By Jim Dobbs

Urban theorist Jane Jacobs called cities “problems in organized complexity.” Consider Jacobs’s example of a public park: a park’s use depends on its design, its design depends on potential use, and its potential use, in turn, depends on access and other factors outside the park. The relationships are complex and interconnected, and a change to one ultimately affects all. Cities are, essentially, a system of systems.

Around the world, those systems are under increasing pressure. In late 2011, Earth’s population reached seven billion. Much of that growth has been and will continue to be in cities. The United Nations estimates that 70 per cent of the world population will live in cities by 2050. This massive influx will strain public services and city infrastructure. Completely replacing old infrastructure, for example, is unrealistic. Instead, better management and maintenance through technology—such as the effort to transform cities into technology-led smart cities—may be the best solution.

“The goal is to get information in real time and to use this information in order to increase the quality of life, reduce environmental impact, and increase the efficiency of city services,” said Pilar Conesa, director of the Smart Cities World Congress and former chief information officer of the City of Barcelona in Spain.

The first step in the process—to covert the city into a system of systems from an information-technology (IT) perspective—is to establish a firm foundation. For municipalities, that foundation starts with geospatial data. A geospatial platform places all other data in a real-world physical and visual context. “Geospatial information is key because all this other information we’re collecting—on roads, public transportation routes, sewer systems, smart meters, et cetera—has to be shown on the map,” Conesa said.

The geospatial foundation
Spatial information is the basis for a city’s core operational systems and, ultimately, for the services they provide. A strong geospatial foundation helps cities better manage their assets and the thousands of incidents that occur each day. Cities are building this system of systems in stages and in ways that fit their circumstances. One example is the City of Edmonton—one of the first cities to convert all its data to digital format, making that transformation in the 1970s.

In order to obtain fast and reliable access to asset and infrastructure information, Edmonton developed a central repository for geographic information systems (GIS) data: the Spatial Land Inventory Management (SLIM) application. The SLIM application manages a vast amount of location-based information, including registered parcels of property, zoning boundaries, roads, transit lines, utility infrastructure, and the conditions of parks, sidewalks, and cemeteries.

With this foundation in place, the city has geospatially enabled its departments to perform tasks faster and smarter using map-based data. In doing so, the data becomes operational, as part of workflows tied to specific challenges, like infrastructure planning and public safety.

Better planning, safer roads
For example, spatial analysis is central to the city’s effort to improve traffic safety. Edmonton created an Office of Traffic Safety in 2006, the first municipal traffic safety office in North America. On average, Edmonton experiences 25,000 traffic collisions each year, which cost more than $500 million annually. The goal of the traffic safety office is to reduce traffic fatalities and injuries.

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The traffic safety office processes, analyzes, and reports traffic safety data, such as collisions, traffic volume, road geometry, and more, in order to identify spatial patterns and target locations best suited for safety improvement. Leveraging the SLIM application, the office enters police collision reports into a database and geo-codes the information, using street names to create unique reference points. “With a solid geo-coding structure, it becomes easy to create maps based on collision frequency,” GIS analyst Brandt Denham said. “It gives us a quick and easy way to understand where the worst areas are.”

By understanding collision frequency, the city can then perform advanced statistical and spatial analysis, integrating traffic volume, road characteristics, speed data, and collision locations. The result is a performance index, which provides a measure of how a specific location is performing compared to other locations. Locations are then ranked and mapped based on their potential for improvement.

For example, the office determined that a section of a street was experiencing 55 per cent more collisions than expected. Analysis revealed that peak shopping periods at a local mall created high traffic volume. When combined with multiple parking lot entrances, this situation resulted in collisions based on drivers following others too closely.

The traffic safety office also manages photo radar and intersection safety sensors as part of automated traffic safety enforcement. Vehicles equipped with photo radar are parked at regular, spatially locatable sites, while sensors are installed at fixed locations at intersections throughout the city.

Based on this data, the office can map high-risk locations and can even identify unsafe drivers. These approaches help the city “allocate limited resources to where they will make the biggest impact,” Denham said.

In addition to improving safety, collision reduction also affects the city’s bottom line by saving money at multiple levels. Since 2006, the office’s efforts to reduce collisions have resulted in more than $780 million in savings.

Quicker emergency response
The geospatial foundation and connectivity between systems also aids in the safety of the public and city infrastructure. Edmonton uses a “one city” approach—where municipal public safety organizations share spatial data and a common map.

For example, Edmonton Fire Rescue Services (EFRS) provides fire suppression and rescue, as well as hazardous material cleanup. Since immediate response is critical to protecting lives and property, the demand for accurate, reliable, and faster routing and dispatch is high.

