Microsoft customers and partners envision smarter, safer, more connected societies

Organizations around the world are transforming for the digital era, changing how businesses, cities and citizens work. This new digital era will address many of the problems created in the earlier agricultural and industrial eras, making society safer, more sustainable, more efficient and more inclusive.

But an infrastructure gap is keeping this broad vision from becoming a reality. Digital transformation is happening faster than we expected — only in pockets. Microsoft and its partners seek to help city and other public infrastructures close the gaps, with advanced technologies in the cloud, data analytics, machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI).

Microsoft’s goal is to be a trusted partner to both public and private organizations in building connected societies. This summer, an IDC survey named Microsoft the top company for trust and customer satisfaction in enabling smart-city digital transformations.

Last week at a luncheon in New York City, Microsoft and executives from three organizations participating in the digital transformation shared how they are helping to close the infrastructure gap.

A photo of Arnold Meijer, TomTom's strategic business development manager.
Arnold Meijer, TomTom’s strategic business development manager, at the Building Digital Societies salon lunch. (Photo by John Brecher)

TomTom NV, based in Amsterdam, traditionally focused on providing consumers with personal navigation. Now, “the need for locations surpasses the need for navigation — it’s everywhere,” said Arnold Meijer, strategic business development manager. “Managing a fleet of connected devices or ordering a ride from your phone — these things weren’t possible five years ago. We’re turning to cloud connectivity and the Internet of Things as tools to keep our maps and locations up to date.”

Sensors from devices and vehicles on the road deliver condition and usage data essential to highway planners, infrastructure managers and fleet operators to make well informed decisions.

Autonomous driving is directly in TomTom’s sights, a way to cut down on traffic accidents, one of the top 10 causes of death worldwide, and to reduce emissions through efficient routing. “You probably won’t own a vehicle 20 years from now, and the one that picks you up won’t have a driver,” Meijer said. “If you do go out driving yourself, it will be for fun.”

With all that time freed up from driving, travelers can do something else such as relax or work. Either option presents new business opportunities for companies that offer entertainment or enable productivity for a mobile client, who is almost certainly connected to the internet. “There will be new companies coming out supporting that, and I definitely foresee Microsoft and other businesses active there,” Meijer said.

“Such greatly eased personal transport may decrease the need to live close to work or school, changing settlement patterns and reduce the societal impacts of mobility. All because we can use location- and cloud technology.” he added.

A photo of George Pitagorsky, CIO for the New York City Department of Education Office of School Support Services.
George Pitagorsky, CIO for the New York City Department of Education Office of School Support Services. (Photo by John Brecher)

The New York City Dept. of Education is using Microsoft technology extensively in a five-year, $25-million project that will tell parents their children’s whereabouts while the students are in transit, increase use of the cafeterias and provide access to information about school sports.

The city’s Office of Pupil Transportation provides rides to more than 600,000 students per day, with more than 9,000 buses and vehicles. For a preliminary version of the student-tracking system, the city has equipped its leased buses with GPS devices.

“When the driver turns on the GPS and signs in his bus, we can find out where it is at any time,” said George Pitagorsky, executive director and CIO for the department’s Office of School Support Services. If parents know what bus their child is on, they can more easily meet it at the stop or be sure to be there when the child is brought home.

A next step will be GPS units that don’t require driver activation. To let the system track not just the vehicle but its individual occupants, drivers will still need to register students into the GPS when they get on the bus.

“Biometrics like facial recognition that automate check-in when a student steps onto a bus — we’re most likely going to be there, but we’re not there yet,” Pitagorsky said.

Further out within the $25-million Illumination Program, a new bus-routing tool will replace systems developed more than 20 years ago, allowing the creation of more efficient routes, making course corrections to avoid problems, easily gathering vehicle-maintenance costs and identifying problem vehicles.

Other current projects include a smartphone app to advise students of upcoming meal choices in the school cafeterias, with an eye to increasing cafeteria use, enhancing students’ nutritional intake and offering students a voice in entree choices. The department has also created an app that displays all high school sports games, locations and scores.

A new customer-relations management app will let parents update their addresses and request special transport services on behalf of their children, with no more need to make a special visit to the school to do so. A mobile app will allow parents and authorized others to locate their children or bus, replacing the need for a phone call to the customer service unit. And business intelligence and data warehousing will get a uniform architecture, to replace the patchwork data, systems and tools now in place.

A photo of Christy Szoke CMO and co-founder of Fathym.
Christy Szoke CMO and co-founder of Fathym. (Photo by John Brecher)

Fathym, a startup in Boulder, Colorado, is directly addressing infrastructure gaps through a rapid-innovation platform intended to harmonize disparate data and apps and facilitate Internet of Things solutions.

“Too often, cities don’t have a plan worked out and are pouring millions of dollars into one solution, which is difficult to adjust to evolving needs and often leads to inaccessible, siloed data,” said co-founder and chief marketing officer Christy Szoke. “Our philosophy is to begin with a small proof of concept, then use our platform to build out a solution that is flexible to change and allows data to be accessible from multiple apps and user types.” Fathym makes extensive use of Azure services but hides that complexity from customers, she said.

To create its WeatherCloud service, Fathym combined data from roadside weather stations and sensors with available weather models to create a road weather forecast especially for drivers and maintenance providers, predicting conditions they’ll find precisely along their route.

“We’re working with at least eight data sets, all completely different in format, time intervals and spatial resolutions,” said Fathym co-founder and CEO Matt Smith. “This is hard stuff. You can’t have simplicity on the front end without a complicated back-end system, a lot of math, and a knowledgeable group of different types of engineers helping to make sense of it all.”

Despite the ease that cloud services have brought to application development, even 20 years from now foresees a need for experts to wrangle data.

“When people say, ‘the Internet of Things is here’ and ‘the robots are going to take over,’ I don’t think they have the respect they should have for how challenging it will remain to build complex apps,” Smith said.

Added Szoke, “You can’t just say ‘put an AI on it’ or ‘apply machine learning’ and expect to get useful data. You will still need creative minds, and data scientists, to understand what you’re looking at, and that will continue to be an essential industry.”