Eyes In The Sky: Managing Urban Swelling With Smart City Solutions

August 15, 2018

Cities are conglomerations of human life which coexist in big, often huge, urban sprawls. Think of the urban buzz of people, vehicles, buildings, facilities, utilities and infrastructure which make a city just that. It isn’t very efficient, right? Traffic, pollution, noise and crime are just some of the serious byproducts created when millions and millions of people cohabit the same comparatively small space.

And these problems are only going to get worse as more people move into such metropolitan areas. By 2050, an estimated 66 percent of the world’s population is expected to live in urban areas. Not only will these people need basic necessities like homes, safe food, clean water and sufficient energy, they will need to live in a system which is efficient and secure. More people means there is a need to better manage resources. These are the issues that the smart cities of tomorrow have to tackle.

Smart city tech is a multi-billion dollar industry focusing in on the major factors challenging contemporary citiscapes: traffic, security and surveillance. Whether it is terrorism risk or jammed roads, pedestrian safety or accident management, these three elements pose immediate threat to city efficiency - and this will become especially important as cities become home to more than half of all human life. However, it must be noted there are some risks inherent in the uptake.

Unclogging the roads

Traffic is an inescapable, yet infuriating part of city life. Millions of cars, buses, bikes and people trying to go in the same direction causes blockages, and costs both time and money. Recent studies estimate the average urban commuter wastes about 42 hours a year stuck in traffic jams, which translates to about $300 billion in wasted time and fuel - and that’s just in the United States where infrastructure is comparatively stable.

Think of somewhere like China where the number of drivers is so much bigger and the roads are in so much more demand. Commuters in Beijing experienced one of the biggest ever traffic jams in 2010 when congestion reached a length of 62 miles over 12 days. Ironically enough, the cause was not road closure nor natural disaster, but the result of additional heavy trucks carrying construction supplies into the capital intended for traffic-easing road works.

This is one of the interesting things about traffic jams: they aren’t only caused by lots of cars.

Sure, the large number of metropolitan vehicles play a part, but so does driver behavior. With enough vehicles, a chain reaction can take place: one car brakes slightly, and the ones behind it brake just a bit more, with the braking eventually amplifying to produce a wave of stopped or slowed traffic. This type of driving behavior will one day be helped by semi-autonomous and autonomous cars, but in the meantime better traffic surveillance and identification can already help to prevent this phenomenon.

For example, traffic tech in Sweden is leading the way to help predict more accurate travel times and lessen jams. The Stockholm solution focuses on a 7-kilometer section of the motorway, just north of the capital, for traffic going towards the center. This system measured traffic in three different ways: with 20 fixed-point radar detectors to measure speed and flow, 1500 equipped taxis sending their position every one to two minutes, and seven subsections measuring Bluetooth to provide mean travel times. These various data inputs allowed the traffic team to accurately predict short-term travel, typically for conditions 15 minutes into the future - allowing drivers to better plan their trip and spread the traffic load from peak hours.

Applications like this are only the start. Also consider other capabilities like smart cameras at traffic intersections obtaining vehicle registrations, or classifying the type of vehicles and traffic flows. Or even cameras that can automatically detect accident or injury and dispatch emergency services without the need for human oversight. Faster emergency response will no doubt assist the injured and lower the risk of traffic jam - important wins to the overall usability and safety of a city.

Surveillance from the sky

Crime rates and city centers are inextricably linked. This is for many reasons, from economic desperation to unemployment and mental health. But inner-city security no longer only relates to crime. As noted by The Safe City Index, tragic events in European cities such as London, Paris and Barcelona have demonstrated high profile, wealthy urban centres are becoming targets for terrorist activities. Both crime and terrorism obviously have an emotional effect on residents, with feelings of stress and social isolation reported in cities of instability. While many metropolitan areas have tried to combat inner-city crime and security threats with CCTV and higher policing, this has proven to be resource intensive. That is why smart city solutions are beginning to implement “agile” security to keep people safe: methods which use data-driven and problem-oriented approaches to limit danger.

