How big data can make cities smarter

Increasing levels of urbanisation is the problem, big data could be the answer.

Urban transition is today increasingly a global reality: According to the UNO, two out of three people will be living in cities by 2030, compared to 30 per cent in 1950 and 54 per cent today. In certain countries, the rate of urbanisation could even reach 80 per cent!

Back in 2000, there were 213 cities with more than a million inhabitants and 23 metropolises with more than 10 million inhabitants. 2.5 billion more people will soon join the ranks of city dwellers with non-negligible consequences on transportation, housing, health, work, safety, etc. Although they currently only occupy approximately 3 per cent of the planet’s land mass, cities are already home to half of the world's population, consume 75 per cent of the energy produced and generate 80 per cent of global CO2 emissions.

The quality of life of "urban citizens" is in danger

Although still a gradual process, this urban transition seems to be accelerating. Combined with other phenomena (the ultimate ‘fading out’ of fossil fuels, scarcity of water resources, climate change, etc.), this has a very significant impact on citizens' quality of life.

For example, the constant increase in the fleet of automobiles (associated with the increase in population and the increase in GDP) is saturating the roads, mainly in cities. A 2014 study shows that the total cost of traffic jams will reach €350 billion globally over the period 2013-2030, including €22 billion for France (i.e. an increase of 31 per cent). This phenomenon is also likely to contribute to increasing CO2 emissions (by 24 per cent in the United Kingdom over the same 17-year period and by 13 per cent in France).

Against this backdrop, preparing for the future by striving to make cities more intelligent and sustainable requires not only decreasing the environmental impact of human activities, but also redefining, among other things, the conditions for accessing resources, waste management, transportation, building insulation and energy management (from production to delivery). The success of this kind of tradition is thus based on how well decisions are made by cities themselves. Their awareness and involvement are crucial when it comes to improving the quality of life of their inhabitants and preventing urban life from becoming a nightmare.

Big Data + IoT: detecting trends and anticipating the future

If Big Data contributes to revolutionising the commercial approaches of companies, with a particularly high potential for transformation in tourism and distribution, an Atelier BNP Paribas study reveals that "Smart Cities will be the veritable El Dorado of Big Data". The concept of a Smart City - "a city using information and communication technologies to improve the quality of urban services and reduce costs," according to Wikipedia – is a project-based approach aimed at optimising transportation, energy distribution and services provided to residents, by installing sensors in parking lots, public transportation stations, garbage dumpsters, the urban lighting system, etc., in order to collect data which will assist cities in decision-making.

Digital technologies - at the heart of the Smart City - are not an end in and of themselves, but offer an important potential for transformation. The increased popularity of the concept of "smart cities," as well as the variety of projects implemented express a new way of thinking about cities and their future, made possible by digital technologies. Faced with the new hazards brought about by urban transition, the real-time collection and analysis of massive volumes of data continuously generated by the sensors – operated by municipal services, urban service operators, businesses and even citizens - become essential. Indeed, beyond the technological aspects, the Smart City is also based on a collaborative and participatory vision.

Masdar City in Abu Dhabi and Songdo in South Korea are prime examples of connected cities that, using a local energy optimisation system, materialise the promises of a zero emission, zero waste model. All of the data from the sensors, spread throughout the city, are analysed in real time to optimise a number of aspects of inhabitants' lives.

Due to the variety of types and sources of data, the multiplicity of players (with citizens, first and foremost) and the almost unlimited nature of the volumes of data available, the city itself must implement and pilot a Big Data strategy to become, sustainably "smart”. Ultimately, Big Data contributes not only to a better understanding of how cities work and how their inhabitants behave, but also to removing the barriers between the various players and operators and creating new services which are better suited to new uses.

Faced with the potentially problematic consequences of urban transition, we urgently need to make data available for the benefit of citizens. The "loT-data sensors" trilogy could prevent a predictable and premonitory catastrophe... Thus, the question of data governance becomes a central one for municipalities in search of urban renewal.

François Mero, Senior VP of Sales EMEA at Talend

Image Credit: Jamesteohart / Shutterstock