Exclusive: Phuket's smart city vision

By Medha Basu

The region’s smart city lead discusses plans to improve tourists’ safety and boost local businesses with tech.

Trouble in paradise? The beautiful island of Phuket has a problem: “unsustainable tourism”, says Pracha Asawathira, Phuket Smart City Lead at the Digital Economy Promotion Agency of Thailand.

Asawathira is working with the city mayor, regional governor, and private sector to use technology to tackle these challenges. “We are writing the vision of what we are going to do next,” he says. Phuket wants to be safer and more comfortable for tourists, and help local businesses make money.

Analysing tourist data

The smart city programme currently has funding of 430 million baht (US$13 million) to boost tourism, safety, environment and economy with tech. A request for another 1000 million baht (US$30 million) will be put in to the central government this year as the projects expand, Asawathira adds.

As Phuket’s tourism growth has become “unsustainable”, the government needs to “balance” it with another industry. “We are focused on the digital industry to build more startups, and we welcome digital nomads that come from abroad,” Asawathira says.

The government will run hackathons for local businesses to use government-held data to improve their services. For instance, the city plans to share anonymised data on tourist demographics to help them understand demands and target their marketing to specific tourists. And the tourist demographics are indeed in flux: the island is now most popular among Chinese and Russians, while the number of Europeans arriving has fallen, according to statistics from the Tourism Authority.

The government will not share any data related to “security and safety” with the private sector, he adds.

Big Data operations centre

Next year, Phuket will build an operations centre, pulling in data from different sources for analysis. “We are going to pull in all of the IoT data that we are deploying to the city, back to the main government to use the real-time data and mix with open data,” Asawathira says.

For instance, data from 1,000 free WiFi hotspots will provide help the government understand the demographics of visitors, he adds. Combined with the vehicle licence plate recognition from CCTV cameras, it will be used to create a model of Phuket’s population density and movement, he says.

Caught on cam

Safety is evidently a big area of focus for officials. “Tourists are very sensitive; it’s their safety, right? When any case against safety and security is happening, it destroys the tourism industry,” he explains.

Phuket currently has 1,300 CCTV cameras, and plans to deploy 3,000 more to cover all the busy public areas, including beaches and entry checkpoints on roads leading to the island. The cameras will feature licence plate and facial recognition, he says. People entering Phuket by road will have their faces captured and matched against a police database. “Bad guys cannot enter Phuket”, he adds.

In the Andaman sea, the government is tracking “every boat” and will also trial wristbands to track tourists going out. With 20,000 tourists going out to sea every day from Phuket, “we are focused on technology that will help the government take care of the safety of maritime’, Asawathira says.

Boat operators will have to share passenger information with the government in advance. The wristbands will track the passengers’ locations in real-time, checking, for instance, if divers drift too far from their boats. “We must have the data of the passengers of each boat” leaving from Phuket, he says.

Cutting energy use

Phuket needs to “make sure that the growth of the tourist industry will not destroy the environment”, Asawathira continues. The government is installing sensors to measure the quality of air. In waterways, sensors will track the quality of water being discharged into the sea. It will also get data on water levels to predict flooding in Phuket, he adds.

The demand for energy on the island has also rapidly grown, particularly during the peak tourist seasons. The city is working with the central Electricity Authority of Thailand to encourage hotel owners to decrease their energy use and install alternative sources like solar roofs.

While environment, economy, tourism and safety have been a focus this year, Phuket will next year aim its attention at improving public services with the new ops centre, including education and healthcare, he says.

Phuket offers millions of visitors great holidays every year, but local authorities and businesses have been struggling with this demand. The smart city plan will help ensure that the ‘land of a thousand smiles’ can keep giving.