What is a Smart City Solution Without A Citizen Perspective?
Designing a smart city goes beyond the application of technology and other digital devices that can produce digital data to monitor events happening in a city. In fact, the answer to what exactly constitutes a smart city may differ between city officials and citizens themselves. At the heart of each city though are its citizens, who are constantly influencing, reshaping and building their cities — even with their subtle grumbles about public service inefficiencies. Pulse Lab Jakarta together with Labtek Indie embarked on a journey to explore the question: How would a smart city look if created from the perspective of its citizens? Doing so against the backdrop of repeated flooding and traffic congestion in Bandung, in this piece we reflect on what we learned that inspired us to rethink our initial approach.
Work with Available Data
When it comes to flooding in Bandung, as a data innovation lab we propose creating an integrated tool where flood-related data such as the amount of rainfall and water levels can be visualised to provide early warning signals to city officials. Starting out, we were optimistic that we’d get access to such data; but alas we found that data are scattered throughout different government units and mostly not actually within Bandung City Government (but instead are safeguarded with provincial and national government counterparts). Another challenge is related to the reliability of a data infrastructure including internet connection and servers, which is needed to ensure that relevant data is continuously streamed into a government flood monitoring dashboard.
Undeterred by these limitations, our exploration led us to other discoveries. A government official from Damkar Kota Bandung (Fire Department), a government unit responsible for providing emergency response in the case of a disaster, informed us that flood information often reaches the unit by way of volunteers or citizens who inform the Damkar Command Center (DCC) by phone, Whatsapp and/or Twitter. This is in line with findings that show that residents often tweet about the weather and flooding in the city, specifically using the hashtag #CuacaBdg (meaning Bandung weather). In addition PRFM, a local radio station, broadcasts similar information that tends to validate details shared publicly in tweets with the local authorities.
Instead of relying on the data we originally hoped for, for the moment we decided to use crowdsourced data: shared publicly on social media; submitted via LAPOR! (the national complaints system); and circulated in WhatsApp community groups (anonymised content was shared voluntarily with us by group members, such as Gojek drivers). Some of these information have been used regularly by the Bandung City Government; however, on the downside are typically checked manually by a dedicated staff member. So, one of our objectives was to test a text mining algorithm, which has been developed by Labtek Indie to help authorities to better monitor and analyse media social conversation related to the issues in question.
Harness that Local ‘Instinct’
We met Rahmi, one of the local residents we spoke with in Bandung. She drives around 10 to 12 kilometers on daily basis, which is the distance between her home located in the south of Bandung and her campus in the north of Bandung. She is familiar with traffic congestion in the city, and over the years has planned out her daily travel routes based on past experiences. Whenever a flood takes place, for example, she knows that travel time to campus is likely to be lengthened due to terrible traffic. So, she has two alternative routes for when this happens. In the case of unexpected events, she relies on alerts from different Whatsapp community groups that she is part of. But if she somehow misses a notification on the text-messaging platform, she notes the radio remains a useful source of information for her, especially if she’s driving.
Before meeting Rahmi, we thought about the utility of a mobile application with certain features that can help residents navigate the streets in Bandung during flooding events. But after hearing her stories about the various options she considers in her daily commute, we knew a mobile app alone would not be adequate — we would need to take a step back to consider the behaviours of residents in the city and then design practical solutions that fit with their current needs, rather than simply creating something new.
Repurpose Existing Technology and Infrastructure
We began this foray with the idea of developing an early-warning dashboard prototype for floods. However, the first two lessons we described above caused us to pause and reconsider our approach. We realised that we needed to also come up with a tool that can provide residents with much-needed information to help them identify convenient travel routes during a flood. While a handful of mobile applications that provide traffic-related information is already available, the downside is that they often require drivers and passengers to check their gadgets. This often means a few clicks here and there before getting to the specific information one needs.
Additionally, we made it a point of duty to review the available options that may be used for information sharing. This led us to a set of information displaying devices that the Bandung City Government recently installed at several intersections throughout the city, known as ‘minitron’ or Display Informasi Simpang (DIS). The minitron boards are strategically placed next to traffic lights to make it easy for drivers to see them. The device is simple in its design, providing a simple icon or text to alert drivers about road situations ahead. Apart from the benefits to motorists such as deterring them from going into flooded areas and redirecting them to accessible roads, the information shared on these minitron boards can also assist the police and transportation authorities with managing traffic flows.
Generate Ideas that Can Break the Silo
Forgive the cliche, but this is easier said than done. The journey so far has taught us to look beyond a single government unit when conceptualising smart city solutions. For example, here we were collaborating with Diskominfo Kota Bandung on this initiative, yet our early-warning flood prototype demonstrated the need for us to collaborate with different units for it to be functional: Damkar Kota Bandung helped us to understand how information about floods is shared from citizens to the authorities, and Dishub Kota Bandung (Dinas Perhubungan/ Transportation Department) introduced us to a simple-yet-effective concept in the form of its minitron information display system at intersections.
The early-warning dashboard prototype for floods was initially conceptualised to facilitate our discussion with Diskominfo Kota Bandung and Dishub Kota Bandung, but to be realised beyond concept testing, it is evident that the data analytics capacity of Diskominfo and data infrastructure support from Dishub Kota Bandung would be necessary — and importantly, an understanding about the needs and perspectives of the potential users. Both government units are amenable to the idea, and are hopeful that the overall collaboration may not only help to design a sustainable smart city, but a smart city that can provide efficient public services for its citizen.
The lessons from this exploration clearly illustrates: a good smart city solution is one that will create a seamless experience for the users. Citizens do not necessarily have to wake up to big overnight changes, but as in the case of Bandung, they may eventually realise that there are better driving routes for instance, which come as a result of the government’s efforts to use data and technology, coupled with citizens’ insights to improve everyday comings and goings.
Pulse Lab Jakarta is grateful for the generous support from the Government of Australia.