(Originally published on Forbes)
As people increasingly migrate to cities in search of jobs, services, and other urban benefits, local governments are turning to emerging technologies to respond to the pressures of their growing populations.
Tech-savvy “smart cities” are reacting to heightened demands on scarce resources by developing new capabilities such as artificial intelligence (AI) and sensor-driven analytics to resolve myriad challenges, from crime to congestion. The new insights that result are helping city managers look at old problems in a new light, while cloud computing is making these efforts affordable and realistic.
Analytics, for example, can help cities use existing resources more efficiently, according to Joel Cherkis, a group vice president at Oracle. “Traditionally, when crime rates go up, cities hire more police,” he says. “But when analytics reveal that crime in a particular neighborhood is increasing at night, modern solutions can include incorporating smart street lighting systems and keeping them in good repair.”
The availability of new technology to solve problems, Cherkis says, comes at just the right time. Last year, according to the United Nations, the number of people living in cities swelled to half the world’s population for the first time, leading cities around the world to attempt to ease traffic, boost economic growth, and improve access to government services for all residents.
Here’s a look at three smart cities where the use of emerging technologies is dramatically improving the quality of life for residents.
Calderdale Council: Online Chat Encourages 24/7 Communication with Council Reps
The 200,000 residents of Calderdale, a rural borough between Manchester and Leeds in England, can report broken streetlamps and request other government services via an online chat with city representatives any time of the day or night. Oracle Service Cloud powers the system, allowing chat agents to respond instantly to citizens’ questions, and then direct those residents to the correct web page or city department for quick resolution.
Toni Kershaw, customer access manager for Calderdale Council, says that residents have enthusiastically embraced the three-year-old online chat service and, in a survey, indicated they found the chat line easy and effective to use. In fact, although residents can still contact council representatives by phone or by email, more than 70% of residents who contact the city now do so via online chat.
“We tend to be more formal when answering questions by phone or email,” Kershaw says. “But we’re chattier on the chat line. We ask residents how their day is going, and they like that personal touch.”
During normal business hours, Calderdale’s call center employees answer questions coming in via the chat service. At night, Calderdale’s emergency after-hours team takes over.
Citizens most frequently ask questions about welfare benefits and tax regulations, and how to get litter and abandoned furniture picked up. Also popular are reports about potholes and broken signal lights on the roadways as well as standing water caused by the frequent cloudbursts in the British Isles.
Chat agents are currently handling as many as 2,500 chat inquiries every month, and council representatives are encouraging residents to use online services rather than the telephone.
“We want to help residents be more self-sufficient by helping them find the information they need on the Calderdale website. We’re trying to keep them online,” she says.
After each request, chat agents ask citizens to fill out feedback forms, which reveal that Calderdale residents value the quick response to chat line questions, versus the typical 20-minute hold time when they phone in. The computer chat service is particularly valued by people who are homebound. And people who are deaf can now ask their questions directly over the computer rather than bringing an interpreter with them to Calderdale offices.
Looking at the future of the chat service, Kershaw says that Calderdale is interested in adding AI in the form of an Oracle Virtual Assistant to help answer the most commonly asked questions.
Kershaw has been getting inquiries about the successful Calderdale chat program from city officials across Great Britain, and she happily shares her implementation and training plans.
“We’ve learned a lot during the past three years, as the technology and customer expectations have changed,” she says. “It’s really good to be able to help other cities succeed.”
Buenos Aires: Sensor-Driven Analytics Reduce Routine Flooding
Buenos Aires, the cosmopolitan capital of Argentina, is home to more than 3 million residents. The city stands where the Rio de la Plata (or River of Silver) meets the Atlantic, at a point where the river, the widest in the world, stretches to 140 miles across. Subject to the ocean tides, the river floods frequently.
Carla Vidiri, director of maintenance operations for the city’s storm sewers, and Fiona Galotti, special coordinator for flooding and rain abatement, describe scenes in 2013 when residents traveled by boat on the J.B. Justo Avenue, the main roadway through Buenos Aires. With five feet of water flooding houses and stores, citizens lost everything.
Since then, the city has installed a vast network of sensors across its underground storm drainage system. The sensors record readings of rainfall amounts and water levels during storms and relay that information in real time back to city officials, creating an effective flood early warning system.
The city uses Oracle Business Intelligence Applications to analyze the readings, allowing city experts to predict the effect of major weather events so they can take action to warn residents of potentially hazardous flooding.
With deeper understanding of the causes—and measures to control—the flooding, the city has added new drainage infrastructure and initiated a regular program of sewer pipe maintenance. It also has created more-sophisticated storm water and river flow models and, using Oracle Policy Automation, is developing large-scale infrastructure projects aimed at preventing flooding and damage to roads and bridges altogether.
Vidiri and Galotti, who say they feel like “musketeers” in the fight against flooding, reported that the frequency and severity of water overflow have already decreased dramatically. That result is a huge relief for their fellow citizens of Buenos Aires, as well as a source of “great pride” to them personally.
San Jose: Communicating with Citizens via Any Channel
Not long ago, the residents of San Jose, California, who needed to find out how to get a dog license, report unsightly graffiti, or ask for pothole repair had to travel to city hall from somewhere in the 180 square miles of this spread-out metropolis. Once at city hall, they had to wait in line to talk to an employee who could help. Or they could navigate a complex website.
Today, under the leadership of Mayor Sam Liccardo, who is heading the transformation of San Jose into a smart city, citizens communicate with their city government using the channel most convenient to them. They can choose email or social media, enter a request on the city’s customer portal or through direct chat, leave a request on the city’s website, or use the new My San Jose app for their mobile phones. If they still prefer to travel to city hall and conduct their business in person, they can do that, too.
San Jose, home of the Silicon Valley region of the San Francisco Bay Area, is the 10th largest city in the United States and is home to 1 million people and 80,000 businesses, many of them among the world’s leaders in technology. So expectations are extraordinarily high.
The city’s chief information officer, Rob Lloyd, is charged with building the infrastructure and integrated systems to meet the expectations of a demanding clientele. He and the mayor’s chief innovation officer, Shireen Santosham, are leading the city’s efforts to focus on customer experience.
“We want San Jose to be an inclusive city, where everyone in the community can participate. All our residents are part of our future,” says Santosham.
The city chose Oracle Service Cloud as the linchpin for its new 3-1-1 city information system and called the project “ACE,” for “Amazing Customer Experience.” Today the system allows residents to ask questions and initiate service requests; connects directly with systems in the transportation, utilities, and parks departments to streamline response; incorporates easy-to-understand dashboards to guide city information agents; and uses analytical tools on the service data to anticipate trends.
“Community members need to communicate as simply and quickly as possible with their city and their county and their peers and neighbors. That’s our aspiration with the Amazing Customer Experience project and the My San Jose app,” Lloyd says. “The tools that Oracle offers will help us get there.”
San Jose is building what all smarter cities aspire to, according to Oracle’s Cherkis.
“Today’s cities want to find a common tool that can tie all the bits and pieces of their various systems together,” he says. “They want one platform so there’s only one place to look for all the relevant city data.”