How becoming a smart city could ease Sydney's growing pains

As we say at the Council – “data is good, intelligence is great”. In this article Professor Chris Pettit of University of NSW puts his finger on the issue many of us are thinking: do we really know how our cities are performing?

Having a situational awareness in our cities helps build capacity to make better decisions, to ensure our investments are effective. Sydney at 8 million is a real scenario that frightens many, and Pettit shows us a granularity of data analysis that isn’t normally picked up in our infrastructure modelling, but is so fundamental in understanding where best to invest in services.

Tax payer dollars and investing where the best social return on investment can be made is paramount, and as a group of 30 well known internet activists once said at the ‘Sebastopol Gathering’ in California in 2007, “Information becomes more valuable as it is shared, less valuable as it is hoarded. Open data promotes increased civil discourse, improved public welfare, and a more efficient use of public resources.” — Adam Beck



Sydney is one of many major cities facing growing pains as population growth threatens its ability to provide the services and systems citizens are accustomed to and expect. With the current population of 4.3 million predicted to almost double in 30 years, one expert says increased collaboration along with better and more intensive use of data could help the city meet the growing demand.

Chris Pettit, a professor and director of the University of NSW city analytics program, said data could help the city successfully meet the needs of its growing population. As he said in an ABC Radio interview, "Data is being collected from us as we move around, so how can we analyse that data to unlock some parts of the city that aren't fully utilised?

"The government doesn't know where you've walked today, what website we've accessed, but Google knows that, Microsoft knows that, Apple or Android know where we've walked. That information is already in the private sector, so if they have it, I'd like to see that information used to not just exploit us as consumers, but use it to help plan our cities."

State and local governments are at a very early stage in collaborating with companies to collect personal data, Pettit commented, but added more collaboration is critical if the information contained in that data is to be effectively interpreted and shared.

If the city improves how it uses data, it would be better able to identify and plan what kinds of infrastructure should be built and where it should be located. When populations grow, transportation systems are among the first to show it.

His analysis of Opal smartcard ticket data led him to conclude that data would be extremely valuable for governments as they plan transportation systems because it provides how much time commuters spent traveling, how many are traveling and where their trips originated and ended.

And with that data it may be possible to identify ways to make it easier for people to live near where they work or go to school, Pettit said. And the data could be used to support other approaches to reducing traffic congestion like enabling citizens to attend school or travel to their workplace two days a week instead of five.

He suggested GPS location data could be used as well to determine where more cycleways could be added to improve mobility for cyclists and further reduce congestion.

"If we can use the data while preserving peoples' privacy, we should access those data depositories to better plan our cities."

Doug Peeples is a writer specializing in technology and energy. Follow @smartcitiesanz on Twitter.