Singapore’s ‘city brain’ project is groundbreaking -- but what about privacy?

Aggregating data on traffic, weather, government and elder services aims to make citizens' lives better -- but potentially less private

You've read about cities installing smart parking meters and noise- and air-quality sensors, but are you ready to embrace the idea of a city brain?

The residents of Singapore are on track to do just that.

Creating a centralized dashboard view of sensors deployed across a distributed network is nothing new, but it takes on a bigger -- perhaps ominous -- meaning when deployed across a major city.

Many technologically advanced cities worldwide are exploring ways to build such comprehensive digital views for managing traffic and parking, monitoring water and air quality, and offering such citizen-facing services as web-based tools for interacting with government agencies. Some smart city experts call this system approach a "city brain" or, less glamorously, a "municipal backplane."

Such a setup could be used as a "command and control" center for city infrastructure or as a better way to manage data across disparate agencies and make planning decisions. A municipality, for example, could use aggregated data from sensors to justify a subway expansion or other long-term infrastructure improvements in a 10-year or even a 50-year planning pipeline.

Computerworld's Smart Cities video tour - Singapore [December 2016] Ogilvy Public Relations, Singapore

Singapore aims to improve the lives of citizens living in the crowded city-state by aggregating data on weather, traffic, healthcare and more. 

Computerworld recently traveled to Singapore, already one of the smartest cities in the world, to check on developments as it begins to build out the concept of a city brain as part of what it terms its Smart Nation Platform. The small, very densely developed island nation of 5.4 million residents will be closely watched in its city brain efforts by other municipalities vying for the smart city moniker.

A "national operating system" for 100 million objects

In theory, a city brain could be used by municipal administrators to check on a wide variety of conditions detected by millions of low-cost wireless sensors measuring roadway congestion, water pressure, air pollution, crowds at bus stops, smelly garbage cans, snow on the streets, torrential flooding, the health of elderly shut-ins and more.

The data would be presented, under most scenarios, on a single console. Cisco, for example, recently revealed it is working with 10 cities, including Paris and Copenhagen, on that type of approach.

Behind that single console view would be the secret sauce: artificial intelligence and analytics applied to data from different silos.

A city's traffic management system, perhaps years old, could be matched, sliced and diced with air pollution readings running in a separate silo, for example. Such a system could be set to permit the most congested traffic artery associated with the worst pollution to be freed up by giving green lights to the cars that are waiting the longest and are pumping out the most carbon dioxide pollutants.

However, the state of the art with city brain technology is not yet that advanced. Most city officials would be happy simply to be able to monitor what's going on in disparate areas of a big metropolis more or less in real time, instead of waiting days or weeks to hear about conditions from various public works department heads.

Janil Puthucheary

Janil Puthucheary

"We want [a city brain] of public sector data to do analysis," says Janil Puthucheary, Singapore's minister of state for communications, information and education. "We're already doing that with a number of platforms and opening logjams. Some of that existing data is driving our decisions, but we need [processes] to be shortened."

Vivian Balakrishnan is the official charged with making that happen.

Balakrishnan, Singapore's minister for foreign affairs and the minister in charge of its smart-nation initiatives, intends to create a "national operating system for 100 million smart objects" in the next five years. That would include every smart traffic light and lamppost and every sensor and camera, Balakrishnan says.

It may also include the estimated 5 million smartphones carried by Singaporeans, which are "leaking data," as Balakrishnan puts it. That data could include GPS info to help detect crowds at bus stops to signal the need for more buses. Such data would be kept anonymous and used with the consent of users, in line with Singapore's privacy laws, say Balakrisnan and other Singapore officials.

Singapore is further along than many other cities in its city brain approach partly because of its network capabilities -- it recently finished installing gigabit fiber optic broadband cable that passes any home or business that wants to connect to it. The city's redundant broadband network is the envy of many cities, especially those in the U.S. that are now struggling to provide fast backhaul to support connections to Wi-Fi access points and a plethora of wireless sensors in an internet of things scenario.

Ultimately, Singapore will create a system to "analyze that data and create actionable steps," according to Balakrishnan's vision, which he described in a keynote earlier this year at a technology conference called InnovFest unBound.

Here's a look at some of the pilot and in-progress programs that could be rolled into Singapore's city brain as it evolves.

Traffic

The benefits of a city brain may have the greatest impact in alleviating traffic. In Singapore, there is already an elaborate system of highway gateways, called gantries, that communicate wirelessly with transponders inside cars to charge drivers for entering congested downtown areas at busy hours.

The city is in the process of connecting cars using GPS information, giving drivers real-time advice on the least-congested route to take. Drivers will be dinged financially if they don't heed the advice, and be rewarded if they do.

