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Location Intelligence And GIS Are Essential Component Of Smart City Initiatives, And Smart Transportation

When you think of smart city, the first thing that comes to mind is the well-managed, well-serviced transportation system where the traffic flow is smooth, mobility is high, and daily commute around the city is a zip.

But that is still a dream in most cities across the world. Experts in this area predict that transport agencies around the region are at risk of losing a valuable opportunity to transform network planning and the daily commute because they fail to recognize the value that location-based analysis and big data can bring to transportation and traffic management.

Terry Bills, international smart transport specialist with location-based analytics giant Esri, says that the transport sector’s greatest untapped resource – the Big Data collected every day from GPS devices, smartphone apps and electronic ticketing – is often underutilized because of uncertainty over how to translate the raw information into meaningful insights.

But if the transport agencies are able to translate the data, life will be easier and the cities smarter. In fact Bills, Global Transportation Industry Manager, Esri tells HPC Asia how location-based analytics can be used to map and analyse Big Data, and reveal previously hidden blind spots in transportation trends and traffic patterns that will enable better network planning and management.

What are the greatest challenges that transport sector in the region facing today? 

 By 2050, 66% of the world’s population will live in cities. By 2030, the world is projected to have 41 mega cities with over 10 million inhabitants. The challenge for most cities will be how to accommodate the future population growth, while redesigning our cities to become more livable, more sustainable, and how to enrich the lives of their citizens.  And we will have to devise better ways to transport those individuals to their homes and jobs, and how to facilitate greater mobility in our urban areas.

 At the same time that we see these large demographic changes, people’s travel patterns are also changing rapidly.  We have new transportation providers emerging (Uber, Lyft, new car sharing arrangements, bike rental companies etc.) and these are all having a significant impact on the way people travel.  There are new ways of approaching mobility (we now speak of mobility as a service) and so the transport sector is rapidly changing.  Given these rapid changes, it is difficult for government agencies to understand how they need to prepare for the future. Our future transport systems are likely to be more complex, and will be mixtures of many different providers, both public and private.

 What kind of smart technologies will help them in becoming future ready, as the city planners take up smart city projects seriously?

Governments will need to understand the changes in travel patterns, and how to marshal a wide range of new technologies to help them meet these challenges.  Intelligent transportation systems (ITS) are rapidly evolving, and these systems can provide one avenue to help government agencies plan for the future.  In the past, we have often considered our transportation systems separately: one agency dealt with the roadways, another dealt with buses, and often a third which handled metros and urban train systems.  We now need to look at how we can optimize these systems as a whole, to create the most effective integrated transportation networks that can accommodate the growing demands on our transportation system.

Secondly, big data and spatial analytics will be critical in helping planners understand rapidly changing travel patterns.  We have an explosion in new data sources, everything from cell phone data to social media data that can be mined to better understand new travel patterns and how travel behavior is changing.  But most government agencies are still struggling to understand how to analyze a wealth of new data sources, and how it can help them gain new insights, and how it can help them better plan the systems of the future.

We think there are a series of characteristics that define a smart city: they are taking advantage of the ability to capture a wide range of “sensor” information to help them optimize their existing systems, and build the next generation of optimization algorithms; they are using the latest technologies to help them redesign their urban systems – what we call geodesign, and involves the integration of new 3D technologies with integrated models; and finally, they are finding more effective ways of engaging with their citizens, and bringing new levels of transparency to their decision making processes.  In each of those areas, geospatial technology is a critical element in their ability to take advantage of these new technologies.

How can these agencies use Big Data and real-time data to solve some of the traffic issues that cities face today?

The ability to optimize our signal control systems (what we call adaptive signal control) is dependent on having continuously updated real time traffic information.  We at Esri are working with a number of companies that are able to access real time cell phone data to monitor real time speed information for every street. In addition, we have partners that can take the standard traffic camera feed, and generate real time lane level traffic counts and speed information from those camera feeds.  Together this type of information can be used to develop real time traffic monitoring systems which can allow us to use this information for the next generation adaptive signal control systems.  This is just one example of the ways that our transportation agencies can use big data to help us address traffic issues.

