Wesley Diphoko, Head of the Independent Digital Lab (02 June 2017)

JOHANNESBURG - 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 5000 people dead, (possibly as many as 30000 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.

Wesley Diphoko is the head of the Independent Media Lab and the founder of the Kaya Labs.