Role of Geospatial Technologies in Building Smart Cities

Tue, 2015-07-28 13:20 -- Pratap Padode

Smart cities observe the state of their environment and activities of citizens to provide improved services. The move toward smart cities promises to bring greater automation, intelligent routing and transportation, better monitoring, and better city management. The enabling trends that coincide with smarter cities include the drive to open up municipal data for more transparent operations, the creation of sensor networks to improve infrastructure monitoring and performance, networked connectivity of the Internet of Things, and bidirectional communication with citizens regarding city services.

In smart cities, everything will be measured in real time and fine detail through the deployment of sophisticated sensors. Technology will play a major part in integrating mountains of real-time data so it can be acted upon. It will improve applications that range from managing environmental quality and the built environment to land use and transportation planning. The result: better decisions, more efficiency, and improved communication.

Smart cities are the future to sustainably support population growth and urban expansion. Location is a common dominator in every aspect and geospatial technology is central to providing a technology platform that forms the backbone of the city.

Geospatial technology

Geospatial technology (also known as geomatics) is a multidisciplinary field that includes surveying, photogrammetry, remote sensing, mapping, geographic information systems (GIS), geodesy and global navigation satellite system (GNSS) (PunCheng, 2001). According to the US Department of Labour, the geospatial industry can be regarded as “an information technology field of practice that acquires, manages, interprets, integrates, displays, analyses, or otherwise uses data focusing on the geographic, temporal, and spatial context” (Klinkenberg, 2007). Geospatial technology takes in data from sensors dotted around the city and spatially references it in a consistent manner; for example, by means of latitude and longitude, a national coordinate grid or postal codes, or some other system.

In recent decades, there has been significant growth in this subject. Global positioning system (GPS) -based determination of location was an incredible innovation in the 1990s. And GIS applications enabled greater awareness and analytical capability using a feature-based modelling of environments.

There are now various types of geospatial technologies:

  • Remote sensing: Imagery and data collected from space or airborne camera and sensor platforms
  • GIS: Suite of software tools to map and analyse geo-referenced data; can be used to detect geographic patterns in other data, such as disease clusters resulting from toxins, suboptimal water access, etc
  • GPS: A network of satellites that can give precise coordinate locations to civilian and military users with proper receiving equipment
  • Internet mapping technologies: Software like Google Earth and web features like Microsoft Virtual Earth to view and share geospatial data

Citywide applications

For decades, cities have used geospatial technology to improve services and operations. It can increase speed, accuracy and cost-effectiveness related to a wide range of government priorities, including those related to crime prevention, emergency management, disaster recovery, social services, health care, transportation, urban planning, environmental initiatives, and facility planning and management. For creating smart cities, a number of ICT and geospatial technologies need to be applied at various stages.

Let’s look at successful case studies. For example, Berlin's city model enables economic development/investment, real estate, city marketing and event management. London used geospatial data for the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games to establish the route network and determine traffic impacts. Health departments and emergency services can use geospatial analytics to pinpoint the best locations for dispatch facilities or hospitals based on projected ambulance transport time. In fact, geospatial analyses help the UK National Health Service determine where specific health initiatives should be offered. And in Uji City, Japan, planners used it to determine where new child-care centres should be located.

Cities are increasingly making their information available as open geospatial services (maps) that speak of the policies they have taken. All transactions and changes are illustrated virtually, resulting in informed and engaged citizens. Hong Kong, for instance, has used GIS and geospatial analytics to create an online street map that shows where historical sites, cycling tracks, and other public facilities are located. Users can easily navigate through the map with a cursor and click on a location for detailed information.

Indeed, the smart city concept is synchronised with advancements in geospatial technology that are moving toward more real-time data inputs, 3D visualisation, and the ability to track change over time. In San Francisco, the SFpark initiative collects real-time information about available parking spaces using sensors embedded in lots and ports the information to a public Web site. The system also adjusts prices dynamically—charging less in areas with many open parking spaces—in response to shifts in demand. Among other advantages, SFpark reduces traffic congestion by decreasing the number of drivers circling and double parking. The public, in turn, benefits by having more certainty about available spaces.

Evidently, governments and citizens can use GIS technology and geospatial analyses to improve service delivery. In Boston, citizens can report municipal problems, such as vandalized or damaged public property, through its Citizens Connect program. Users can identify issues through the website, call centre or a mobile application. All reports are geotagged, directed to the appropriate agency, and resolved as promptly as possible.

As another example, Boston’s Street Bump app allows citizens to help improve neighborhood streets. As users drive, the app’s accelerometer senses bumps that indicate a pothole and records their location. The data are collected and analyzed using algorithms that filter out bumps related to manhole covers and other normal infrastructure. After identifying true potholes, a crew is dispatched to repair them. Closer home, according to reports, Delhi Traffic Police has planned to implant body cameras on the uniforms of its personnel. The cameras would record the audio and video of the entire conversation when a vehicle is flagged down, and monitor complaints of unprofessional behaviour of both offenders and officials. The hi-tech interface system linked with GPS captures detail of the violator’s vehicle and instantly transmits the details to the control room. This technology is already in practice in the US and other countries. Other instances include Starbucks, which now offer mobile apps for consumers to locate the nearest store based on GPS data; and ComfortDelGro, Singapore’s largest taxi company, whose app identifies the location of people who want rides using data from their smart phones.

In terms of the environment, geospatial technologies can help us get a better handle on the balance to improve efficiency and help us respond and manage threats facing cities. As urbanisation accelerates, our cities will become laboratories for balancing climate change, poverty, energy and the environment. For instance, Boston has created a GIS map of renewable-energy sources, such as solar and wind systems, to guide investment decisions, track clean-energy progress, and meet the mayor’s goal to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 25 percent by 2020. And New York City uses the Hazards US (HAZUS) tool to identify at-risk geographic locations and buildings and estimate potential flood damage; in the event of a fire, the geospatial technology would manage traffic lights so fire engines can reach the blaze swiftly.

The potential for geospatial technologies in infrastructure is tremendous with advances in technologies like 3D modelling, LiDAR and other terrestrial scanning, mobile mapping, surveying, positioning services, remote sensing, high-resolution satellite imagery and photogrammetry. Geospatial standards are a vital component of the building information modelling (BIM) picture. BIM is much more than the assembled 2D or 3D computer-aided design (CAD) and facilities management (FM) drawings. The facility and its detailed information base need to be linked to the land on which it is sited and made available as an effective tool to owners and operators. A BIM links to and makes use of geospatial information such as property boundaries, zoning, soil data, elevation, jurisdictions, aerial images, land cover and land use, etc. And it includes data of interest to buyers, owners, lenders, realtors, first responders, repairers, occupants, safety inspectors, lawyers, emergency planners, and people working on neighbouring facilities.

In conclusion

All considered, having one platform to manage the entire urban landscape of a city means significant cost savings, implementation consistency, quality and manageability, which is the plus point of geospatial technology.

In smart cities reliant on ICT-driven solutions to address urban problems on one hand and spatially enable citizens on the other, urbanity merges with digital information so that the built environment is dynamically sensed and synchronously actuated to perform more efficiently, intelligently and sustainably. Under such circumstances, the gamut of geospatial technologies, in combination with telecommunication networks that provide access to real-time information, as well as for place-based or context-aware social networking, blur the distinction between 'here' and 'there', and 'present',  'past' and 'future'.