Cities un­der siege: How in­for­ma­tion can save them

The sys­tem has been de­signed to al­low peo­ple to seek shel­ter un­der a desk or a ta­ble, or take the near­est exit to an open space.

Pretoria News - - OPINION&ANALYSIS - Wes­ley Diphoko Wes­ley Diphoko is the head of the In­de­pen­dent Me­dia Lab and the founder of the Kaya Labs.

SOUTH African cities are un­der siege as they are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing chal­lenges they have never seen be­fore. This has pro­vided bet­ter times for smart cities that use data to turn it into a use­ful in­for­ma­tion tool to in­form res­i­dents about any­thing that af­fects them.

The re­cent floods in Durban have high­lighted the im­por­tance of shar­ing in­for­ma­tion about im­mi­nent dan­gers in a clear and timely man­ner. The water sit­u­a­tion in Cape Town also high­lights the need to use data by trans­form­ing it into use­ful in­for­ma­tion for the city’s res­i­dents. Po­lice Min­is­ter Fik­ile Mbalula has called for the army to in­ter­vene in the crime sit­u­a­tion in Cape Town and Joburg in an­other case that re­quires bet­ter in­for­ma­tion shar­ing.

Th­ese are the new chal­lenges that cities are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing – yet so­lu­tions are there and have prob­a­bly worked in the past. The In­for­ma­tion Econ­omy presents an op­por­tu­nity to use in­for­ma­tion to solve ma­jor problems.

How can in­for­ma­tion as­sist in al­le­vi­at­ing chal­lenges? How have other cities used in­for­ma­tion to deal with sim­i­lar problems?

Mex­ico City

When it comes to us­ing in­for­ma­tion to solve problems, Mex­ico City comes to mind, es­pe­cially with deal­ing with dis­as­ters.

Its seis­mic warn­ing sys­tem last month suc­cess­fully gave res­i­dents cru­cial sec­onds to flee vul­ner­a­ble build­ings, and pre­pare for the worst when a mag­ni­tude 7.1 quake hit the city with an epi­cen­tre of about 120km fur­ther down south. In a video which saw the high­est ca­su­al­ties dur­ing the quake, early warn­ing sirens blared for at least 92 sec­onds be­fore the shak­ing be­gan.

The sys­tem has been de­signed to al­low peo­ple to seek shel­ter un­der a desk or a ta­ble, or take the near­est exit to an open space and min­imise the risk of in­juries from fall­ing ob­jects.

The sys­tem ex­ists be­cause an earth­quake in 1985 that had left more than 5 000 peo­ple dead, (pos­si­bly as many as 30 000 coun­try wide) in the city and trau­ma­tised mil­lions of Mex­i­cans who wit­nessed pan­caked hospi­tals, col­lapsed homes and dead bodies strewn in the city’s rub­ble.

Lo­cal au­thor­i­ties then com­mis­sioned a study into early warn­ing that would con­sist of 12 seis­mic sen­sors along the coast.

It was in­stalled by 1991, and has since ex­panded to more than 100 sen­sors along the Mex­i­can Pa­cific coast.

Govern­ment ra­dio chan­nels send out alerts and sirens af­ter sen­sors de­tect men­ac­ing trem­bling, and res­i­dents can get a minute or two of warn­ing be­fore the seis­mic waves ar­rive. The Seis­mic Alert Sys­tem, which was launched along the coast of Guer­rero by then Mex­ico City’s head of govern­ment, Manuel Ca­ma­cho So­lis, be­came a pi­o­neer in the re­gion.

From the coast of Guer­rero, the sys­tem ex­panded to Oax­aca in 1999 and 2005 un­der the name Mex­i­can Seis­mic Alert Sys­tem (Sas­mex). Aca­pulco, Chilpancingo, Pue­bla, and oth­ers have since joined. Sas­mex can still be im­proved by en­abling it to com­mu­ni­cate es­ti­mated time of ar­rival of the earth­quake and its mag­ni­tude.

Though it has lim­i­ta­tions, it demon­strates what cities in South Africa can do to com­bat chal­lenges through in­for­ma­tion. Th­ese in­clude:

Water chal­lenge

The City of Cape Town has be­gun the process of in­stalling tools that will al­low it to bet­ter mon­i­tor the use of water. This is a good start that can be em­u­lated by other cities, even though their problems are not as se­vere. The next stage in this process should fo­cus on en­abling the ci­ti­zens to have reg­u­lar in­for­ma­tion up­dates about their water us­age on their “per­sonal” com­puter, mo­bile phones and smart watches.

Safety chal­lenge

In­for­ma­tion can also play a role in­form­ing res­i­dents about a crim­i­nal threat to their lives.

Cur­rently, crime sta­tis­tics are re­leased only once a year, which pro­vides a sense of what hap­pened in the past.

The South African Po­lice Ser­vice (Saps) needs to re­lease crime data not once a year, but reg­u­larly, to in­form the coun­try’s ci­ti­zens about im­mi­nent dan­gers or de­vel­op­ing crime trends.

Mbalula is lead­ing twit­terati, and he has to be com­mended for em­brac­ing the medium as a com­mu­ni­ca­tion tool.

He, how­ever, needs to do more to use it to com­bat crime.

City res­i­dents need to be equipped with per­sonal tools that al­lows them to alert au­thor­i­ties about crime, and at the same time also re­ceive in­for­ma­tion about the crime sit­u­a­tion where they live.

It should be pos­si­ble to walk into a par­tic­u­lar street or road and re­ceive an alert that you are en­ter­ing an area where you could be hi­jacked.

In­for­ma­tion like this could serve as a form of de­fence for res­i­dents to avoid such ar­eas.

Dis­as­ter chal­lenges

By now ev­ery city knows when there are likely to be fires, floods and re­lated dis­as­ters.

Whilst there is no per­fect so­lu­tion, there is a need for early warn­ing sys­tems to bet­ter in­form a city’s or a spe­cific area’s res­i­dents about pos­si­ble dan­gers in or­der to min­imise the dan­ger to them.

Through the use of sen­sors in­te­grated with real-time mon­i­tor­ing sys­tems, data can be col­lected from ci­ti­zens and de­vices – then pro­cessed and an­a­lysed.

The in­for­ma­tion and the knowl­edge that has been gath­ered in such a way can be in­deed very use­ful in as­sist­ing cities to bet­ter deal with dis­as­ters.

The In­fonomist is presently work­ing to­wards de­vel­op­ing the means and tools to en­able cities to bet­ter col­lect and an­a­lyse data which then can be com­mu­ni­cated as in­for­ma­tion that can en­able ci­ti­zens to take pre-emp­tive steps to save their own lives.

City may­ors need to think se­ri­ously about cre­at­ing smart cities that use data and turn it into use­ful in­for­ma­tion by us­ing lo­cal tech­nol­ogy.

As part of this process there will be a need for cities to also de­velop open data poli­cies that will in turn gov­ern the process of re­leas­ing such data to cre­ate life sav­ing in­for­ma­tion.


Ale­jan­dro Cantu, founder and chief ex­ec­u­tive of SkyAlert stands next to satel­lite an­ten­nas at the SkyAlert head­quar­ters in Mex­ico City. The city has in­tro­duced an alert sys­tem to warn its ci­ti­zens of pend­ing earth­quakes.

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