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

Aggregating data on traffic, weather, government and elder services aims to make citizens' lives better -- but potentially less private

By Matt Hamblen
Dec. 13, 2016


You've read about cities installing smart parking meters and noise- and air-quality sensors, but are you ready to embrace the idea of a city brain?

The residents of Singapore are on track to do just that.

Creating a centralized dashboard view of sensors deployed across a distributed network is nothing new, but it takes on a bigger -- perhaps ominous -- meaning when deployed across a major city.

Many technologically advanced cities worldwide are exploring ways to build such comprehensive digital views for managing traffic and parking, monitoring water and air quality, and offering such citizen-facing services as web-based tools for interacting with government agencies. Some smart city experts call this system approach a "city brain" or, less glamorously, a "municipal backplane."

Such a setup could be used as a "command and control" center for city infrastructure or as a better way to manage data across disparate agencies and make planning decisions. A municipality, for example, could use aggregated data from sensors to justify a subway expansion or other long-term infrastructure improvements in a 10-year or even a 50-year planning pipeline.

Computerworld's Smart Cities video tour - Singapore [December 2016]
Ogilvy Public Relations, Singapore

Singapore aims to improve the lives of citizens living in the crowded city-state by aggregating data on weather, traffic, healthcare and more. 

Computerworld recently traveled to Singapore, already one of the smartest cities in the world, to check on developments as it begins to build out the concept of a city brain as part of what it terms its Smart Nation Platform. The small, very densely developed island nation of 5.4 million residents will be closely watched in its city brain efforts by other municipalities vying for the smart city moniker.

A "national operating system" for 100 million objects

In theory, a city brain could be used by municipal administrators to check on a wide variety of conditions detected by millions of low-cost wireless sensors measuring roadway congestion, water pressure, air pollution, crowds at bus stops, smelly garbage cans, snow on the streets, torrential flooding, the health of elderly shut-ins and more.

The data would be presented, under most scenarios, on a single console. Cisco, for example, recently revealed it is working with 10 cities, including Paris and Copenhagen, on that type of approach.

Behind that single console view would be the secret sauce: artificial intelligence and analytics applied to data from different silos.

A city's traffic management system, perhaps years old, could be matched, sliced and diced with air pollution readings running in a separate silo, for example. Such a system could be set to permit the most congested traffic artery associated with the worst pollution to be freed up by giving green lights to the cars that are waiting the longest and are pumping out the most carbon dioxide pollutants.

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