The potential of real-time municipal data

While the authorities at Washington DC have been gaining first hand experience of how real-time data can change the way a city operates, researchers at the SENSEable City Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have been exploring the potential of the concept in an experimental setting.

“Today we can capture so much information that everything can be stored, processed and analysed,” explains Carlo Ratti, director of the SENSEable City Lab, “and that is radically changing our relationship with our environment and with space.”

This information can help authorities not only to understand the way a city operates, he says, but also to take decisions in response to events as they happen.

One of the lab’s most interesting experiments into the potential of real-time data took place in Rome in 2006. Working in conjunction with carrier Telecom Italia, Ratti and his team mapped the location and frequency of mobile phone conversations during the football World Cup final. Using this information, visible ‘rivers’ of data represented peoples’ movements before, during and after the game.

Ratti believes that access to this kind of data could be used to manage such public services as transport in a reactive fashion. “Five or ten years from now, it won’t be a case of us following the bus but the bus following us,” he says, “by responding to the demands of public transportation, instead of just providing a fixed offer that we need to adjust to.”

Of course, information alone is not always enough to resolve crises as they arise. “Imagine if there’s a big traffic jam, you can’t really double the size of the street to let more cars go through,” remarks Ratti. This underlines the significance of making data publicly available.

Ratti hopes that the availability of live data will help citizens to become “intelligent actuators”, who themselves are able to make on the fly decisions based on the information available.

The SENSEable City Lab is now conducting a research project in Singapore, where the government has so far invested approximately $35 million in real-time data sharing.

Peter Done

Peter Done is managing director of Peninsula Business Services, the personnel and employment law consultancy he set up having already built a successful betting shop business.

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