The agency’s computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system, the core of public safety operations, is integrated with the SLIM database. This allows municipal GIS datasets to be configured into the CAD system to improve dispatch and routing to incident locations. Using a common map view, responders can quickly and easily share information about emergency events. “As a city, we are expanding in all four directions at the same time, and that puts a lot of strain on service,” Edmonton deputy fire chief Graeme Hubbick said. “Getting that geospatial information out to our crews is vital.”

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Edmonton Fire Rescue’s CAD system also automatically shares electronic dispatch notifications with Alberta Health Services, an organization responsible for delivering health care and EMS in the city and province. The fire dispatch system notifies Alberta Health Services when a fire event requires emergency medical support, while the EMS dispatch system notifies the fire agency when a medical event requires fire rescue assistance.

Jim Garland, executive director of Alberta Health Services, said this system-to-system communication is critically important: “One of the concerns the communities had was that we were going to dispatch ambulances and then—after we got to it—we would dispatch fire and police when required. This technology allows seamless real-time dispatching of resources at the same time.”

Possessing accurate map data and improving emergency routing ensures the continued success of Edmonton Fire Rescue’s Quick Accept system. The CAD system enables the agency to create a “Quick Accept” for emergency calls, which dispatches units while the emergency call-taker is still on the phone taking information and feeding data to the field units using mobile technology.

Dispatch teams can share pre-incident planning information, such as road closures and out-of-service hydrants. This information is placed in the CAD common map, so response teams can arrive on the scene faster and receive and update emergency events at the scene in their vehicles. The CAD system, integrated with current municipal GIS data, is bringing the agency closer to its goal of being on-scene within four minutes of a fire truck leaving the station.

“The Quick Accept process alone has already shortened EFRS response times by at least 30 seconds,” Hubbick said.

More efficient public transportation
This efficiency extends to the city’s public transit system, which is under increasing demands for additional services. Edmonton Transit System consists of more than 900 buses, 74 light rail trains, and 21 kilometers of track. It uses a similar CAD system for response—integrated with the SLIM database—as the city’s fire, police, and emergency medical organizations. Since the transit agency has additional responsibility for transit security, its CAD system is linked to a network of security cameras, alarms, and public emergency telephones. Edmonton’s system was Canada’s first integrated transportation security system.

The agency combines geospatial data with incident reports to detect patterns. It can see, for example, when incidents increase near a particular bus stop or light-rail terminal, and thus deploy more security officers in that area. The division is even starting to apply predictive analysis.

“We use geospatial referencing, for example, to deploy our resources in the most effective fashion,” Ron Gabruck, Edmonton Transit’s director of safety and security, said. Every safety and security incident is catalogued, including time and location. This information is put into an algorithm to produce a “hot spot” map. “Instead of random patrols, we know that—at a certain time and at a certain location—we’re likely to be busy based on our experience. Why not go there from the beginning and fend off [potential incidents] in a more proactive fashion?” he said.

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In addition to public safety, the system also ensures the safety of transit personnel by tracking their location. By integrating with automatic vehicle location technologies, it knows when they are dispatched, when they arrive, and where they are located.

Beyond safety and security, the CAD system is also central to core transportation system operations. Edmonton Transit uses it to ensure reliability of service, including bus fleet dispatching and maintenance. “If a bus breaks down, we now have a means of tracking that and identifying what the problem is,” Gabruck said. “Less bus breakdowns equal more reliability in service and lead to happier customers.”

The management and analysis of this spatial and temporal incident data helps Edmonton Transit make its operations more cost-effective, Gabruck said. “Time of dispatch. Time of arrival. Time on scene. This all helps me when I’m making business decisions to bring on extra resourcing, for example. I have a business case based on actual data that I can use.”

Further innovation
The improved services and lower costs enabled by common geospatial data and improved workflow management is only the beginning. Building on that foundation, Edmonton delivers additional solutions across its municipal agencies, incorporating enterprise data management, data visualization, 3D analyses, cloud computing, business intelligence, and more. And with the explosion of mobile devices—where everyone can become a data-collecting sensor—officials are extending operational systems into the field by putting more capabilities into the hands of employees.

One of Edmonton’s projects is a smart planning effort that allows city workers and officials to track the condition of assets at more than 460 parks. Using a rugged tablet computer coupled with GIS software, Parks Branch personnel can capture, report, analyze, and share data on benches, children’s playground equipment, picnic areas, and other assets in real time. With this information, the department can prioritize and improve maintenance in the largest expanse of urban parkland in North America.

Building from a strong geospatial foundation, cities like Edmonton can empower various municipal departments to better connect with residents through more dynamic capabilities. The end result for citizens is more accessible, reliable, and responsive services.

“The crews on the road and in the field—that’s what they are interested in. They’re interested in doing the best they can to provide services to their patients,” Garland said.

As Jane Jacobs noted, cities are complex, but not disorganized. By using data more effectively—to see, understand, and act—cities are becoming smarter every day.


Jim Dobbs is executive manager, global communications, at Intergraph Security, Government & Infrastructure.




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