Better Living Through Big Data


Cities are using sensor networks and data analytics from tasks ranging from monitoring water quality to making parking easier.

You're on the hunt for a parking space in San Francisco's south of Market neighborhood. Instead of aimlessly driving from block to block looking for a free space, you take out your smartphone, fire up the SFpark app, and see a detailed map of available spaces.

Once you ease your car into a space, you use the same app to pay for your parking. And you are charged at a rate that has been computed to maintain a balance of supply and demand in park.

This is the world of big data in action, the analytical use of the flood of information that today's technology can generate to improve everything from medical diagnoses to the delivery of municipal services. Cities around the world, often in partnership with technology companies, are using big data to improve efficiency at a time of constrained finances.

SFpark depends on sensors the size of hockey pucks buried beneath 8,200 parking spaces in several San Francisco neighborhoods. A combination of networks, servers, and software let the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency create real-time maps of available space.

The data is also used to set prices, at least in a modest way. "It gives us a real-time inventory data," says Jay Nath, the city's chief innovation officer. "It gives us the ability to change pricing on a monthly basis to meet our objective of one to two free spaces per block." The monthly adjustments can take prices up by a maximum of 25 cents per hour or down by 50 cents. Of course, the system could potentially be used much more aggressively, with more frequent responses to demand. This map shows the pricing changes in one neighborhood in March.

But data driven government efforts are breaking out literally all over the world. Schools in Vittoria da Conquista, Brazil, are equipping uniforms with RFID chips, the same technology that allows EZ-pass automated toll collection on highways. Sensors detect students' presence when they show up at school. And if they don't show up within 20 minutes of the starting bell, parents are sent a text to notify them of the absence.

In Valencia, Spain, a partnership of the Instituto Technológico de Informatica, the Polytechnic University of of Valencia, and telecoms provider Telefónica is building a quick deployment wireless sensor network that will monitor the quality of water in the city's distribution system in real time.  The system will track eight different measurements of water quality and can detect problems ranging from contamination to the incipient failure of pumps.

In Guadalajara, Mexico's second-largest city, IBM is partnering with the University of Guadalajara to combine high-performance computing, sensors, analytics, and web services to provide real-time forecasting of vehicle behavior, which is sent to drivers on wireless mobile devices. One key objective is to use the system to improve traffic flow in a major north-south corridor where traveling 17 km (10 miles) now takes over an hour.

London is counting on real-time data analytics to keep the city from falling into gridlock during this summer's Olympic games. For example, a wireless sensor-based real-time traffic management system will be used to prioritize traffic lights to keep buses moving. Sensors on buses will talk to units on traffic lights to turn the lights green as the vehicle approaches. (Cisco will provide the network infrastructure for the games themselves.)

Big data won't solve the myriad problems of the planet's cities. But it definitely can contribute to making life better.

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About Steve Wildstrom @swildstrom

Steve Wildstrom was a veteran technology journalist who wrote the Technology & You column at BusinessWeek.