The newer system will be more granular than today's gantry system, going beyond major arteries to include secondary roads. In theory, the system could also be used to guide driverless vehicles down the least-crowded roads. The underlying purpose of these changes is clear: The city wants to discourage driving and promote the use of mass transit.

"Being able to optimize the traffic flow holistically, combined with smart parking across a larger metropolitan cluster, will achieve environmental savings and reduce commute times," notes Carl Piva, vice president of strategic programs at the TM Forum, a nonprofit that works with smart city initiatives globally. One of the Forum's missions is to help cities create a tech environment where companies can innovate smart technology and where residents can become smart users and collaborators.

With a sophisticated traffic-management system, some big-time computer processing power will be involved. The system would potentially compare weather conditions with traffic, urging cars to divert travel away from an impending thunderstorm, for example. (Pop-up thunderstorms are commonplace in Singapore, and the impact of larger storms can also be devastating and deadly to both Singapore and other Asia-Pacific countries.)

Weather

IBM has worked in the past with Singapore's environmental agency to compare weather and moisture data with intelligence about its omnipresent high-rise housing to help predict outbreaks of Dengue fever, a mosquito-borne virus that causes severe illness and death in tropical countries.

Now, IBM expects its purchase of weather.com and other digital assets from The Weather Co., finalized earlier this year, to prove valuable to many cities, including Singapore.

Computerworld's Smart Cities video tour - Singapore [December 2016] IDG.tv

Singapore's "city brain" project aims to connect weather data with traffic information, diverting cars away from an impending thunderstorm, for example.

"IBM bought [weather.com] on the premise that everything is affected by the weather, but almost nobody has integrated that data into their business and government systems," says IBM's Tim Greisinger, vice president of cognitive solutions for 10 Southeast Asian countries, including Singapore. "Weather data can give you advance notice for emergency management, like safety from mud slides, or to alert charitable crisis support."

Government info

IBM also is currently using its Watson cognitive technology with two government agencies -- the Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore and the Ministry of Manpower -- to let residents search those agencies' websites via text online. They can ask questions about anything from pensions to permits without the need to know where to go on the government's various websites to start asking questions.

This approach, called a "no wrong door policy," aims to make it easier to navigate the government bureaucracy. IBM's goal is to help Singpore expand this cognitive approach across all 60 of its agencies.

Elder services and education

A city brain could also be used to coordinate results from a variety of pilot smart city projects. For example, Changi General Hospital in Singapore has a technology research branch that is testing the use of sensors in homes of elderly people. These sensors can tell how often doors open or close, how often a toilet is used, or even detect a loud sound, should someone fall or yell out.

Sensors in homes of the elderly alert only a doctor or a loved one at a remote location about an elderly person's condition. Officials said the alerts will not be added to a person's official electronic medical record, which include only entries made by a doctor.

But conceivably a city brain could aggregate anonymous data from the alerts to better detect patterns affecting health among the aging population. For example, if the alerts found that falls by the elderly were correlated with certain housing units, it could point to a fault with interior design or lighting or carpets. Or it might help detect a pattern for how a virus affecting patients' balance had spread.

That's not to say that real-time information wouldn't be as valuable, if not more so, Singaporean health officials say. If several people in the same apartment building collapsed at the same time, first responders would know to look for smoke or another immediate hazard.

Computerworld's Smart Cities video tour - Singapore [December 2016] IDG.tv

Singapore students learn coding and other tech skills at a very young age. Here, preschool students learn sequencing with the help of a robotic toy. 

On the other end of the spectrum, technology takes center stage in educating even the youngest Singaporean students. Preschools use robotic toys to introduce the concept of sequencing, a key building block in learning how to code. By the time they are 8 years old, many students are already working with junior programming languages and collaborating in groups to solve problems related to climate change and resource scarcity, prime considerations in Singapore.

Privacy of data is a priority

The example of sensors used in elderly housing has already set off concerns about data privacy and personal privacy -- issues facing every city that keeps information on citizens. Singapore passed a data privacy protection act nearly two years ago, which is considered fairly strict by privacy experts and could be a model for other cities. Municipalities as far away as Kansas City, Mo., are contemplating similar legislation.

One particular privacy worry is that cities will begin using video surveillance in outdoor areas. The goal is to track offensive behavior or illegal activities like car break-ins, but law-abiding bystanders are monitored as well. While residents in some cities like Atlanta have spoken out in favor of more video surveillance to help out in crime-ridden neighborhoods, privacy advocates have raised alarms in places like the City of London, which is heavily outfitted with video surveillance.

