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Real-time, Real-data = Real Good Policies?

05 January 2012

LIVE Singapore!, an open platform that harnesses the power of real-time data, has the potential to help the Public Service respond quicker and better to the public. - text by Chen Jingting, photos by Norman Ng

Prompt Interventions: LIVE Singapore!’s project leader Kristian Kloeckl believes that real-time data can help officers to respond faster and better to situations on the ground.

Prompt Interventions: LIVE Singapore!’s project leader Kristian Kloeckl believes that real-time data can help officers to respond faster and better to situations on the ground.

In fast -changing Singapore, keeping abreast of all that’s happening in order to develop effective and responsive policies can be tough. This is where LIVE Singapore! – an open platform that integrates, analyses and visualises realtime data – could come in useful for public officers.

LIVE Singapore! is a Future Urban Mobility research initiative by the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology or SMART, a collaboration between the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Singapore’s National Research Foundation (NRF).

A five-year project, LIVE Singapore! is funded by the NRF, which spearheads Singapore’s research and development agenda.

Project leader Kristian Kloeckl, an Austrian trained in industrial design, is from the Senseable City Laboratory, a research centre at MIT that studies new ways to understand urban dynamics and design tools for cities based on pervasive digital technologies and real-time data. He has been visiting Singapore regularly to work with a team of MIT staff, and foreign and local graduate students since 2010.

Dr Kloeckl points out that LIVE Singapore! could lead to a breakthrough in urban management and planning because “it was not possible technically, until recently, to have information that reflects urban conditions in real-time” and to “actually use, process and distribute real-time data for applications” in these areas.

“Right now, urban management and planning is done mostly on historical data. Routes of public transport, for example, are sketched out based on survey results [gathered] years ago. Wouldn’t it be great to plan [them] based on actual user demand right now?” asks Dr Kloeckl.

He believes that public transport policy- makers can make better-informed decisions if they were more aware of passenger demand throughout the day, and especially during major events, when large crowds have to be managed.

Public officers can also act faster in emergencies, such as floods, when they have real-time data of areas in danger of flooding. Or, in cases of air or water pollution, they are able to detect the causes immediately and come up with effective counter-measures.

Gearing up

Government agencies certainly seem ready for some real-time action. The Land Transport Authority and National Environment Agency (NEA) have provided maps and urban data to the LIVE Singapore! project.

“The purpose of our research project is to interact with these institutions, allow cross-fertilisation of ideas, and share research results, some of which can be taken into the real world,” says Dr Kloeckl.

He shares that the team has been having “a lot of interaction and conversations” with the Infocomm Development Authority (IDA), which is intent on coming up with smart city urban solutions. Dr Kloeckl has also met representatives from the Singapore Geospatial Collaborative Environment (SG-SPACE), an initiative by the Singapore Land Authority to give the public easy access to useful geospatial information.

Though SG-SPACE and LIVE Singapore! function differently – the former uses historical government data while the latter uses real-time data from the private and public sectors – Dr Kloeckl believes there is room for future collaboration.

Access granted

Making sense of data: Staff from the Senseable City Laboratory, a research centre at MIT.

Making sense of data: Staff from the Senseable City Laboratory, a research centre at MIT.

Besides engaging public officers, LIVE Singapore! encourages crowd-sourcing of ideas: private developers will be welcome to write programmes and applications using its technology.

“Real-time data has always been available but it’s not made accessible to people. So LIVE Singapore! is like an ecosystem which incorporates multiple streams of real-time data that people can transform into meaningful information and that can be visualised,” says Dr Kloeckl.

But in this data-rich world, could too much be a bad thing? Not really, counters Dr Kloeckl, as that information will be filtered based on location and time relevant to people.

For instance, data on taxi movements and rainfall, provided by Comfort Delgro and NEA respectively, are combined to create a multi-dimensional projection showing the supply and demand of taxis at different parts of Singapore when it rains. So whether you are someone desperate to get a cab, or a taxi-driver looking for passengers, the visualisation will inform you of high-demand spots.

The projection of rainfall and taxi movements was one of six visualisations displayed in an exhibition at the Singapore Art Museum last year. There are ongoing discussions to display them on the streets or through mobile applications, says research engineer Oliver Senn (rightmost in picture), the mastermind behind LIVE Singapore!’s platform technology.

An island-city with clear geographical boundaries and a tech-savvy population, Singapore is an ideal place to develop a realtime data project, adds Mr Senn, a Swiss engineer. Infrastructure such as the EZ-Link card tapping system, which makes it easy to track routes and distances travelled by individuals, also means Singapore is a rich source of interesting real-time data.

A greater cause

The LIVE Singapore! team hopes that it can inspire behavioural changes with their real-time visualisations. They believe that by showing how people’s actions can affect the environment, and by providing easy access to real-time data, every city-dweller would be empowered to make better, more earthfriendly decisions when using the city.

For instance, “in some cities, more than 50 per cent of traffic in urban centres is due to people looking for parking spots. It is a stupid way of generating emissions, consuming energy, occupying space and wasting time. That’s the result of one driver not having access to real-time information where a free parking spot is,” says Dr Kloeckl, who, in his five years at the Sensesable City Laboratory, has worked with urban planners in Seattle, Rome and New York City to develop sustainable cities.

To him, there is “something not right” about cities consuming 75 per cent of the world’s energy and producing 80 per cent of man-made carbon dioxide emissions, when they only occupy two per cent of the world’s surface. Hence, “we have to find a different way (of doing things)”.

Though it is still debatable how much information is needed to influence behaviour, access to data is essential to power change.

Dr Kloeckl explains:

"If you don’t know where you’re consuming a lot of energy or causing a lot of emissions, it’s going to be hard for you to change.

But once you know (the effects of your behaviour) and that there is a different way of doing things, it is possible for you to do that.”

LIVE Singapore! Visualisations

Isochronic Singapore

Know at a glance how long you would take to travel to different destinations with this map that expands and contracts in proportion to travelling time.

Formula One City

Check out the text messaging activity, indicated by the size and colour of the glows, during the Formula One Grand Prix, one of the biggest events in Singapore. This shows how Singaporeans respond to the hype and even how businesses and the public are affected by the event.

Hub of the World

Witness the incessant flows of goods and people passing through Singapore’s transhipment container port and airport.

Senseable City Lab’s winning project on trash tracking:

TrashTrack
Location-aware tags are attached to rubbish to track their journey in the waste management system of Seattle and New York City. The findings are then mapped and projected in real-time visualisations. The project won the US National Science Foundation’s Visualisation Challenge in 2010.

For more visualisations: http://senseable.mit.edu/livesingapore

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