Making smart cities work for people. No 1: Crowdsourcing flood maps in Jakarta

One of Jakarta's main business districts, during the floods of January 2014. Image: Getty.

The “Smart City” is a vision of what cities might look like in the future if they adopt a range of cutting edge technologies – the Internet of Things, big data, advanced computing, and so on.

But this vision rarely leaves any space for people; nor does it take into account the pressing problems that cities are facing now. As a result, many smart city ideas have failed to deliver on their promise, combining high costs and low returns.

In our recent report, Rethinking smart cities from the ground up, innovation charity Nesta argued that cities need to combine investment in tried and tested hardware with the growing potential of “collaborative technologies”: that is, those technologies that enable greater collaboration between urban communities, their citizens and their governments

Over the next few weeks, in this series of articles we’ll be exploring five examples of cities doing just that. This is the first.

Putting people at the heart of Jakarta's flood data

Jakarta, the Indonesian capital, is a megacity of around 10m people, with over 28m in the wider metropolitan region. As a result, the city faces a huge range of challenges, from the world’s most congested roads to annual flooding that forces thousands to abandon their homes and takes many lives. Alongside investment in infrastructure, the city is exploring the potential of working with citizens to address these challenges.

It’s a surprising fact that Jakarta tweets more than any other city in the world. PetaJakarta – the name means “map Jakarta” in Bahasa Indonesian – was set up by researchers at Australia’s University of Wollongong and the Jakarta Emergency Management Agency (BPBD) to take advantage of this. During the pilot phase of the project, when anyone in Jakarta tweeted the word “flood”, the system would upload the location of the tweet onto a map, to create a real time, crowdsourced map of flooding in the city.

 

A video introduction to the PeteJakarta project.

Accuracy is always a concern with crowdsourced data, so another innovative feature of the platform is its partnership with Twitter. Residents of Jakarta who tweeted the world “flood” during the pilot received a message asking them to confirm that they were trying to report a flood. Only once they’d done this did the report appear on a crowdsourced map.


Could crowdsourcing reports from social media ever replace traditional flood monitoring techniques? The results from the pilot show that crowdsourcing data currently works best as a complement to existing data collection methods: there aren’t yet enough people reporting floods on Twitter to create a comprehensive flood map of the city. This may change in the future, however: BPBD is committed to integrating, developing and promoting the platform.

The city government is also experimenting with crowdsourced traffic reporting to help it address its legendary traffic woes. With around 1m monthly users of Waze, the Google-owned navigation app, Jakarta was a good candidate for the Waze Connected Citizens program.

The programme provides city officials with data about how Waze users move around the city. This, they hope, will improve the city’s ability to manage congestion.

Tom Saunders is a senior researcher at Nesta, the UK innovation charity, and one of the authors of the "Rethinking smart cities from the ground up" report. 

 
 
 
 

Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.


So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image: WelshStreets.co.uk.

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: WelshStreets.co.uk. 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?


And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.