By Colin Harrison
IBM Distinguished Engineer
This is the first of three posts that explore the concept of urban information networks, that is, the flows of information in cities about what is going on. I am not thinking here of social networks, which deal with personal information, but rather of information concerning how the city is working, both in the supply and the demand for services. Please return tomorrow for the second post and Thursday for the third.
Information networks have existed since the beginnings of cities. Indeed they are one of the basic reasons for the existence of city: to enable the sharing of information among the inhabitants so that they may learn from one another. This is the same principle that enables millions of termites to federate their little intelligences and thereby create such amazing structures. Information networks are thus a basic element of life in a city.
Historically much of this information was hidden and circulated only among a small, spatially- or socially-limited group of people. It was in forms that did not easily permit wider transmission, integration with other information or mathematical analysis. But today more and more of such information is available in digital form that does enable easy transmission, integration, and analysis. So now we can begin to ask questions about the immediate needs of individual inhabitants and about the problems they face in exploiting the city’s services. Equally we can ask questions about the real-time performance of the city’s services, their immediate capacities and the operational problems that exist.
Digital systems play a vital role in making information more widely and immediately visible. This is central to enabling the inhabitants to benefit easily from the services and resources of the city. It is also central to enabling city managers to make the best use of the capacities and resources that are immediately available. A recurring problem we encounter in urban system management is that decisions by both providers and consumers are made based on information that is minimal or incomplete or stale.
A common example is the sharing of water among multiple cities within a single water basin. Local city or utility water managers generally have no current information about how much water is available upstream in the system and about how much water their neighbors are drawing from it. As a result, they will sometimes withdraw too much water, resulting in environmental problems or they will draw less water than they could, resulting in local supply limits or, in exceptional cases, increased risk of flooding.
An example of how information enables the inhabitants to most effectively use the immediately available capacity of the total, multi-modal transportation system comes from our work with CalTrans in the San Francisco bay area. Here inhabitants with smart mobile telephones can subscribe to a service that permits CalTrans to observe their journeys based on the GPS reading from the telephone. From these observations CalTrans can determine the individual user’s common journeys. When the system sees the user beginning a familiar journey, for example commuting from home to the workplace, it looks at the multi-modal choices available to the traveller and the operational status of each of those systems along the required paths, and then makes a recommendation to the traveller for the optimal way to make this journey at this time. The traveller thus makes the journey with the minimum delays and disruptions and the transportation systems’ loads can be balanced.
So a basic role for technology here is to make information about what the city is doing visible and accessible in a timely fashion to the public and private service providers in the city and also to citizens and other enterprises. In the next post I will write about how these stakeholders can exploit such information.