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. 

 
 
 
 

High streets and shopping malls face a ‘domino effect’ from major store closures

Another one bites the dust: House of Fraser plans to close the majority of its stores. Image: Getty.

Traditional retail is in the centre of a storm – and British department store chain House of Fraser is the latest to succumb to the tempest. The company plans to close 31 of its 59 shops – including its flagship store in Oxford Street, London – by the beginning of 2019. The closures come as part of a company voluntary arrangement, which is an insolvency deal designed to keep the chain running while it renegotiates terms with landlords. The deal will be voted on by creditors within the month.

Meanwhile in the US, the world’s largest retail market, Sears has just announced that it will be closing more than 70 of its stores in the near future.

This trend of major retailers closing multiple outlets exists in several Western countries – and its magnitude seems to be unrelated to the fundamentals of the economy. The US, for example, has recently experienced a clear decoupling of store closures from overall economic growth. While the US economy grew a healthy 2.3 per cent in 2017, the year ended with a record number of store closings, nearly 9,000 while 50 major chains filed for bankruptcy.

Most analysts and industry experts agree that this is largely due to the growth of e-commerce – and this is not expected to diminish anytime soon. A further 12,000 stores are expected to close in the US before the end of 2018. Similar trends are being seen in markets such as the UK and Canada.

Pushing down profits

Perhaps the most obvious impact of store closures is on the revenues and profitability of established brick-and-mortar retailers, with bankruptcies in the US up by nearly a third in 2017. The cost to investors in the retail sector has been severe – stocks of firms such as Sears have lost upwards of 90 per cent of their market value in the last ten years. By contrast, Amazon’s stock price is up over 2,000 per cent in the same period – more than 49,000 per cent when considering the last 20 years. This is a trend that the market does not expect to change, as the ratio of price to earnings for Amazon stands at ten times that of the best brick-and-mortar retailers.

Although unemployment levels reached a 17-year low in 2017, the retail sector in the US shed a net 66,500 jobs. Landlords are losing longstanding tenants. The expectation is that roughly 25 per cent of shopping malls in the US are at high risk of closing one of their anchor tenants such as a Macy’s, which could set off a series of store closures and challenge the very viability of the mall. One out of every five malls is expected to close by 2022 – a prospect which has put downward pressure on retail real estate prices and on the finances of the firms that own and manage these venues.

In the UK, high streets are struggling through similar issues. And given that high streets have historically been the heart of any UK town or city, there appears to be a fundamental need for businesses and local councils to adapt to the radical changes affecting the retail sector to preserve their high streets’ vitality and financial viability.


The costs to society

While attention is focused on the direct impacts on company finances, employment and landlord rents, store closures can set off a “domino effect” on local governments and businesses, which come at a significant cost to society. For instance, closures can have a knock-on effect for nearby businesses – when large stores close, the foot traffic to neighbouring establishments is also reduced, which endangers the viability of other local businesses. For instance, Starbucks has recently announced plans to close all its 379 Teavana stores. Primarily located inside shopping malls, they have harshly suffered from declining mall traffic in recent years.

Store closures can also spell trouble for local authorities. When retailers and neighbouring businesses close, they reduce the taxable revenue base that many municipalities depend on in order to fund local services. Add to this the reduction in property taxes stemming from bankrupt landlords and the effect on municipal funding can be substantial. Unfortunately, until e-commerce tax laws are adapted, municipalities will continue to face financial challenges as more and more stores close.

It’s not just local councils, but local development which suffers when stores close. For decades, many cities in the US and the UK, for exmaple Detroit and Liverpool, have heavily invested in efforts to rejuvenate their urban cores after years of decay in the 1970s and 1980s. Bringing shops, bars and other businesses back to once derelict areas has been key to this redevelopment. But today, with businesses closing, cities could once again face the prospect of seeing their efforts unravel as their key urban areas become less attractive and populations move elsewhere.

Commercial ecosystems featuring everything from large chain stores to small independent businesses are fragile and sensitive to change. When a store closes it doesn’t just affect employees or shareholders – it can have widespread and lasting impacts on the local community, and beyond. Controlling this “domino effect” is going to be a major challenge for local governments and businesses for years to come.

Omar Toulan, Professor in Strategy and International Management, IMD Business School and Niccolò Pisani, Assistant Professor of International Management, University of Amsterdam.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.