Smart cameras with the ability to run facial recognition software and map crime are already on the horizon. Tech company Nvidia is partnering AI developers to create facial recognition technology specifically for smart cities. Intended for use within CCTV systems, the software enables the cameras to scan faces continuously and identify individuals within a large crowd with 99 percent accuracy. Their algorithm then cross-references the scanned faces against a database of known terrorists or criminals. These systems can also register repeat visitors and their habits in any given area. Further to this, other tech companies are using cameras to detect facial emotions. Anger, deceit, nervousness and alertness are just some facial features that can be flagged by such systems, with potential applications at security checkpoints and border crossings.

While these applications focus on the person, cameras can also detect objects. License plates, identifying features and suspicious anomalies are the top priorities for these cameras. A prime example is the SUBITO project, or the Surveillance of Unattended Baggage and the Identification and Tracking of the Owner project. The software can turn ordinary CCTV cameras into platforms which identify baggage that has been left unattended, and therefore possibly contain an explosive device. The camera can search back to identify the person who deposited that baggage, then follow them forward through various cameras to establish their present location.

The ethical concerns around this type of technology should be noted. In the United Kingdom, a survey of more than 2000 people found that more than half, or 50.6 percent, said they were “not OK” with any form of emotion-capture technology. Meanwhile just under one third, 30.6 percent, said they did feel “OK” with such monitoring. Obviously any companies in this space will need to tread carefully and transparently in their use of such information. However, the safety benefits of such smart technologies have been proven. Depending on the city and the types of security technologies deployed, a McKinsey’s report showed smart deployment of data-driven tools can help reduce fatalities by up to 10 percent, lower crime incidents by as much as 40 percent and dramatically reduce emergency response times.

The risks of machine-power

With discussion of these technologies you may be asking: are there any downsides? And that is a fair question as the implication of smart cities seems to be a movement away from manpower to machine-power with only positive results. As noted in previous paragraphs, this movement is already occurring and for good reason: machines are simply more efficient. Artificial intelligence, smart cameras and tailored algorithms mean such systems can achieve more for smart cities than human counterparts. So, where do humans fit in? Well, they will still be integrated into the system but in less numbers. The reality of smart cities will mean less people on the ground while achieving a higher rate of crime prevention and identification. However, ironically enough, humans will still play an important role in protecting the machines from themselves.

This movement toward cyber-based security and monitoring leaves the door open to hackers.

By its very nature, the Internet of Things means all devices are connected and, therefore, hackable. Such smart city devices - like cameras, computer systems, microphones, lights - contain sensors to collect and wirelessly transmit data from physical objects, delivering new insights into city operations and permitting remote and more efficient management of infrastructure and services. But it also means they are susceptible to outside forces. For example, 30 energy stations were disconnected in Ukraine following attacks by hackers in 2016, leaving 80,000 people without any electricity for two and a half hours. Clearly, discussion around smart city security should not only regard crime and terrorism, but also cyber-terrorism and hackers.

Change to come

Change is necessary and change is coming. The cities of today are simply not built to cope with the demands of the oncoming years, and so smart city solutions are a necessary step in ensuring comfortable, secure, efficient spaces for people to live. But change does not happen overnight, especially in bureaucracies. It is important to remember that while cities are conglomerations, they are not corporations. Decision-making is slow and budgets are tight. However, changes are necessary for the future.

Cities account for 80 percent of global energy consumption and contribute to over half of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. This use of energy is simply not sustainable in a world where climate change is a real threat - and this does not need to be the case. A report showed that 15 percent of city emissions could be saved by 2020 through smart technologies which better monitor and manage energy and resource efficiency. The argument for smart cities is clearly more than just traffic, or security, or crime - but also, importantly, environmental.

Abhijit Shanbhag is the president and chief executive officer of Graymatics, an artificial intelligence company that classifies images and videos to provide customer-centric solutions. Their cloud platform provides solutions to security providers, retailers, publishers, ad networks and other service providers globally.

Abhijit Shanbhag

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