Smart City Innovations to Combat COVID-19
Chris: What would you like to have in place today or in the future that you didn't have when this whole thing started so that you could address a lot of the issues that you just highlighted?
Gary: I'd like greater expansion of the network so that we could do telemedicine. We could shift some of the protocols in our emergency medical services to simplify it. People dial 911, a paramedic unit arrives about 180 seconds from the time they’ve put the phone down, they do an evaluation, put the person in an ambulance, and transport them to the emergency department of the local hospital. We're now shifting some of that to do more evaluation in the field and not transporting people.
Currently, if you have a medical event, you go to the emergency room. If you're not in a situation that's life-threatening, you may sit there for hours because the medical staff is taking care of people who are more critical and need more urgent care. If you know that in advance, even if we've sent our paramedics there, it would be great to have the ability to schedule some of those treatments.
If you know that the emergency department is going to have the staff available in four hours, you're going to be more comfortable and safe staying home while you wait for treatment. Similarly, if someone has a medical situation that requires some follow-up but not immediately, you could schedule an appointment with the urgent care center, or go to your general family physician the next day. It's about being able to have that data on a platform that is accessible and easily managed. I think that will dramatically improve and reduce the overall cost of the delivery of healthcare.
That’s something we've learned from this situation, and we’re asking, how do we deploy that? It's taking that particular information and making it practical for the overall management of a number of moving parts.
With the lighting system, for example, we’ve been able to use our sensors on the main street to see that traffic is down almost 50% since the shutdown. Before, you would have had to go out and do traffic studies, put a strip across the road, put a mechanical counter there, and download the data. It was still good information, but it was not in a format that's robust and dynamic and generated in real time. Now, with some of these sensors deployed, we have that. It helps our policing, it helps businesses plan their activity, and it gets down even to the basic level of doing pavement management, based on the amount of traffic that goes over a road's surface.
How Smart Cities Are Using Data in New and Different Ways
Chris: Curt, you have been involved in city government with the city of Boston, and also with the State of Massachusetts, focused on data and analytics. From IDC's perspective, what are some of the things that you guys are seeing with respect to cities using data in new and different ways?
Curt: With COVID-19, a lot of people, especially at the state level, are tracking public health over geography. That’s great, but we need to keep in mind: how do you protect privacy? It’s important to have that infrastructure in place where you can use it for new use cases like COVID-19 that come up and still protect privacy.
One of the other key things to note with these types of use cases is, there is no one hundred percent best practice. You have to go into these advanced uses of data with a sort of experimental open mindset. The model might be sixty percent accurate on day one. Is that perfect? No, but it gets you some real-world results that you can start building on.
That old adage of "don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good," is definitely true with data work where you’re constantly iterating and taking in that new information — whether it's deploying resources, or looking at healthcare outcomes.
Chris: Franck, what would you add? I know you’ve worked with a number of cities that have migrated their focus in terms of what's important and how they're using data platforms and datasets.
Franck: The trend we’re seeing is that cities and governments really want to build and reinforce trust with their residents. For example, we've been working with two cities recently — Newark, New Jersey (pictured), and Somerville, Massachusetts.
Newark wanted to be able to publish their own data on the city level about the COVID-19 situation. As of now, if you want to have updated information on COVID-19, you can get it on the national level, the state level, and the county level, but if you want information on the city level, it doesn't exist — unless the city publishes their own information, which is sometimes pretty difficult to do.
Newark not only wanted to do that, but they also wanted to publish information on how COVID-19 affects their citizens by race, gender, and age. The goal is to be able to prove that maybe COVID-19 is touching different communities in different ways. On the other hand, Somerville is focused primarily on informing residents about what’s happening on a daily basis.
Supporting Growth and Recovery in a Post-Pandemic World
Chris: Michael, can you talk a little bit about the Colu platform and how you're working with cities to focus on economic development and better communication to citizens? That's obviously a key topic as we start to reopen and recover.
Michael: We as a company have been working specifically with cities throughout the US right now and offering them our software as a service (SaaS) platform, which rewards residents for engaging in behaviors that meet the strategic goals of the city.
We give a city their own unique app, and we create a rewards mechanism, similar to a points model, with a unique city coin. That city coin is the economic driver that ultimately incentivizes residents to engage in those behaviors, which could be shopping at local businesses, communicating with the municipality, volunteering, and more. The whole point here is to create this cycle of a unique local coin that can then be accumulated by residents and then redeemed at local businesses.
Now with COVID-19, we see a huge need to help small businesses. Cities don't have the funding or the staff capacity to take proactive measures to help small businesses. We're looking at how we can encourage residents to shop at local businesses instead of shopping online on Amazon. We're busier than ever and trying to offer our platform to as many cities as possible to help the local businesses.
Chris: Do you have any real-world examples that you could highlight, just to show how this works?
Michael: Sure — So, in Tel Aviv, the pandemic started a few weeks before it started here in the US, so we sort of had a head start.
First of all, we created additional incentives to reward shopping and consumption at local businesses.
Secondly, we saw a lot of businesses that had historically never delivered now start to deliver because of the restrictions and the closures. So, we aggregated all the businesses that are delivering and then we reward people and individuals and residents for shopping or ordering delivery from local businesses.
Another interesting thing we’re seeing is a huge push from the local community to volunteer to be involved in the community, so we started also rewarding residents who volunteer at senior citizens’ homes. Ultimately we just see that the more we can promote these initiatives and spread awareness of what initiatives exist in their city, the more residents will want to engage in those behaviors. We call it behavioral economics, or gamification, approach. We want to tie the reward with the behavior, and ultimately create mutually beneficial opportunities that help businesses and eventually will create more jobs locally, which is extremely critical right now.
Conclusion: What’s the Future of Smart City Investment?
Chris: Curt, you’ve got a lot of experience in this area — what would you recommend on the types of smart city investments that cities should make going forward?
Curt: With tools and technology around data, if you've got infinite money there are infinite solutions, but a lot of states and cities fall into the trap of avoiding vendor lock-in by buying one of everything. That’s a bad idea because if you use just ten percent of every platform, you're not going to get much ROI out of it.
So, start with what you have — something like Excel. Excel can't do high powered data science, but it could start some analysis, and you build on that. You build into Python, you build into R, you look at open data platforms. Ultimately, you want to invest in ways to keep the data secure, ways to analyze the data, and then ways to communicate that data.