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The key role app developers can play in constructing smart cities

The primary challenge to building a smart city has nothing to do with pouring concrete and erecting steel beams. It’s knowing better the city’s flows to optimize the city for its inhabitants. It’s turning all of the data that comes streaming in from myriad sources into actionable information. App developers can turn this data into better knowledge of the intents of their users in the city and deliver a better service when and where it is the most pertinent.

Apps typically know about their users in their service, but not about their environment and the city events. Let’s say you’re heading to your office and you have several transportation options. You may use one app to share a ride, another to check the bus arrival times or get a taxi, and yet another to alert your friends when and where to meet. Each step requires you to initiate an action. That process could be so much more efficient if at each step it is the city that provide the data to the app so it can trigger an action for you based on your behavior and your intents in the city.

Now imagine the same scenario, but with the key difference that the city detects that you are at transportation stops and shares it with your services. Your devices and daily apps can take the initiative to provide you with transportation options instead of waiting passively for your instructions. Before entering the subway, your smartphone app informs you about traffic delay and the taxi app wakes up and notifies about carpooling options in two minutes. Before taking your cab, you receive real-time notifications from businesses around you for tonight’s events and promos.

Performing these actions based on user-intent knowledge requires the combination of an accurate location system that is able to pinpoint your exact whereabouts and a city-wide platform that works together to collect information and “learn” about your intents from the data your apps generate. That data is integrated with places and context data flow, local businesses and government agencies data. When you use one app to book a reservation, the platform collects and analyzes that information, and share intents with other apps to take related actions based on your location, context, intent and the time.

That scenario just scratches the surface of how a smart city can provide a significant economic boost to the business sector and improve overall quality of life for residents and visitors. The technology exists today to enable government agencies, local businesses and residents to interact and provide services in real time, at the perfect moment where people need it in the city — at train stations, bus stops, airports and even parking spaces and streetlights. Converting these “dumb” places into interactive meaningful places enable commuters, residents and visitors to receive hyper-contextualized, proximity-based, relevant notifications tied to proximity services and businesses, transport and cultural information on their mobile devices.

Private and public entities can then engage with people in real time while they’re riding on a train or waiting at a bus stop and collect data on the traffic in the cities. Government agencies, schools and public safety officials can generate alerts with relevant up-to-the-minute information about a broken water main on Main Street that is affecting traffic patterns, businesses, schools and homes in the area.

In Austin, Tex., the Austin CityUP (ACUP) Consortium has launched a project to use technology, data and analytics to improve city services, infrastructure, policies and quality of life. That includes using the city’s mass transit system as a real-time news and information delivery service. The first step is creating an open beacon network as part of the Smart 2nd Street Project, a busy shopping, dining and entertainment district. ACUP has installed IoT devices (beacons, sensors, etc.) throughout a five-block section of 2nd Street, with plans to expand throughout the city.

Data is collected and analyzed on a wide range of activities and interactions, such as pedestrian and vehicle traffic, sound levels and air quality. This data will help project and city leaders identify safety issues, mass transit ridership, pedestrian traffic and opportunities to improve quality of life.

Developers and their public sector partners can look outside the U.S. for examples to follow. For instance, officials in the City of Barcelona have created a massive network of sensors that constantly collects and disseminates information citywide. It launched the Connected City mobile service in Europe, creating a network of 5,000 city points of interest (i.e., tourist attractions and bus stops). Residents and visitors use their mobile devices to access real-time, hyper-contextualized information related to transport and nearby city points of interest.

One key takeaway for developers is how important it is that a smart city’s network be trustable for everyone. That is why app developers should expect municipal officials to only partner with developers and systems integrators that ensure user data protection across all mobile devices and across the city to ensure their residents can use the connected places, control and share their data, and will more easily scale as additional smart services are implemented city-wide.

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