The United Arab Emirates and its biggest city, Dubai have taken some of the boldest steps in government innovation and smart cities.

UAE has appointed the world’s first Artificial Intelligence Minister and wants to be a leader in the field; meanwhile Dubai has a mission to be 10 years ahead of all other cities, with every agency instructed to find disruptive ways to improve service delivery.

This vision is made possible by pervasive use of data. The nation uses geographic information systems (GIS) to pull all government data into a single platform, giving officials access to the real-time pulse of the city.

Esri, the GIS pioneers, have drawn lessons from their partnerships with leading cities including Dubai. It is working with city leaders to build smart communities using digital transformation and geospatial technology to be more responsive, productive, efficient, transparent and more engaged with citizens.

The company’s Director of Government Marketing, Chris Thomas, shares four ways that governments and cities can build smart community strategies.

1. Improving government operations and efficiency

San Francisco saved thousands of dollars on the maintenance of its underwater metro tunnel

When building a smart community vision, governments should first improve efficiency to get quicker returns on investment in technologies, Thomas advises. Geospatial technologies have shown proven results in this area. San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) get US$3.11 back for every dollar they spend on GIS.

A significant portion of BART’s budget was previously spent on maintaining and replacing infrastructure, including sending to divers to fix underwater equipment. Without locations of the repairs accurately mapped out, the divers spent a considerable amount of time and money to find and replace the parts.

Working with Esri, the city saved US$800,000 on this process using GIS. With the underwater infrastructure mapped out and compared with data from existing survey records, drivers are now able do their jobs cheaper and quicker by following GPS coordinates to only the specific parts that need to be inspected and replaced.

Many government employees are already using smartphones and other mobile devices to collect data on field operations. Esri’s GIS solutions pull digitally stored data from field operations to provide a full picture of how the city operates, where the bottlenecks are, and areas of greatest need. Geospatial forms a crucial foundation here to help local officials see where they should focus their efforts, Thomas says. “Most government problems are based on a specific location,” he adds.

2. Making data-driven decisions

The next phase is to use data to make decisions across government.

Esri works with cities to use location and geography as a framework to define and understand their biggest challenges. “If they know there’s a problem, what the GIS does is it pinpoints and demonstrates how big or small a problem actually is,” he says. This also allows for “iterative policymaking”, using data to continuously adjust policies as officials get a better understanding of citizens’ needs from the data.

The City of Los Angeles, for example, has used a data-driven approach to cut traffic-related accidents and deaths, with a goal of eliminated them entirely by 2025. In the past, over 200 people lost their lives every year due to road accidents. Using GIS, the city identified a network of streets that have a higher rate of major traffic collisions. It found that 60% of all deaths and severe injuries involving pedestrians and cyclists occurred on just 6% of the city’s streets.

Cities across the world have chosen Esri’s ArcGIS platform to make decisions. “We have a whole series of dashboards that are geared towards performance measurement and data-driven decisions,” Thomas says. These also allow cities to feed in real-time information from other systems, like a citizen reporting app or a traffic sensor.

Data-driven decisions are particularly impactful in areas which cut across multiple departments. For example, combining real-time data from law enforcement, health and human services cities will provide invaluable insights for cities to tackle the opioid crisis in the US. For example, understanding where drug-related crimes are prevalent can help health officials create targeted efforts to prevent over-doses and locate treatment centres.

3. Advancing to the Internet of Things

Singapore used GIS to manage transportation during its National Day Parade 2017

The most advanced stage for governments is the Internet of Things – a network of sensors and devices that automatically feed in information to decision makers, building a digital footprint of the city. The foundation for IoT is to ensure all systems are connected, starting with the major workflows in your organisation, Thomas recommends.

Sensors bring in huge amounts of data and it is crucial to be able to organise it. Esri’s geospatial solutions crunch this data to tell a real-time story of everything that officials and mayors need to be aware of. Cities should “organise your data in a way that would enable the government, startups, academic institutes and citizens to be able to mobilise around solving problems,” he says.

For instance, the Singapore Government worked with Esri Singapore to manage and track transportation in real-time (screenshot of dashboard above) during the National Day Parade 2017. Nearly 14,000 participants, volunteers and personnel took part in the event, with complex logistics coordination required. This was previously done manually using paper forms. With Esri, the organisers used data from sensors overlayed on a GIS platform to track the departure, arrival and movement of buses live, creating comprehensive situational awareness.

4. Spread the word!

Finally, none of all this will go far unless cities tell people about the good work they are doing. “If you’re not promoting the successes that you’re doing, then the continuation or the support of that programme doesn’t move forward,” Thomas says. This applies to cities at all stages of their smart community strategies.

Governments need to communicate openly with citizens about the progress of their work and
“get buy-in from everybody as to why they are taking the approach that they are taking”, he says. Esri has built a tool called Story Maps to engage with citizens. “It takes them through why are we studying this, what’s wrong with it, what does data tell us and what are we doing about it,” Thomas adds.

Seattle city in the US, for example, has created a story map to help citizens and visitors understand the biggest natural hazards its experiences. Tampa city is using them to help residents understand how prepared they are for disasters. Meanwhile, Utah state has used it to tell citizens about forest conservation efforts.

Efficiency? Check. Engagement? Check. Impact? Check.

Location allows agencies to unlock unseen value, ensuring greater effectiveness in their public service delivery. When it comes to achieving more in government, clearly GIS is the way forward.