Our transportation agencies can also use big data analysis to help them better manage today’s traffic.  For example, if I understand what happened to traffic during a major storm, or if I analyze several years of special event data, and its impact on traffic (both scenarios require the analysis of real time traffic information captured over a number of years), then I can understand how I can better respond to similar events in the future. The same holds true with understanding how to be more effective in incident (crash) management.

Finally, real time information on our public transport systems can be used to better inform the public, and thus help make public transport a more desirable option for many commuters.  By providing reliable information about schedules and the actual location (and arrival information) of our public transport systems, we can use technology to help make public transport more accessible and desirable, and thus reduce congestion.

What is location-based analytics? How does this help in improving commuter experience?

The real power of GIS and location intelligence is its ability to help us visualize and analyse complex information, and to derive new insights that help us to better manage our transportation systems.  Whether this involves the next generation of traffic management systems, or providing the latest public transport information to commuters on their phones, it is the power of knowing where that gives us greater real time knowledge.  Location intelligence and GIS is an essential component of smart city initiatives, and smart transportation.

While countries like Singapore is on a fast track to adopt smart city technologies, what is your understanding of the Indian traffic sector scenario?

India certainly has significant challenges in terms of building effective transportation systems, but also great potential as well.  There is certainly a wealth of engineering and IT talent in India, which could be effectively marshalled to build the latest generation smart city systems.  I have seen cities in the Middle East that have been able to leverage the latest technologies, and quickly implement them to build world class transportation systems.  India certainly has the same capability, but it does require dedicated focus and commitment to achieve.

The country has a vast network of roads, and chaotic traffic situations in the metro cities, what is your advice to the transport agencies here? What kind of smart technologies should they start looking at adopting as a first step?

We need to start by thinking about transportation holistically, and not just as individual systems.  Good public transport systems are a key necessity, but they need to be focused on providing reliable and customer focused service.  For example, the public transport agencies in the Nordic region all meet several times a year, to share information on how they can continuously improve their service, and improve customer satisfaction.  Customer satisfaction is their highest goal, and they spend a great deal of time focused on those performance metrics.  As a result, they have very reliable and efficient public transport systems.

Similarly on the roadway side, there needs to be a strong commitment to not only implementing the latest traffic control technologies, but also to following good asset management practices.  As the former Director of a US State Department of Transportation used to say: “Good Roads Cost Less.”  What he meant by that is if you properly maintain your roadways over time, the total cost is much lower and you are able to preserve your assets over a much longer period of time at lower cost.  Taking that approach constitutes a change of thinking, and a new commitment to doing it the right way.

In each of these areas, there is a wealth of available technologies to assist transportation professionals in achieving their goals.  The key is ensuring that we use technology effectively and smartly.  Many public transport agencies that I am familiar with have acquired a large number of disparate systems to help them manage their operations, but those individual systems rarely communicate with each other, so these agencies are rarely able to take full advantage of the information that these systems are collecting.  At the same time, it is really through the use of good information that these agencies could improve their service.  By bringing together this information, these agencies could better plan, deliver, and continuously improve their performance and service delivery.

So I think the key message is that just as important as understanding the latest technologies, it is equally important that we understand the business process changes that must accompany them.  Understanding the critical importance of good data and information, to help guide our decisions is critical.  Technology, processes, and the people implementing them must all be in sync to be successful in our smart cities initiatives.

Bio: Terry Bills, Global Transportaion Industry Manager, Esri is an expert in GIS and location-based analytics expert. He is responsible for managing the transportation infrastructure segment projects in the organisation. He helps transportation agencies across the world to use latest technologies like Big Data analytics, GIS, Location-based analytics to become ‘Smarter’ organisations. He has over 25 years of experience in transportation planning and policy, IT and GIS.

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