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Councils need to put safety at the heart of smart city governance

smart city
(Image credit: Image Credit: Jamesteohart / Shutterstock)

Cities house more than half the world's population and will see an additional 2.5 billion new residents by 2050. This growth will intensify demand for quick and connected emergency response.

This is already being developed, with the possibility to contact emergency services through apps, emergency service vehicles that leverage GPS information, and security personnel using location-aware sensors to understand events. A key development that is helping cities in this regard is the increased use of Internet of Things (IoT) networks — according to Deloitte there are now almost 20 billion IoT devices active around the world. As a result, a growing number of public safety personnel can now get real-time situational awareness unimaginable even a decade ago.

Unfortunately, there is a lack of integration among the IT used by city councils, leading to authorities missing out on valuable insights when making key decisions, whether for short-term crisis response or long-term policy development. As it stands, a lot of data is being collected, but unfortunately, not all involved in ensuring public safety are benefiting from the technology.

The foundation is laid

While adoption of advanced analytics in public safety has lagged that of business, it is catching up, and increasingly the main building block of safety and resilience in modern cities is timely, accurate granular data.

For example, analysis of operational data is now being used to improve service and staff well-being by aligning resources and balancing workloads to reflect patterns in demand. Advanced analytics are also helping inform emergency response with artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, providing continuous autonomous assessment of the data flowing through emergency call centers. Dispatchers can now be alerted of developing situations immediately as significant patterns or anomalies are detected, meaning they can intervene faster to contain issues, and, in some cases, prevent tragedies.

By using a multi-tiered approach centered around data, where sophisticated technologies are used from the moment a crisis starts to the assessment of the response after events have passed, emergency responders of all types and ranks are becoming more efficient and effective.

In short, the foundation for smart city safety management is already in place, but the overarching collaboration between public agencies needed to maximize efficiency and resilience is lacking in many places.

Increased connectedness

Due to their very nature, municipalities tend to decentralize management of day-to-day services. While this enables them to deliver a wide range of public services that are high-quality, the departments and agencies act independently from each other, using their own unique systems, processes, and assets.

With time, as city populations become denser and the services they rely on more interconnected and interdependent, this set up becomes untenable. If a seemingly isolated and innocuous incident in one location can have damaging ripple effects across the whole city impacting millions of people, all public agencies must come together to protect the public and the city’s economy, environment, and image. This requires IT systems to be in place that allow for such collaboration.

For example, the Paris terrorist attacks caused severe economic and social damage to the city long after the initial tragedy. Many tourists cancelled vacation plans, business travel decreased, and residents reduced spending. Even after the heroic work of emergency responders addressed the immediate threat, individuals and businesses continued to suffer, and the mitigation of those negative societal effects falls outside the remit of public safety institutions.

Coming to grips with all the challenges facing a city before, during, and after significant incidents is impossible. Cities whose departments work together with the sufficient technological tools, partnerships, and mindset will always be more resilient, as they can better contain situations and expedite recovery. Working together also helps retain the public’s confidence that authorities have the will, resource, and ability to keep them safe.

Going to the root

While the proliferation of technologies allowing police, fire, and emergency departments to respond to individual incidents faster and more efficiently might be mission-critical here and now, it is by nature reactive rather than preventative. When it comes to enhancing safety and resilience, the cities must address the root causes of events that pose a threat to society - to find ways to mitigate their impacts, and ultimately, stop them from occurring in the first place.

As the phrase indicates, achieving systemic change requires large parts of the players within a system to move together in a similar direction. All parties must work under the same understanding, which, in the case of public service, means data-driven insights. By overcoming siloed data, councils can more easily devise strategies and capabilities that have the whole city’s interest in mind, rather than any single department’s, which gives them more power to remove barriers and change government policy.

This evidence-based, collaborative approach is also positive for the broader community of a city. If citizens understand what drives policy, they are more likely to support safety initiatives and adhere to regulations. As part of this effort, councils also need to involve members of the public in post-event reviews, policies, and proactive programs. Once citizens know how public safety initiatives will benefit their neighborhood, it is easier convincing leaders to invest in this work or support proposed changes.

Holistic safety

As cities continue to grow and modernize, it is becoming clear that ensuring safety, and minimizing damaging effects of disruptive events, will not be possible working independently. Holistic strategies are required for safety and resilience, with technologies that not only leverage data in sophisticated ways but also enable widespread collaboration between relevant departments. Enacting this integration will help facilitate the evolution of emergency response, streamline the rollout of preventative policies, and grow the trust communities have in their leaders to keep them safe.

Ralph Diment, director of industry & product marketing, Hexagon's Safety & Infrastructure