Special Report:

Mobiles could be the secret to ‘smart’ cities

Waze’s Connected Citizens programme shows how local authorities can use smartphone data

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The phrase “connected cities” conjures images of sensor-laden highways, live maps of underground systems and a mission control centre filled with huge screens of data.

Ghent, however, is leaping into the future of “smart” infrastructure just by using a couple of smartphone apps.

The Belgian city is among the first in western Europe to sign up to the Waze Connected Citizens programme, which sees city transport authorities exchange traffic and incident data with the Google-owned navigation app.

Waze’s users can report accidents and traffic jams, which are then relayed to other drivers. The data are also shared with local governments to help with real-time traffic management, including emergency response dispatch.

In turn, the 55 cities in the scheme give Waze information about road closures and new traffic policies.

“If you were starting today with web-services know-how and data analytics,” a traffic management centre could be built for a “fraction” of what they typically cost, says Di-Ann Eisnor, Waze’s head of growth.

Waze is an example of how cities can take advantage of the sophisticated sensors that millions of residents already carry: smartphones.

“There are some people who are thinking in a top-down way, putting a lot of new sensors into the city,” says Carlo Ratti, director of the Senseable City Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Singapore is a leading example. “Or you can also look at a more bottom-up, distributed way where you can use what you already have, such as a cellphone,” Mr Ratti adds.

In many cities, municipal authorities and mobile apps already collaborate. Citymapper, an urban transport app that raised $40m in venture funding in January, got its start in London using the open data the city provides about tube, bus and train lines. As well as providing transport advice to the general public, Citymapper offers transit authorities data management tools that help handle feedback and incident alerts from users.

Similarly, Strava, a cycling tracker app, sells anonymised data to cities from London to Orlando, Florida. It shows where people are riding to help plan bike lanes and traffic calming measures.

Even Uber, despite often locking horns with regulators, has begun to share driver data with officials in cities such as Boston, helping inform policy and congestion reduction plans. Similar data, including anonymised pick-up and drop-off locations and times, are also provided by taxi services.

Analysing such data from New York City in 2014, Mr Ratti and researchers from Cornell University found that the city’s taxi fleet could be reduced by as much as 40 per cent if more residents opted to share cabs. Since that study, the Senseable City Lab has been working with Uber on optimising its Uber Pool ride-sharing service.

“There were plenty of ride-sharing schemes that dated from the 1970s and 80s,” says Mr Ratti. “But because at the time we didn’t have smartphones and real-time information, most of them failed.”

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