Smart cities will require future-oriented data management

More data integration and sharing are likely to occur as confidence in smart cities grows and governments’ digital transformation programs mature, says Fred Crehan, regional vice president, Emerging Markets at Confluent

Ambition has become the hallmark of GCC countries. In a world laden with environmental challenges and resources, governments here have turned to the concept of smart cities as a model of society-driven infrastructure. The line, part of Saudi Arabia’s US$500 billion Neom project, is billed by its developers as “the future of urban living” and is being built to accommodate nine million people. Barely 200m wide, it will span 170km of Saudi desert and rise half a kilometer above. A paragon of sustainability, it will run on 100% sustainable energy sources and be free of cars and, by implication, emissions. Instead, residents will walk to facilities, each of which will be no more than five minutes from their homes.

The Line is just one region of Neom, and Neom isn’t the only smart city company in the Kingdom. The Red Sea Project focuses on sustainable (or regenerative) tourism. And Saudi Arabia is not the only Gulf Arab country planning smart cities. An example of this is Masdar City by Mubadala Development in Abu Dhabi. Kuwait’s South Saad Al Abdullah is another.

None of these projects would be possible without recent technological advances. Innovations in areas such as artificial intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IoT) have given innovators the confidence to think big, bigger and bigger. Smart cities are visualized as seas of sensors, cameras, and other hardware that form a detailed, accurate, and real-time view of the urban environment for governments, businesses, and citizens. At the center is the cloud, which hosts and delivers all of these technologies.

Accessibility, scalability and security

Everything from our energy and utilities to our roads and emergency services can be improved. But to work as intended, smart cities will require careful thought about data management, which must be scalable, secure, and instantly accessible at all times through a variety of channels. GCC governments have already embarked on a dizzying array of digital transformation programs to take advantage of emerging technologies. These projects involve a mix of refreshes of older data architectures, integration of others, and data cleansing and transformation to support real-time processing for up-to-the-minute actionable intelligence.

All of this must be backed by minimal latency and zero downtime, even (in fact, especially) during a disaster. Rivers of data constantly flow into a central lake, but lakes must be duplicated for resilience. Meanwhile, intelligent state-of-the-art processing frameworks support data reduction to ensure signals can be separated from white noise, every moment.

This system allows authorities at the municipal and national levels to make faster and more efficient decisions. In emergency response, data on traffic congestion and road closures allows decision makers to plan the most efficient route for first responders to get to an incident safely. The same information can be shared with citizens to help them get around more easily.

Plan for the worst

Downtime exposes smart city society to a catalog of inconvenience and danger, some of it physical. Outages can also be the prelude to sophisticated cyberattacks. Good data management and robust cybersecurity go hand in hand. Any smart city threat posture should include comprehensive disaster mitigation and recovery playbooks. And when looking for protection, decision makers should turn to scalable cloud services that can provide always-on protections against internal and external threats.

The growth of global urbanization has led to an increase in demand for public services and utilities, and therefore an increase in data volumes. Good data management should take into account daily, weekly, monthly, and seasonal spikes in user activity. Again, these capacity issues are best addressed through the elasticity of cloud services, which also tend to be cost effective and easy to deploy and use.

The cloud is likely to form the basis of every smart city ever built. The underlying technologies are managed by a trusted partner, allowing innovators to focus on adding value to the communities they serve rather than having to spend resources on maintenance or resourcing. Other experiences, services and platforms will be added as new technologies emerge.

Innovation, not maintenance

More data integration and sharing are likely to occur as confidence in smart cities grows and governments’ digital transformation programs mature. The ability to manage multiple database formats, across cloud and traditional sources will be essential, as will the ability to opt for hybrid and multi-cloud environments to solve problems. Data flow models facilitate these flexibilities because they draw on multiple sources and integrate information into actionable dashboards, rather than providing segmented snapshots.

Confluent’s 2022 State of Data in Motion Report showed that 97% of organizations worldwide have used real-time data streaming and 80% consider it essential for creating responsive business processes. With projects like Neom and Masdar in the pipeline, we’re going to see a marked increase in real-time data management capabilities, given the performance and maintenance benefits they can bring. Governments should always focus on their vision rather than having to worry about data integrity trivia and infrastructure maintenance.

We can imagine the results springing up across the region. Shimmering, safe, efficient and clean-energy environments that stretch to the horizon. Ever-vigilant administrators who are in control with the power of streaming data and are ready to respond quickly and accurately to any internal or external disruption. At the heart of this new urban paradise? The cloud – an evolving home for all data and technology that enables governments to automate these large corporations and keep improving them to improve the lives of all citizens.

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Ramon J. Espinoza