Innovative Steps: City-level initiatives for better communication

City-level initiatives for better communication

As cities are being developed into smart cities, it has become imperative for governments to incorporate world-class communications infrastructure to ensure free flow of information, increase public participation and thereby increase public welfare.

A number of innovative technologies have been launched to better develop communications infrastructure for greater efficiency. Some technological solutions offered include an integrated command and control centre (ICCC) to provide a real-time unified view of operations, mobile apps for better access to information, mobile wallets for digital payments and an online grievance redressal system.

The expansive scope of these projects can be ascertained by observing some truly innovative projects that are currently under implementation or operational. For instance, the Gurugram Metropolitan Development Authority is setting up an ICCC in the city to efficiently monitor incoming and outgoing traffic as well as traffic congestion. The initiative to set up the control centre was announced in September 2019 and the project is expected to be completed in 2020. The ICCC will provide storage for all online data related to smart city applications such as CCTV-based public safety and the adaptive traffic management system. Through the ICCC, the authority also aims to enhance smart parking, water supply management, pollution monitoring, property tax management and asset management. Further, under this project, the authority is planning to set up a city-wide optic fibre cable (OFC) network to e-connect all areas of Gurugram to the ICCC. The network will serve as the backbone for various smart city initiatives and will stretch over 600 km, covering 115 sectors in Gurugram and Manesar.

Another innovative project being operationalised in Pune Smart City relates to the launch of a road asset management system (RAMS) for providing a GIS-based decision support system to the city corporation to make crucial decisions about prioritisation of roads for repair and maintenance work. The RAMS project involved data collection for the entire road network of the Pune Municipal Corporation, development of a web-based RAMS software and its deployment.

Communications infrastructure has also been successfully used in many smart cities to fight the Covid-19 pandemic. For instance, Agra Smart City, in association with Scanpoint Geometrics Limited, has created a GIS dashboard which will show various hotspots, a heat map, number of positive cases and recovered cases, etc. It has been developed on the IGiS platform, an indigenous technology that brings GIS, image processing, photogrammetry and CAD together on a single platform and can also cater to a multitude of solutions across areas (such as agriculture, defence, forestry, disaster management, land information, mining, power, smart city, urban planning, utilities and location-based services). In another instance, the ICCC at Gwalior Smart City is functioning as a control room for monitoring the spread of Covid-19 and providing essential support to the city’s healthcare system as well as to citizens in distress. A 24×7 helpdesk has been set up at the ICCC. Trained professionals resolve queries raised by citizens at the initial stage. These calls are then connected to designated doctors. This process has helped reduce the panic by counselling services to the caller. The ICCCs are fully equipped to monitor isolation centres and quarantine zones through CCTVs and videoconferencing.

Challenges along the way

However, there are numerous challenges that need to be addressed before world-class communications infrastructure is developed in smart cities. First, many challenges to smart cities stem from the massive amounts of data that must be constantly collected, analysed and shared. At present, smart systems are heavily reliant on visual data, which is costly to collect, difficult to scale and not always reliable. Second, effective use of the large amounts of data of smart cities demands extensive wireless coverage and fast transfer speeds, but the necessary infrastructure does not typically exist. At present, in India, 4G mobile coverage systems are available that are not adequate for high speed data transfer. Third, at present, not every connected device is cyber-resilient, and this can lead to cyber malware in the equipment and sensors that relay data. Besides this, lack of cryptographic measures, poor encryption key management, and non-existent secure device onboarding services are some of the key issues that create a cybersecurity risk in the system. Fourth, there is also a lack of skilled professionals for preparing strategies, identifying areas for implementation of technologies, and operating these new-age technologies. Fifth, most urban local bodies (ULBs) are not financially self-sustainable and tariff levels fixed by the ULBs for providing services often do not mirror the cost of supplying them. Even if additional investments are recovered in a phased manner, inadequate cost recovery leads to continued financial losses. Sixth, smart cities often do not have a master plan or a city development plan, which is the key to smart city planning and project implementation. This plan encapsulates all the areas for improvement and to provide better services to its citizens. Finally, smart city projects are often delayed because of non-performing ULBs, slow pace of fund generation and long-gestation periods. A large number of smart city projects are still under implementation, as all the approvals are yet to be obtained and resource mobilisation is yet to take place. As of October 2019, only 30 per cent of the funds had been released for the projects. As of November 2019, around 81 per cent of the projects have been tendered out and a mere 25 per cent stand completed.

There lies a golden opportunity for smart cities to leverage advanced communications services in order to not only increase welfare in the cities but also provide an effective response to any crisis that may occur. Yet, there are a host of challenges that will need to be addressed before such opportunities can be efficiently utilised.