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The Internet of Things… and People

The Internet of Things… and People

Published on: December 2015​ Genre: Innovation​ Category: Op eds​
The past week has seen an exhibition at the World Trade Centre offering a glimpse into the potential of the ‘Internet of Things’ (IOT). The IOT World Forum hosted by Cisco demonstrated an array of new services and products made possible by connecting objects and not just people to the Internet. I was privileged to join a ‘smart city experience tour’, which highlighted how the IOT can improve government services.

At the heart of the IOT is a massive network of sensors – small monitoring devices that can be attached to taxis, buses, street lamps, rubbish bins, seats, the human body, anything you can think of. These sensors are always on, and gather data on the environment around them. A small camera can monitor whether some parking spaces are in use or not, an air quality monitor can keep tabs on pollutants, an audio device can listen out for unusual sounds such as a car crash. All this data is shared over a network and monitored centrally.  By monitoring taxis and buses, for example, the RTA can monitor traffic flows, redirect taxis to where they are most needed, and respond to accidents in real time. All this should make our commuting experience better – welcome news indeed.

Developments like these are genuinely impressive. But in the excitement about the potential of connecting Things, I worry that we may have forgotten about People. Listening to my tour guide, I was struck by the fact that we already have a network of sensors across Dubai: we have front-line staff – the bus drivers, taxi drivers, rubbish collectors, traffic wardens – who often hold great knowledge about what’s working well on the street and what’s not, about the trouble spots and about resources that are under-utilised. Instead of by-passing them, can front-line workers’ expertise be harnessed? Rather than relying on someone in a central command centre to spot a problem and despatch a worker to fix it, can we empower front-line staff to report and tackle service problems as they arise?

In the same vein, can we integrate the voice of citizens and service users into the big data picture that government departments will be building from the IOT? In the past couple of years, Dubai government departments have begun to embrace online engagement – asking the public about how to improve services, as well as for ideas for innovation.

Increasingly service users can report problems in real time, as they arise. Not only is this information useful to service providers, helping us to improve, being responsive to service users is proven to increase trust and confidence in government too. So how can we make sure that citizens’ and residents’ feedback has equal – if not higher - status than the feedback from the network of sensors? I fear that excitement about IOT, and the sheer volume of data it will generate, risks drowning out the service user.

This doesn’t have to be the case. But how we deploy the IOT in a way that is smart about our human resources as well as our technological resources probably has to be designed in at the start. The IOT and public engagement are two great strands of Dubai’s Smart City programme; let’s make sure they work together for a truly smart city.

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