Smarter cities and savvy citizens make living seamless


How smart is your city? If you’re a resident of Surrey, BC, you’ve already got reason to be proud, with the fastest-growing city in the province being recognized recently by a New York-based think tank as one of the top seven ‘Intelligent Communities of 2015’. Surrey just raised the bar with a first-of-its-kind project to give citizens the information they need right from their mobile device.

I can already hear the anguished cries of the skeptics out there who just responded to that last line with the common-sense thought that people can go visit the city’s website to find out how to fight a municipal parking ticket. That’s far from new – and it doesn’t make the city smart, either.

This is different. Ask Watson a question and you’ll get an answer back that’s as good as – or likely, better than – talking with a 311 operator.

But this isn’t about a website. Surrey worked with IBM’s Watson Ecosystem and Ottawa-based Purple Forge to embed Watson QA and natural language processing capabilities into the city’s existing ‘My Surrey’ mobile and web apps. Citizens can ask about why their trash wasn’t picked up this morning and get a real answer (“You didn’t pay your property taxes”, perhaps?) on the web, smartphone or a wearable device.

If you’ve ever tried to actually navigate a municipal website to get a straight answer, you’ve probably negotiated a labyrinthine series of clicks to land on a PDF that might answer your exact question (but maybe not). This is different. Ask Watson a question and you’ll get an answer back that’s as good as – or likely, better than – talking with a 311 operator.

“IBM Watson’s builds its knowledge and improves as citizens use it, much in the same way humans learn,” said Councilor Bruce Hayne, Chair of Innovation & Investment Committee. The goal? Better accessibility of services while saving the city (and taxpayers) a ton of cash.

“In the context of service costs, the cost for a customer service call is anywhere between $4 and $6 per call,” noted Brian Hurley, CEO and co-Founder of Purple Forge, which makes mobile-first SaaS solutions for advanced community engagement. “The common challenge to any organization, whether government or enterprise in developing effective self-service, is to reduce the service costs and also gain insights to improve the customer experience. Watson is only going to get more effective over time as it learns.”

It started with training Watson so it knows thousands of documents across 15 departments, helping it answer over 10,000 questions. “There was a lot of up-front learning,” Hurley said, noting that they had to allow for multiple variations on themes, so that the system could answer “where can I walk my dog” as easily as “where can I walk my Doberman?”

Fixing these issues takes training. Asking “where can I find cheap parking” would produce errors as Watson interpreted parking and parks in the same way. Giving the system additional training resolved that issue. The system is still in early stages and more training will undoubtedly be needed – but we are indeed introducing something transformational.

“This creates a natural interaction where people don’t even realize there’s a huge amount of technology behind the scenes,” Hurley said. The next step? Integrating with wearables, so that the system can respond to where you are geographically, recognizing your display medium to give you even more accurate information based on your particular context.

Urban Opus

Telepathic Citizens

“Only an engaged public can make a city truly smart.” That’s the tagline from Urban Opus, a Vancouver-based nonprofit smart city innovation cluster that’s looking at a different kind of model for the smart city than what we’re seeing so far in Surrey.

“IBM has been at the forefront of the smart movement for a number of years now,” said Urban Opus Principal David Vogt. “Smart cities has been part of that, around integrating services into a central command kind of mode – and big data players have been working with major cities on major multi-million projects in this domain. There’s a lot of momentum, tied to the Internet of Things and sensors – but we also see a different way of doing it.

“IBM has been at the forefront of the smart movement for a number of years now.”

“They’re modeling cities as machines,” he explained. “If you take data from different parts of the machine, you can have an elegant dashboard when it comes to managing traffic, water and waste. It’s a good model – but we want to use a different model where cities are a place for people.”

Vogt foresees a kind of Smart Cities 2.0, with cities hosting a kind of telepathy as citizens “breath in data through their smartphones, passively or actively, being the smartest sensors in the smart city.”

How does that differ from the centralized approach adopted in Surrey and elsewhere relying on public data being put out by governments? By using private data, you’ve got a lot more options.

Vogt gives an example of a startup in Hungary that is building an app for people in wheelchairs to get around. “As they opt in, they’re mapping the accessibility of the city, from a movement point of view that walking people just wouldn’t notice, but also socially.”

Another example relates to the popularity of Walk Score, one of the most profitable city apps, where buyers of real estate can instantly check out user-supplied ratings of proximity to schools, shopping and other amenities. “That’s a good thing, but it’s all static data pulled from a map,” Vogt pointed out. “It doesn’t talk to you about whether the people in this or that neighborhood love dogs, or do gardening or enjoy any other number of pursuits. The actual intelligence of the city comes from engagement of the people in the city; people with bicycles; sailing; music; entertainment. This is how communities start talking about themselves.”

The problem with this model, as Vogt admits, is the relatively entrenched (but changing) habit of citizens to want to own their data – and the even more entrenched desire of corporations to do the same thing. “The IBM piece is really tackling open data, which cities can collect on different assets in the Internet of Things – but valuable data is in the hands of organizations like Modo, Car2Go and Telus, which is not available, because it’s proprietary. Getting businesses to contribute to a data brokerage is a promising solution.”

Even more valuable than corporate data is citizen data. The problem: how do you get them to provide it without feeling like their contributing to widening surveillance? “The trick is to get them to see the advantage and opportunity of participating.”

Before we get good enough to create ‘telepathic cities’ we might just have to settle for smart ones.

Images courtesy Urban Opus.


Jonathon Narvey

Jonathon Narvey is a content marketing strategist and BetaKit Senior Editor. Living and working in the heart of downtown Vancouver, he's watched this city's tech hub grow and start to compete on a world-class level. He has learned most of what he knows about tech startups and entrepreneurial spirit by interviewing some of the most innovative thought leaders here and abroad. He's always up for learning something new about the startups, leaders and technologies that are changing our world.

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