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Singapore’s ‘city brain’ project is groundbreaking -- but what about privacy?

Matt Hamblen | Dec. 13, 2016
Aggregating data on traffic, weather, government and elder services aims to make citizens' lives better -- but potentially less private

However, the state of the art with city brain technology is not yet that advanced. Most city officials would be happy simply to be able to monitor what's going on in disparate areas of a big metropolis more or less in real time, instead of waiting days or weeks to hear about conditions from various public works department heads.

Janil Puthucheary
Janil Puthucheary

"We want [a city brain] of public sector data to do analysis," says Janil Puthucheary, Singapore's minister of state for communications, information and education. "We're already doing that with a number of platforms and opening logjams. Some of that existing data is driving our decisions, but we need [processes] to be shortened."

Vivian Balakrishnan is the official charged with making that happen.

Balakrishnan, Singapore's minister for foreign affairs and the minister in charge of its smart-nation initiatives, intends to create a "national operating system for 100 million smart objects" in the next five years. That would include every smart traffic light and lamppost and every sensor and camera, Balakrishnan says.

It may also include the estimated 5 million smartphones carried by Singaporeans, which are "leaking data," as Balakrishnan puts it. That data could include GPS info to help detect crowds at bus stops to signal the need for more buses. Such data would be kept anonymous and used with the consent of users, in line with Singapore's privacy laws, say Balakrisnan and other Singapore officials.

Singapore is further along than many other cities in its city brain approach partly because of its network capabilities -- it recently finished installing gigabit fiber optic broadband cable that passes any home or business that wants to connect to it. The city's redundant broadband network is the envy of many cities, especially those in the U.S. that are now struggling to provide fast backhaul to support connections to Wi-Fi access points and a plethora of wireless sensors in an internet of things scenario.

Ultimately, Singapore will create a system to "analyze that data and create actionable steps," according to Balakrishnan's vision, which he described in a keynote earlier this year at a technology conference called InnovFest unBound.

Here's a look at some of the pilot and in-progress programs that could be rolled into Singapore's city brain as it evolves.

Traffic

The benefits of a city brain may have the greatest impact in alleviating traffic. In Singapore, there is already an elaborate system of highway gateways, called gantries, that communicate wirelessly with transponders inside cars to charge drivers for entering congested downtown areas at busy hours.

The city is in the process of connecting cars using GPS information, giving drivers real-time advice on the least-congested route to take. Drivers will be dinged financially if they don't heed the advice, and be rewarded if they do.

 

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