Microsoft launches CityNext platform for making cities better

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Next time the water goes out or the electricity turns off in your area, imagine how much more pleasant a city like Johannesburg would be if there was a system that could send an immediate alert to the city authorities and get maintenance on their way without waiting for the angry phone calls. Or, even better, a pre-emptive algorithm that could work out when a traffic light is going to fail based on comparing its energy use against a database of every other robot in the city.

Over at Microsoft’s Worldwide Partner Conference in Houston, Texas, Microsoft’s Public Sector head Laura Ipsen has just launched a new initiative from the company aimed at helping cities manage and utilise data in these sorts of ways, and improve governance and citizenship while they’re at it too. It’s called CityNext, and it’s part of a big global movement to turn our humble dumb cities into gleaming ‘smart cities‘ of the future,by using big data collection, analytics and networked sensors. Born out of Microsoft’s older Open Governance Data Initiative (OGDI) that the company has been running for a few years now, CityNext is a sleeker, more streamlined suite of programs and partners which Microsoft wants local governments to use for high tech monitoring and improving all aspects of their cities.

“Governments and cities have to rethink how they run in the future,” explained Ipsen, “Because they’re at the nexus of information and globalisation that’s changed the world forever. 80% of the world’s GDP is in cities and 75% of energy resources are used in cities.”

Nine cities have already signed up for CityNext, including Manchester in the UK, Barcelona in Spain and San Francisco in the US. All are already leading lights of the ‘smart cities’ movement, which histories of putting data good use in terms of infrastructure, service delivery and improving communications between government and citizens. They’re all also known for ‘open data’ – publishing as much of the raw information as possible to allow citizens to see what’s going on, and innovative civic minded souls to develop apps based on the information.

Why go smart?

At the heart of the smart city initiatives is the prediction by the UN that 70% of the world’s population will live in cities by the year 2050, and the fact that more than a million people a day migrate to urban areas in developing nations every day. Most cities, and especially those in poorer countries, aren’t going to be able to cope with this influx of people unless fast improvements can be  made in service delivery, public safety and the interaction between citizens and government. You don’t have to spend long in Johannesburg to realise the truth of that.

“CityNext… is really about moving beyond a city’s technology capacity and on to its human capacity,” explained Ipsen, saying the aims are to improve governance and help cities make better decisions.

BISm@rt's Big Goc app allows citizens to view local direct directly from Azure.
[email protected]’s Big Gov app allows citizens to view local direct directly from Azure.

I had a long chat this morning with Joel Cherkis, Microsoft’s General Manager for Govenment. He says that at its heart, CityNext is a big number crunching platform that Microsoft partners like Socrata, Accenture, Logica and OSI Soft can use to deploy their dashboard like technology for processing data. One challenge for cities is simply measuring and benchmarking what goes on.

“The big goals are cities who want to transform their service delivery and compare themselves and measure their performance,” Cherkis explained, ” Cities want to benchmark themselves against other cities, and they’ve found it hard to work out who to compare theselves. So Johannesburg and New York might have certain similarities, but they aren’t comparable in other areas.”

One of the first uses of CityNext, Cherkis says, is by the city of San Francisco. Local government there wants help achieve a target of reduncing energy use by 50% by 205 – by analysing current energy usage across public and private buildings, the local government there believes that it can identify areas of wastage and areas for improvement. The advantage of using Azure, says Cherkis, is that it makes deploying software very quick – a new city dashboard can be deployed almost in the same way as installing an app on Windows 8. Indeed, the app mentality runs deep in the project, especially when it comes to relaying information about their environs – from weather reports to energy use to the nearest polling station – to citizens.

“[It’s] very people-centric,” says Cerkis, “It’s very much about how cities engage iwth their citizens which occurs and that’s very much citizens and business. And in today’s world that frequently happens through apps.”

It’s a two way thing too – Cherkis cites the oft-quoted apps for reporting potholes which many countries and cities now have, that can be used to let councils know where a problem is and hold them to account if they don’t fix it.

What does a city actually do?

Portfolios of software are being developed around the eight pillars fundamental to a successful city as described by the World Bank: energy and water; buildings, planning and infrastructure; transportation; public safety and justice; tourism, recreation and culture; education; health and social services; and government administration.

According to Cherkis, Microsoft is actively selling CityNext  all over the world, and has staff familiar with the platform in South Africa already. It might seem, on the face of it, that smart city projects like those being trialled in the Spanish town of Santander – where thousands of networked sensors have been installed in every parking space in the city – are unlikely to arrive here any time soon. But Cherkis thinks differently.

“It’s the tier two and below cities where the biggest opportunities arise,” says Cherkis, “Budget contsraints and lower resources means they can do far more with less.”

In other words, there are many more ways to improve efficiency in a city like Johannesburg than there are in London. And it doesn’t have involve large investments, believes Cherkis, as many solutions can be found by analysing existing data sets and looking for patterns – spotting which lights are going to fail based on power consumption and sending out repair teams pre-emptively, for example. The issue is getting hold of the data from all of the departments involved and turning lots of old databases of varying quality and standard into formats that can talk to each other.

“The challenge that cities have had in the past is that they create stovepipe, siloed systems to support those functions individually,” he says, “We’re looking to create a single platform. Because they do need each other – moving emergency vehicles around, for example, requires a good transportation network. A single platform makes that easier.”

Barcelona uses CityNext to publish open data APIs and make them easy to search.
Barcelona uses CityNext to publish open data APIs and make them easy to search.

Cherkis says that Microsoft will also be encouraging governments to open up their data sets using CityNext, so that citizens can innovate around them too – although he stresses that this will be down to invidual cities and local policies. Microsoft has a strong partnership with Socrato at the moment, which only uses open data. And while it’s been working with four key partners – Atos, Logica, Accenture and Cap Gemini – on proprietary city dashboards that provide authorities with an overview of everything from current power usage to train movements, it has also had talks with CKAN – the open source rival popular in Europe.

Two things impress me about CityNext. The first is that by using Azure, which has a built-in software store not unlike the Windows Store, CityNext’s big strength is in making it easy to build modular systems for cities. According to Cherkis, Socrata can delpoy its monitoring software within 24hours using Azure. The most striking thing, however, is just how good and easy to use apps like [email protected]’s City Councils application and the MobileMHI app which hunts for power outages and water leaks are. I’ve been roundly ambivalent about Modern UI and Windows 8 up until now, but the tile based approach to live dashboards does make it easy for non-technical employees and the general public – who can access some of the same apps via Windows – to understand what’s going.

And that’s one of the most important principles of smart cities. To use the old engineering credo, ‘you can’t improve what you cant measure’. Simply understanding what is happening right now leads you to ways to improve it – and if CityNext could help South African cities to that then it might well do some good.

See the official video launch below.

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Adam Oxford

Adam Oxford

Adam is the Editorial Director at htxt media. He has been writing about technology for almost two full decades now. In a previous life, he was the editor of PC Format and Digital Camera Shopper in the UK, before going on to work as a freelance journalist for seven years. His work has appeared in or on Stuff, The Guardian, Linux Format, TechRadar, Wired.co.uk, PC Gamer, Green Futures, The Journalist, The Ecologist and The Review. Adam moved to South Africa in 2012 and loves 3D printers, MakerFairs and tech hubs. He hates seafood. None of his friends remember this when cooking.

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