Building smarter, safer cities of the future with technology

This is the third blogpost of a series based on a panel discussion at the Resilience in Secondary Cities Forum, a two-day conference jointly organized by the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Affairs, Oxfam, and Microsoft in March 2013. Four panelists were joined by 30 mayors from secondary cities in Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam to explore solutions on addressing pressing urban problems and discuss how technology can help build cities of the future.

You may also want to read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 4.

Future-proofing Cities: Health, Education, Public Safety, and Cloud Technologies (Part 3)

Guy Ron, National Security & Public Safety Industry Director for Asia Pacific, Microsoft
Guy Ron, National Security & Public Safety Industry Director for Asia, Microsoft

There’s more to making a city safer than deploying more police officers. According to Microsoft’s Guy Ron, National Security & Public Safety Industry Manager of Asia, surveillance information enables city leaders to be more proactive and predictive. 

In today’s world public safety is of paramount concern. The threats we face are very real and they are imminent. Without being able to send our children safely to school or assuring safety on public transportation, there is perhaps little value in investing in the other areas of modernization for the development of smart cities. Guy Ron, National Security & Public Safety Industry Director for Asia Pacific, Microsoft, discussed how technology can serve as a cornerstone towards creating safer cities.

Guy said that most city mayors don’t think of how to effectively use technology when asked what they thought would make a city safe. Oftentimes the practice would be to deploy large numbers of cameras around the city and have surveillance fed back to a command center with operators manually monitoring the footage. The reality is that this rarely addresses the myriad of public safety needs out there and those basic (but costly) surveillance systems tend to be used mostly for after-the-fact reviews and investigations rather than to actually prevent crimes and respond to events in real time.

According to Guy, surveillance is just one aspect of ensuring public safety. City leaders are also responsible for protecting critical infrastructure within their boundaries including official government buildings, monuments, central stations and parks for instance. This cannot be achieved by simply having a command center with several operators looking at screens all day – the surveillance information should enable city leaders and law enforcers to be more predictive and proactive about what is happening within the city.

Being predictive means being able to investigate the data that is captured from all over the city, be it automated sensors like cameras and noise detectors, channels like the city emergency hot line and relevant data shared by local and national agencies such as police and emergency services. This vast amount of data needs to be analyzed in real time, allowing the city operational teams to spot events of interest that are likely to happen from a public-safety perspective. Consequently, being proactive refers to the ability to react faster in real-time and being able to prevent or at least act quickly enough to take action and mitigate security and other incidents.

Microsoft’s recipe for building safer cities includes having surveillance and both predictive and proactive action plans in place. However, Guy believes that it is also essential for city leaders to be able to have a clear grasp of public sentiment. The key lies in engaging in a two-way dialogue with citizens to receive information, discuss concerns, share know-how, and even mining for insights across social media platforms and other communication channels. A city that is able to leverage all these different feeds of intelligence has a huge advantage.

“It is essential for city leaders to be able to have a clear grasp of public sentiment shared through social media.”

Throughout the world Microsoft has been involved in some of the biggest and most challenging safe city programs. Six years ago, the New York Police Department (NYPD) reached out to Microsoft and have been working together since, to build a comprehensive safe city program for New York which includes installing and implementing the requisite ICT infrastructure needed for running the program. Since then the company has also delivered Safe City solutions in various forms to many other cities worldwide from small-medium ones like Philadelphia and Auckland to large metropolitans like Sao Paulo.

One of the more interesting case studies from the region comes from Delhi. Microsoft worked with the city to come up with a solution that facilitated both a two-way dialogue with citizens and developed a healthy competition that pitted police units against each other using something as simple as neighborhood crime statistics. Despite the simplicity of the idea, the competition proved to be highly effective as none of the police units wanted to have the worst crime rates in their neighborhood especially since the statistics were being released to the public regularly. This not only brought the crime rate down but also improved citizens’ overall perception of the law enforcement bureau.

Public safety programs are not just for big cities with deep pockets. Microsoft believes that public safety solutions usually are not contingent on a budget – it is about identifying the real issues that the city and identifying concepts and creative solutions that will help address the city’s needs.

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