#Asia Big Data plays a vital role in building smart cities: Dr Ben Lorica


Programme Director for the Strata + Hadoop World Conference talks about the emergence of smart cities and discussions planned at the upcoming conference in Singapore

smart city

A Smart City is described as one that uses digital technologies or information and communication technologies to enhance the quality and performance of urban services, to reduce costs and resource consumption, and to engage more effectively and actively with its citizens.

Almost 66 per cent of the world’s population is expected to be residing in urban areas by 2050 from just over 50 per cent now. Taking into account these astounding figures of people moving to urban areas, local and national leaders throughout the world have realised the need for ‘Smart Cities’ to cater to this transition.

e27 speaks to Dr Ben Lorica, Chief Data Scientist and Director of Content Strategy for Data at O’Reilly Media, Inc. He is also the Programme Director for the Strata + Hadoop World Conference. Here he talks about the emergence of smart cities and the discussions planned at the upcoming conference in Singapore.

What is the significance of Smart Cities these days?

As the population is growing, people are increasingly shifting to urban areas. According to a 2014 UN report, 54 per cent of the world’s population resides in urban areas and this share is expected to go up to 66 per cent by the year 2050. ‘Smart Cities’ is this umbrella initiative that is designed to make urban areas more liveable, agile and sustainable.

Technology is an important component of many smart city initiatives. Early applications of smart city technologies include transportation and logistics, local government services, utilities, health care and education.

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What is on the programme for smart cities and related technology in Strata+Hadoop World?

In previous Strata + Hadoop World talks, we had sessions on the use of machine learning and Big Data technologies to understand and predict vehicular traffic and congestion patterns, as well as the use of wearables in large-scale health care data platforms.

This time around too, we have many talks on similar applications, but also on real-time Big Data platforms, and the infrastructure you need to develop smart cities.

In addition, we have many talks on advanced analytics, data science and algorithms that power intelligent data applications at the heart of Smart Cities, as well as a series of talks on deep learning.

Can you mention a few examples of the technology you can use for a smart city programme?

Smart city platforms represent some of the more exciting and impactful applications of real-time, intelligent Big Data systems. An interesting trend is that people are becoming more proficient in the mining of diverse data sources — geospatial and spatio-temporal data, unstructured text from news sources, social media and images.

Traditionally data analysts were proficient at making sense of structured information, but recently much of the data is unstructured data and also semi-structured data like event data (from log files) that are common in many IoT (Internet of Things) settings. We have many sessions that teach people techniques for unlocking alternate data sources.

Smart Cities are very much about enabling citizen engagement – not just about instrumenting everything and centralisation. That means recognising the importance of both providing data to citizens, and that people can be important sources of data (‘crowdsourcing’). Things like fairness and transparency, privacy, and ethics need to be factored in as well.

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Why did you choose Singapore for smart city talks?

Singapore has become one of the leaders around many of these technologies and ideas. Throughout this conference, there will be discussions on the infrastructure aspect for smart cities but people developing the technology can also be in contact with practitioners who are deploying solutions in this field.

We will showcase initiatives from the private and public sector, as well as technology leaders who are behind some of the key tools for enabling these solutions in the field.

When we were putting together a programme for Singapore, we realised that the applications of intelligent real-time data platforms to smart cities represent some of the most interesting applications of Big Data. The fact that the government itself is making a concerted push convinced us to allocate many sessions to this topic in Singapore.

Within the programme, we have the Singapore Cabinet Minister in charge of the Smart Nation initiative, who will give a keynote address. We wanted to give a perspective from the leaders of Singapore and have them be represented in the programme. We also have many people who are based in Singapore, who work on smart city projects, who will participate in the sessions.

What kind of response are you expecting from allocating so many sessions to Smart Cities?

I think, we want the ideas of the people who are working on smart city projects to have an audience within the data science, data engineering and Big Data communities. On the other hand, the people who are proficient in data science and Big Data in turn have a lot to share in terms of infrastructure and also making sense of massive amounts of real-time data. They have a lot to share with people who are grappling with these problems.

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What kind of challenges do you see in the implementation of the smart city programme?

I think one of the challenges is that we are in the very early stages. And speaking as someone who organises conferences all over the world, it seems to be that many of the solutions are still kind of thought as “one-off” projects. We need cities to share best practices and develop solutions that can be used by others.

In many cities, you have many different kind of IT systems and processes. Sometimes it’s hard to bring all your data and streamline all your processes and take advantage of all the data you have, analyse and uncover interesting correlations.

Do think there is a need for more of an integrated solution?

I think that having a single point of control is probably not feasible, because you want something that’s robust; it’s not going to fail if something happens. In many ways, you need a lot of backups. For example, if you get everyone in your city to rely on GPS and all of a sudden the GPS system fails. When you build systems for instrumenting and gathering data, things like privacy and ethics become very important.

Technology is improving, it’s getting easier to use and I think the cities which are determined to go down this path are starting to make inroads.

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Would you like to take the smart city talks to any of your other conferences?

Our call for proposals for Strata+Hadoop in Europe is open at the moment, and there is a lot of interest about smart cities there as well. As Programme Director, I am interested to see if we can attract people to this topic because it’s a great opportunity for people in our space to make an impact. To help make cities that you reside in, more agile, more liveable and just. That’s a great application of your skills.

Disclosure: This article was written in partnership with O’Reilly Media. It will be hosting this year’s Strata+Hadoop World Conference in Singapore from December 1 to 3. Use discount code E27 to get 20% off conference passes. For more information, click here.

Image Credit: Shutterstock

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