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Smart maps using smart technology will form the basis of our smart cities

Smart maps using smart technology will form the basis of our smart cities

Today's maps have moved on from merely depicting land zoning and land-use to actually efficiently deciding & allocating zones and uses. And they have gone on to making the management of public works like roads, street furniture and transport into active mode from the passive.

Nirav Shah
A decade ago, we thought of maps as little more than a handy tool to identify and locate places with. They had very limited scope to give us any additional information and were peripheral to the needs of the city administrator; largely serving as a decorative item on his or her office wall. Today these administrators of yore would be astonished to learn that maps are now an integral part of city governance, not just a wall hanging that needs to be only occasionally glanced at or referred to.  

Nowadays, maps support all government functions in real-time, right from managing utilities like water, electricity and gas, and all the way to ensuring total public safety; by assisting police officials in fighting crime, the fire department in handling accidents, and even assisting citizens during natural or man-made disasters. Today's maps have moved on from merely depicting land zoning and land-use to actually efficiently deciding & allocating zones and uses. And they have gone on to making the management of public works like roads, street furniture and transport into active mode from the passive.

The technology behind these intelligent maps is Geographical Information System, better known the world over by its acronym, GIS. GIS uses satellite imagery and remote sensing technologies to build layered maps that help organisations and administrations plan, implement, and operate tasks in a smart and efficient way. Today, many cities across the world are using these GIS maps to manage their day to day tasks in real time. We call these cities Smart Cities, though in most cases we have little idea why we are calling them so.

A smart city in its true sense is a transparent organisation that provides superior and reliable services to its citizens through performance-oriented governance, which basically means allowing officials to make informed decisions faster and without having to hide anything. When a government is committed to reliability with transparency, efficiency becomes a way of life. GIS technology allows all aspects of city governance to be weaved into an integrated hub of information allowing various departments to talk, not only to each other, but to its citizens as well. Let's take a closer look at some aspects of improved governance that this technology can facilitate.

Most of us in India face a situation of daily water shortages and power outages. A smart city plans for smarter utilities that not only minimise losses but ensure on-demand, adequate and timely supply. For example, by installing GIS enabled smart water meters at GIS determined locations, officials can analyse water usage in specific areas and compare that with their water input, pin point leakages - intentional or otherwise, and address those in almost real time. There is a reason why the US average water wastage is just 5 per cent while in India it is currently estimated to be between 30-40 per cent!

An example of a smart city at work is Peoria in Illinois, which uses GIS as a fire fighting tool. Initially, when word of a fire came in on 911, a fire engine would simply be dispatched to the location. Once there, the firemen would sometimes find that they did not have the right fire engine because the building was too tall. Or they would connect their hoses to a hydrant, but water pressure in that hydrant wasn't sufficient for the size of the fire they were fighting. Now, the GIS solution allows them to see beforehand what type of equipment would be required and even to check the water pressure in the nearest hydrants, all before dashing off to fight the fire.

Similarly, in the case of Disaster Preparedness & Management, GIS tools provide vital information to emergency managers & responders such as hospital capacity, school rooms available as temporary shelters, capacity & storage in water tanks, water available in lakes, the availability of generators and even the number and location of civil volunteers.

And from the point of view of public safety, GIS maps are ideal for identifying crime hotspots, lonely & desolate areas and the like, which in turn helps the police to modify their patrolling schedules and boost their presence & visibility at certain locations.

GIS maps help the public works department to efficiently maintain roads, drains and all manner of street architecture from kiosks to shelters. And the technology also allows City Officials to eliminate guesswork & favouritism and use only objective analysis for such vital tasks as the division and allocation of land parcels and the laying down of zoning regulations.

GIS does not only involve one-way traffic from city govt. to citizen. The technology allows officials to provide apps and websites where citizens can report crimes, potholes on streets, issues with water quality, garbage pick-up and so on thus making for a city administration that is truly interactive, responsive and transparent.

GIS is not a stranger to India, but in the area of city governance it is deployed and implemented in silos. This causes duplication, multiplicity of effort and sheer wastage. For example, a road is laid and then after some time a trench is dug across it to lay a cable. The trench is patchily restored but now it's the turn of the water department to lay a pipe under the road. And so on. GIS would have enabled the one time laying of all utilities under that road before it was made or repaired.

However, the silver lining is that India's Smart Cities project seeks to implement GIS and other enabling technologies in a big way. The right technologies will lead to better & faster decisions in our cities, which will in turn boost the standings of the administration that is in place and perhaps finally, we will be able to choose our elected representatives on the basis of their performance and not just their personality!

The author is President of EI Technologies, US