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. 

 
 
 
 

To make electric vehicles happen, the government must devolve energy policy to councils

The future. Image: Getty.

Last week, the Guardian revealed that at least a quarter of councils have halted the roll-out of electric vehicle (EV) charging infrastructure with no plans to resume its installation. This is a fully charged battery-worth of miles short of ideal, given the ambitious decarbonisation targets to which the UK is rightly working.

It’s even more startling given the current focus on inclusive growth, for the switch to EVs is an economic advancement, on an individual and societal level. Decarbonisation will free up resources and push growth, but the way in which we go about it will have impacts for generations after the task is complete.

If there is one lesson that has been not so much taught to us as screamed at us by recent history, it is that the market does not deliver inclusivity by itself. Left to its own devices, the market tends to leave people behind. And people left behind make all kinds of rational decisions, in polling stations and elsewhere that can seem wholly irrational to those charged with keeping pace – as illuminted in Jeremy Harding’s despatch from the ‘periphery’ which has incubated France’s ‘gilet jaunes’ in the London Review of Books.

But what in the name of Nikola Tesla has any of this to do with charging stations? The Localis argument is simple: local government must work strategically with energy network providers to ensure that EV charging stations are rolled out equally across areas, to ensure deprived areas do not face further disadvantage in the switch to EVs. To do so, Ofgem must first devolve certain regulations around energy supply and management to our combined authorities and city regions.


Although it might make sense now to invest in wealthier areas where EVs are already present, if there isn’t infrastructure in place ahead of demand elsewhere, then we risk a ‘tale of two cities’, where decarbonisation is two-speed and its benefits are two-tier.

The Department for Transport (DfT) announced on Monday that urban mobility will be an issue for overarching and intelligent strategy moving forward. The issue of fairness must be central to any such strategy, lest it just become a case of more nice things in nice places and a further widening of the social gap in our cities.

This is where the local state comes in. To achieve clean transport across a city, more is needed than just the installation of charging points.  Collaboration must be coordinated between many of a place’s moving parts.

The DfT announcement makes much of open data, which is undoubtedly crucial to realising the goal of a smart city. This awareness of digital infrastructure must also be matched by upgrades to physical infrastructure, if we are going to realise the full network effects of an integrated city, and as we argue in detail in our recent report, it is here that inclusivity can be stitched firmly into the fabric.

Councils know the ins and outs of deprivation within their boundaries and are uniquely placed to bring together stakeholders from across sectors to devise and implement inclusive transport strategy. In the switch to EVs and in the wider Future of Mobility, they must stay a major player in the game.

As transport minister and biographer of Edmund Burke, Jesse Norman has been keen to stress the founding Conservative philosopher’s belief in the duty of those living in the present to respect the traditions of the past and keep this legacy alive for their own successors.

If this is to be a Burkean moment in making the leap to the transformative transport systems of the future, Mr Norman should give due attention to local government’s role as “little platoons” in this process: as committed agents of change whose civic responsibility and knowledge of place can make this mobility revolution happen.

Joe Fyans is head of research at the think tank Localis.