In many cities, officials are already saying that they plan to monitor crowds and individuals only by detecting shapes and sizes of crowds with video sensors, rather than using facial-recognition software to detect individual faces. Such data could help determine, for example, whether a crowd is so big that it would spill into the street, putting pedestrians or bus and auto drivers at risk. While the use of cameras to detect crowds is already commonplace, newer video sensors can use high-definition images that can recognize license plates, faces and other details.

Whatever city leaders say, however, it is obvious that as systems advance, a city brain could eventually be upgraded to be more or less intrusive on personal privacy, depending on the city's leadership at the time and the changing laws of the country (as happened recently in Turkey). The age-old question of trust in government comes into play.

"Of course, there will be loss of privacy or, worst case, the chance of data being hacked," says Jacqueline Heng of the highly centralized data stores used in city brains. "This is not just a Singapore problem; it's a global problem," says Heng, a Gartner analyst based in Singapore who studies smart city programs. Many of the technologies a person is likely to see at a smart city summit anywhere in the world -- intelligent cameras, facial recognition and vehicle identification, to name just a few -- can be invasive, she adds. "Any government must still enforce certain laws to prevent misuse."

Freedom House, a nonprofit organization that evaluates civil and political freedoms in more than 150 countries every year, found Singapore to be "partly free" in 2016, with a 19 out of 40 rating for political rights and a 32 out of 60 rating for civil liberties.

At issue: Trust

While many have considered Singapore's government authoritarian in the past, recent interviews with residents and business officials indicate those constituents believe the government today has a far greater awareness of the privacy rights of citizens. Heng adds, "Does the public expect -- and to some level trust -- the government to not misuse the data? Yes."

steve leonard

Steve Leonard

Minister Puthucheary says the government takes the trust of its citizens seriously. "Expectations are very high of the performance of government or a business here," he says. "That trust is earned, and we need to work hard to get that."

Steve Leonard, chief executive of SG-Innovate, a new government entity taking a multi-pronged approach to promoting Singapore's tech innovations, says "the protection of data and the privacy of each person is a very clear mandate." For example, there is a high level of attention being paid to protecting data related to a public genome research in Singapore that incorporates an abundance of sensitive private and public genome research, Leonard says.

Jacqueline Poh is the new CEO of the Government Technology Agency for Singapore, an umbrella agency set up to deploy a wide range of digital services, infrastructure and applications.

Poh acknowledges that connectivity between disparate sensors across the city will create a federated platform, but it is "quite clear it won't be personal data." Personal data will be anonymized, she says.

jacqueline poh

Jacqueline Poh

The lessons Singapore learns in its journey toward becoming a smart city with a city brain while protecting privacy will be "exportable to other countries," Poh adds. "We're not the only country with urban density or the elderly. These are international problems not unique to Singapore. We are at the beginning of a smart city journey."

Gabriel Lim, the CEO of the new Singapore Info-communications Media Development Authority, says Singapore citizens haven't raised concerns about data privacy because they genuinely trust the government. "The government has consistently shown that its job is to serve the people first, and for 51 years we have delivered on that. We've forged a bond," he says. The government has "stood by its citizens to get through difficult times" including the SARS outbreak, the Asian financial crisis and terrorist scares of the past 15 years, Lim says.

Singapore as a smart city model

It may be early on, but Singapore already gets high marks from analysts for its smart city initiatives.

Using a centralized city brain is really the best approach, says Zeus Kerravala, principal analyst at ZK Research. "If you build transit smart systems independently and separate from others, you don't get the advantages. Connectivity of data is where the 'smart' comes from. There's a lot to consider, but ultimately it is much more cost-effective to do it in a centralized way than to build network after network."

That's the tech challenge cities face in the U.S. Many have separate governing authorities for rail and bus, and even discrete water and sewer jurisdictions and electric utilities, each with its own bureaucracy that might, or might not, cooperate with a mayor and city council in trying to aggregate and coordinate data. Singapore enjoys a single national and city government with a single parliament and a prime minister, so there are no state legislatures or county councils that can bog down the planning and approval process.

Partly because of the layers of public bureaucracy in the U.S., Kerravala calls the U.S. a "laggard" in the smart city global movement. But with the looming demands many cities face with limited water and food resources and the crunch on transportation infrastructure, not to mention the threat of natural disasters and terrorist attacks, a city brain approach could offer cities insights into data patterns and even a modicum of hope for finding answers to the big problems looming in the future.

"The smart city movement globally is a huge deal," Kerravala says, and the city brain is at the heart of that. "Ultimately, cities need some kind of city brain or a common platform where the concept is a centralized core system."

This story, "Singapore’s ‘city brain’ project is groundbreaking -- but what about privacy?" was originally published by Computerworld.

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