The role of Big Data in building Smart Cities

Big data analytics can provide vital insight to improve public transport and develop smart parking solutions, writes Richard Harris of Xerox

Tags: Big dataSmart citiesTransportationXerox Corporation
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The role of Big Data in building Smart Cities Harris: Big data analysis can be applied to data about commuter behaviour or parking usage, to increase efficiency and reduce congestion.
By  Richard Harris Published  May 5, 2015

The urbanisation and metropolitan cities trend is fast growing. With about 70% of the global population expected to be living in cities by 2050, the execution of smart city technologies will be a focal point for governments in both developed and developing regions.

Smarter cities of all sizes are capitalizing on new technologies and insights to transform their systems, operations and services. One of the key elements of the plan of smart cities is the ability to implement Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS) to deliver city wide mobility services. Some of these cities, namely Singapore, Amsterdam, Hong Kong and London, have already taken a long term view of transport and mobility and have invested resources to achieve the level of service currently enjoyed by those who live and work in them. For other cities, there is a lot to learn from their contemporaries, and they see immense and transformative possibilities in utilising big data analytics to unlock the social, economic and environmental advantages of smart efficient mobility.

In 2014 the GCC highlighted the importance of mobility transformation for the region by initiating major ITS projects, especially in UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. According to experts, Dubai’s plans to create a ‘Smart City’ could produce one of the world’s most-connected and sustainable urban centres.

It is an ambitious plan; and the UAE government has to consider some crucial components while working on the Smart City transformation in order to ensure a smooth changeover. At the same time, the government stands to face several trials such as the organisational and institutional aspects where transport is often organised in separate segments. Integration is valuable but the appropriate organisational structure is essential in order exploit the full potential of these IT-based services. Other more technical challenges include the relevant standards, whether systems architecture is in place, dealing with legacy systems and confirming that financial resources are available to maintain processes in the long term.

Big Data solutions in transportation

For years, scientists at the Xerox Research Centers have been designing future mobility services, for instance through new algorithms and by implementing dynamic parking systems that change the way we use city resources. These solutions which collect information on travel patterns and behaviour produce enormous amounts of data and require innovative uses of analytics and on-site processing to provide really useful information and intelligence. At these research centres, studies are carried out using big data analytics and ethnography (the design and application of qualitative field studies to detect cultural patterns). These tools help in answering important questions about congestion, our reaction to it, and how city governments can address this and related needs.

One such tool, the Mobility Analytics Platform (MAP) uses data analysis and research technology from the Xerox Research Centre Europe to provide a city-wide representation of transportation operations. Important metrics such as commuter numbers and car park statistics can be analysed, which can provide huge benefits. This tool, which is considered a major contribution to the advancement of improved urban mobility, has been used to anticipate when passengers will leave a transport service and is capable of predicting the impact of traffic delays and hostile weather conditions. It is believed that the manner in which the data is collected from the platform will influence future parking developments.

Smart Parking Solutions

The transformational nature of Intelligent Transport Systems in the Smart City initiative is somehow rendered incomplete without discussing the value and role of big data analytics in Smart Parking Solutions. Smart Parking is an advanced technology solution that involves the use of real time data collection, helpful and reliable information and cell phone-enabled automated payment systems that help people pay for parking and predict precisely where they will find a spot.

For instance, in Los Angeles, the Merge Platform tool, which combines data from over 6,000 on-street parking spaces and four off-street car parks and other data sources to provide integrated data for analysis has delivered outstanding results. The analytics are used to observe parking maintenance, revenue and occupancy and by applying a dynamic pricing algorithm, a more well-adjusted use of parking is achieved. This has resulted in a 10% reduction in parking related congestion caused by drivers circling looking for a free space. Another good example is in Nancy, France where data analytics (public transport ticket information) is used to identify in advance trends in public transport use. This enables the authorities to plan for future development and to increase the efficiency of the current services. Data analytics can thus help in comprehending new trends in travel behaviour and plan for the future.

Many smart parking pilot programs are now being implemented around the world in San Francisco, Stockholm, Beijing, Shanghai, São Paulo, and the Netherlands. In 2014, as part of the UAE’s Smart Parking pilot project, parking sensors were installed on a stretch of Sheikh Zayed Road between The Edge Hotel and Shangri-La Hotel which allowed motorists to locate a parking spot through the Smart Parking mobile application. Then in 2015 the RTA has taken the next step and partnered with Emaar to have its malls linked with RTA’s smart parking system, broadening the system further.

The RTA is also evaluating the response to its pilot project on Sheikh Zayed Road and they are planning to expand the system to other areas of the city.

Overall the big data phenomenon in the transportation sector, though still in its early stages in the Middle East, stands to play a significant role in improving its public services and the quality of people’s lives. Long term insights based on comprehensive data analysis, followed up through effective daily management, help a city stay dynamic and safe for its citizens and businesses. The big data phenomenon continues to reiterate that being ‘smarter’ can change the way cities work and help to deliver on their potential as never before.

Richard Harris is solution director of International Transportation and Government for Xerox.

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