lets citizens view and communicate information about utilities, traffic, public transit, and more, bringing in data and feedback from socioeconomic groups often ignored.
Cities are using location data in a wide range of applications to improve the environment. Some are placing sensors on trash cans to make garbage collection more efficient, while Cambridge, Massachusetts is collaborating with Senseable City Lab to do much more.
Sensors mounted on the city’s garbage trucks collect and transmit information about potholes, gas leaks, and air quality along their routes. “With only three garbage trucks you can cover the whole city at least once a week,” Carlo Ratti, director of the MIT Senseable City Lab. “It allows city officials to more accurately detect abnormalities in the environment and be more responsive.”
In Baltimore, where asthma rates are among the highest in the US, 250 pollution sensors measure temperature, relative humidity, ozone, and nitrogen dioxide throughout the city. They send real-time information to city officials, who can then address air quality on a hyper-local level.
MIT’s Open Agriculture Initiative studies how to increase food production in urban areas and make its transport more efficient, lowering carbon emissions.
Location data can also be used to spot and prevent environmental degradation on a wide scale. In Colombia, the InfoAmazonia platform uses information from satellites and crowdsourcing to track construction projects that threaten the Amazon’s sensitive ecosystem. It could help the country meet its goal of reducing forest clearing to net zero by 2030.
4. Public health.
Electronic health records and apps may be common in advanced nations, but poorer countries lack these technologies, making it hard to create accurate epidemiological profiles and suitable facility development plans.
That’s where the IoT and location data come in. In Cartagena, Colombia, where many people live far from healthcare providers, authorities are using remote patient monitoring to keep people in touch with doctors and capture more knowledge about local populations, which could lead to better disease prevention and proactive care. Developing cities that use location-based infectious disease surveillance systems can reduce premature deaths and disabilities by 5%, according to the McKinsey report.
5. Civic engagement.
Cities are adopting IT platforms allowing residents to get information and engage with officials without having to attend evening meetings.
Dublin’s CiviQ platform tracks opinions on public issues and planning proposals. A location-based commenting system gives officials and residents alike a sense of how political dynamics operate in different parts of the city.
Analyze Boston, the city’s open-data hub, posts information about city services ranging from how long it takes to fulfill service requests to how many people use city libraries. Residents can also use an app to send information about the location of potholes or other problems directly to the city’s road-repair department.
Cary, North Carolina, placed sensors in its community-center parking lot to tell officials how spaces are being used, which helps them plan smarter parking.
6. Participatory budgeting.
Participatory budgeting allows citizens to decide how certain segments of municipal money are spent. The concept originated in Brazil and has spread to cities across the US and in Canada. Participants work directly with elected officials and city administrators in deciding how to invest resources in their community.
A group in New York voted to spend $30 million on air-conditioning for school classrooms. Oakland, California, residents voted for block grants for homeless services, legal advice for tenants, support for non-native speakers, and youth-apprenticeship programs.
By using technology to bring citizens into the heart of their operations, cities are ditching their reputation as distant and inefficient bureaucracies and becoming responsive engines of change. For many people, including Agyeman, it can’t happen soon enough.
“The city is not produced — it is coproduced,” he says. “The sooner we realize that and enact the right policies, the better off we’ll be.”
Innovation in location technology and services is rapidly creating a new reality for companies and governments around the world. As the world’s leading location platform, HERE Technologies can help you unlock new opportunities to transform your business.