Taking citizen services to the next level

Geographic information system is providing a new paradigm to citizen service and safety

gaurav-sharma

Gaurav Sharma | August 21, 2015



Increasingly governments worldwide as well as in India are focused on providing citizen services and safety in the most seamless manner that can assist in development. The other name to this can be given as smart cities. An important aspect however remains the reach and coverage of government systems to the masses.

While in the past, physical limitations (number of personnel or vehicles) used to define how well the government can perform, in the digital era it’s the efficient use of technology that proves to be a differentiator at times between a developed nation and a developing nation. For these citizen services to work seamlessly we need the citizens themselves to be engaged and included in the functioning of the service. For instance, the way we find our destination and route via Google Maps, why can't an application integrated with maps be used to inform municipal authorities about the exact location of a pothole or an open sewer?

Today, the world of GIS or geographic information systems can make this happen and give citizen service and safety, a new paradigm. These are technological tools that can show the geospatial information in the form of a map visually in a 2D or a 3D format and comprises a complete system of hardware, software, people, data and information processing systems for the purpose.

GIS has evolved over a period of time. In the first wave of GIS was limited to the standalone GIS applications running on a computer for analysis. The second wave arrived with the internet getting popular and web-based GIS allowing accessibility of GIS applications through remote devices. The third wave is the one that can really take the services to the next level with spatial data that can be overlaid on applications through application programming interface (API). This is what enables most of the developed nations to provide effective citizen services and safety round the clock. For example, in some cities, administration and cops regularly use maps for traffic via citizen applications that are updated every 3-5 minutes on real time basis. These are further integrated with the artificial intelligence to estimate traffic flow on streets to avoid congestion.

We talk of smart cities and the most important basis for it is planning. GIS data can very well be utilised in the smart cities projects to not only plan the future use of land and appearance of places but also material considerations or in the best case, where development should take place.

GIS can be utilised in a variety of ways for citizen services. A general app based/web interface that can be used by the general public to submit service requests in their respective areas. Here the important point to consider is that before the authorities, it’s the common man who gets to know of a sewer problem or potholes and hence an inclusive reporting on app using GIS data can alert the authorities. Thus,  instead of scanning the entire area for the anomaly, they can concentrate on the anomaly to have it rectified on time. This can be integrated with automated systems to provide status reports, give traffic information and can be used as an information system as well which would act as one of the fundamental pillars of any smart city.

Going digital

The digital revolution has provided us with a smart way that can submit requests from any device (smartphone, tablet or a PC) and hence the ease of use and mobility can be utilised most effectively. It's not only the citizens who will benefit out of such a service but the authorities as well since they don’t have to keep on scanning the area for potholes. The precise information would reach them and can save time and money (which if multiplied for over a year, would run into millions of dollars) along with reducing the carbon footprint from their vehicles.
The other use could be for transit information or our day-to-day travel. We use Google/Bing maps today but if we go one step higher, can we not have the same integrated with the municipal systems to get beforehand information if there is a pothole somewhere or there is a procession on the way on some particular road or maybe just the incident/accident or traffic condition reporting that can be utilised in real time to avoid/manage congestion or to save a life.

A smart city concept is based on the fact that we are able to analyse real time situations and be able to respond; either to prevent or to react to them. An important component of any such model would be to locate and to be able to reach that location as soon as possible which can only be made possible if GIS data is used in real time to map data from other departments or places.

GIS data is also being utilised in weather forecasting and recently started getting used for more effective warning systems (of a natural catastrophe). In addition to this the weather information is used for inclusive planning or dissemination of information to the community like the farmers. At present it is being done with a limitation of a one way dialogue. However, efforts are on to make it a two way dialogue to have more citizen inclusion.

Public safety and security remains our biggest worry indeed and GIS can very well help reduce some of the issues associated with it. While we see some applications utilising the GIS data and providing with an emergency button to send out the location and then hoping for a response (some of the taxi apps also now have the same), it really needs to be integrated to our emergency response systems and police control rooms to be able to respond and act quickly on it.

The commercial use of such GIS systems (resulting in ease of use for various services) into taxi based apps, medical services and food delivery is already taking shape and form to be utilised beyond tier I cities now. The question however remains that if we have both the GIS data and the technical (digital) capability to integrate it, why are we still lagging in effectively utilising it?

The answer to that can be found in various ways. One way of looking at it is the silo approach from various government departments wherein over a period of time, they are sitting on a heap of information and department specific systems that are neither integrated nor are being given up due to fear of losing control. While government does utilise GIS information in a big way (weather information or census data mapping), the need is to have citizen inclusion as the next step that can help them utilise the citizen workforce and map various uses outlined above.

The capability of our systems also needs to be enhanced so as to be able to visualise, analyse and interpret data in various shapes and forms and to be able to help authorities with patterns and trends that can result in a new wave of citizen services as well as result in cost and time savings on both sides. Integration of systems at the backend and analysis of data remain to be the aspects that need to be looked upon. Apart from the technical aspects, the human element needs the attention as always. Right people with the right skill would be needed to guarantee a success as well as make the GIS project work more than just a bunch of "good to have" applications. Personnel on the ground would need training as well as motivation to be able to respond effectively in this new manner via digital tools. Traditionally, our municipal and other systems have been designed to work in a specific way and the use of this integrated technology is surely going to disrupt those ways and demand more responsiveness, urge and capability than before. Smart cities need smart systems that are intelligent enough to complement existing systems and data with a next level service guarantee.

Today, municipalities and police departments around the world are (have started) utilising the GIS data to make everyone's life easier and better. We are also fortunate to have various initiatives from the current government in the smart cities arena with the same commitment. GIS can prove to be the panacea that can help us to have a better standard of living and respond to situations better.

(The column appears in the August 1-15, 2015 issue)

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