How data will drive the future of our cities

When you consider the assets that any council builds, owns and manages, it’s easy to focus on the bricks and mortar, the parks, gardens, roads and fleet. But there is an invisible asset that is arguably more valuable than those physical assets: data.

“Unlocking the potential of our data is key to making better decisions, evolving our services, reducing our costs and improving our customers’ experience,” says Chris O’Connor, Manager of Digital and Data at the city of Casey in Victoria.

“Like our physical assets, our data asset must be well planned, constructed, governed, monitored, maintained and used in ways that seek to derive maximum return on the investment.”

The city of Casey has several data-driven projects underway, all underpinned by a commitment to “capture the right data for the right purpose at the right time,” he says.

Among these are the award-winning Asset Prediction and Service Optimisation System, or APSone, which the city developed in partnership with smart city technology company M-innovations.

“We recognised that using machine learning and predictive analytics could help us find cost savings in our maintenance program,” O'Connor explains.

This smart cities solution for Victoria’s fastest growing community is expected to deliver millions of dollars in savings and performance improvements each year.

The system’s algorithms can forecast the impact of policy and funding changes on Casey’s 400,000-plus assets for the next 50 years and beyond.

Predictive analytics and its value
"A small team of our aspiting leaders are now working their way through the findings to set up projects that will realise the benefits of the system," Chris says.

“We can also employ our understanding of customer demographics and service demand to decide where to build facilities or provide services in the future,” he adds.

“Our IoT data will give us real time information about the performance of our city and help us to identify opportunities and fix problems.

“The technology exists to realise a scenario where a road can literally fix itself – identifying a problem through sensors, diagnosing the problem through AI, organising a repair through an automated workflow engine and releasing payments through a self-executing contract.

“But before we get to that, there are basics we need to sort out. Such as figuring out how to share information safely and securely within the organisation to improve the customer experience. At the moment, a customer has to tell their story several times as they navigate through our services.”

Bright lights, big data
In Sydney, Northern Beaches Council is collecting detailed visitor data to provide better services and build business cases for investment, says Chief Information Officer Nathan Rogers.

“When we ask people how we can provide a better customer experience, 75% say it is ‘important’ or ‘very important’ that we provide online and digital services,” he says, adding that the top two concerns are security and privacy.

“As every aspect of our business becomes digitised we are encountering larger and larger amounts of disparate data sets from multiple sources. Analysing this data and presenting it in an easy-to-comprehend way in real-time is the key to measuring and improving our business.”

“To achieve this, we are growing our data analytics capabilities and our use of artificial intelligence.”

Meanwhile, Wyndham City’s team has its eye on city systems data, such as water, energy and telecommunications and is creating ‘city dashboards’ that a range of stakeholders can access.

By sharing data with a range of stakeholders, the Council can “gain insights, grow partnership opportunities, align strategic planning and improve service delivery,” says Dr. Adam Mowlam in Wyndham City’s Smart Cities Office.

Wyndham City is already sharing capital project information to coordinate construction and field work, and Mowlam says city dashboards don’t just share the data – they also share analytic expertise and allow the council to make better evidence-based decisions.

While the use of the IoT network, sensors and artificial intelligence are still a “fairly new and minimally explored concept” in the local government sector, he says these technologies are a “key building block for greater innovation that could lead to new city insights."

Smart from the start
What advice do smart cities specialists at the coal face have for other local governments wanting to dip their toes in the water?

Northern Beaches' Rogers says a good place for all councils to start is to “look at the data you already have."

“Bring it into once place and begin to analyse it. You never know what insights you are going to find. You could have collected data for a particular reason and find that it is useful for another.”

He also emphasises the value of, where possible, opening up data to the public, so that “new value-adding applications can benefit our communities."

The city of Casey's O’Connor agrees.

“By opening up our datasets we can provide the community with the opportunity to find value in ways that we could never have imagined,” he says.

“At last count we had nine datasets available through data.gov.au – a small percentage of the data we possess – so we have plenty of room to improve.”