Inside Malaysia’s smart villages

By GovInsider

GovInsider speaks with Ahmad Nizar Harun, who is leading an innovative scheme to transform rural Malaysia.

The residents of Kampung Padang Rumbia, on the banks of Malaysia’s Pahang River, live and die for water.

The same river that fuels the farming community can just as easily wipe everything away.

The region was among the worst affected by the floods of December 2014, but Padang Rumbia is for the first time getting alerts when the river waters begin to rise.

The Malaysian government has installed flood-monitoring sensors along the banks, giving residents time to prepare for evacuations. The scope of the project quickly expanded, however, as officials discovered more challenges faced by rural residents, says Ahmad Nizar Harun, who is leading the project.

“When we started that we found that the rural areas need internet connectivity. Another thing people were talking about is security”, he says.

The vision for the “Intelligent Community” project is to improve safety and economy across rural Malaysia, and Padang Rumbia is the pilot.

The project is an initiative under Malaysia's Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation, and managed by MIMOS, the country's R&D agency.

GovInsider spoke with Harun, Senior Manager, MIMOS, on how these smart villages are helping rural citizens, and what their future is.

High-tech villages  

The flood monitoring is a “key feature” of the project, he says. Predictions from the weather agency provide a rough idea of when food is likely to be, but the sensors now provide more precise information, he says.

“We are tapping the information [directly] from the village's river, and it is also real-time information. So they can know what to do [in advance], for example, when they should evacuate and prepare all of their things.”

Apart from sensors in the river, Padang Rumbia now has 10 security cameras in community areas including schools, clinics, police stations, mosques, fish farms, computer centers, and river banks.

MIMOS has provided free WiFi and built an app to send safety alerts to residents.

When the river level reaches a “critical” level, they get notified on the app. They can also monitor live feeds from the cameras across the village.

New services have been set up to communicate during disasters. A telephone allows residents to make free calls over the interview, while village leaders and police can broadcast messages to residents.

With the Internet of Things, it has been possible for MIMOS to expand the scope of the project as more needs have arisen in Padang Rumbia. The agency will plant more sensors and use video analytics, turning the riverside settlement into a smart village.

“We have developed a lot of things that have already launched in the market, for example, our sensor for aquaculture. We will use all these components in the next phase of the project,” says Harun.

Ongoing expansion

The next phase will be launched in late April. Sensors in ponds will allow farmers to monitor the quality of the fish.

Meanwhile, sensors in the soil can measure the nutrient level and moisture, allowing farmers to make better use of fertilizers and water. What is significant about this is that farmers will be able to continuously monitor their crops with real-time data. The farmers themselves collect some data, but it is limited.

“Now most of the farmers are taking measurements once or twice a day. It's not real-time so you don't know what happens along the day.”

With the sensors, they will be able to monitor their farms constantly and remotely. Mimos will continue to improve the residents’ safety.

There will be up to 10 more cameras in Padang Rumbia, and the video feeds will be analyzed to automatically alert police if anything suspicious is picked up. The analytics can detect if people break into a house, loiter, or fight.

These features would be a big improvement for the safety of the villagers. Traditionally, a group of five to six people in the village goes about doing nightly patrols of the area. With the cameras and analytics, residents will not need to put themselves in danger. They will also not need to actively monitor the area, with the cameras automatically alarms if anything is amiss.

As with the sensors and cameras, more functions will be added to the app. It was initially for residents to receive alerts, but could also help them earn more income.

MIMOS is developing a new virtual marketplace on the app, where residents can sell their produce and handicrafts. Often these products are only locally known, he says. They can put up their product details, contact information, and address on the app, allowing them to reach a wider market. The free internet access is allowing rural residents to pick up new skills and grow their businesses.

For example, in Padang Rumbia “because we have free internet access in that area, we are starting to train them on how to make websites”, he says.

Most already have smartphones and can browse websites, he adds. Although residents were initially skeptical of all the new equipment around their homes, people are now keen for better services once they have understood the benefits.

“We have to meet them personally and explain what the system is all about,” he says. The free internet is particularly popular, he adds.

Future ideas

As the scope of the Intelligent Community project increases, so will its geographic reach. It will expand to cover five to six other villages this year which are at high risk of flooding, Harun says.

The project has caught Prime Minister Najib Razak’s interest. He launched the pilot in Padang Rumbia this year and wants to expand it to cover rural areas across the country.

It would be particularly helpful in securing remote border areas against foreign attacks, he believes. Harun himself has just returned from a trip to Sabah.

He is looking at how the scheme could improve security in areas like Lahad Datu, which have a history of security issues and cover a large area. “We are talking about an area of about 1,700 kilometers square.

So no way the police and army can monitor all of these areas,” he says.

The Intelligent Community project could help, he believes. The smart village project was formed out of a disaster. It started as a trickle, but soon it will be smoothly flowing along.