How cities and citizens can work together to improve quality of life

While the we have certainly made progress to improve air quality, worldwide, it remains a problem. Globally, 4 million people die each year because of poor air quality. Some 90% of the world’s population lives in areas where the air pollution exceeds World Health Organization standards.

Many U.S. cities, while doing well, want to improve air quality further — a challenge given the natural disasters they have faced this year.

But it's not an effort that they can — or even should — make by themselves. Citizens can play a role. As you will read below, cities can use data to help citizens make better decisions regarding their exposure to air pollution. These suggestions from Council Partner SAS are a wonderful reminder about why engaged citizens are key stakeholders in any smart city. — Kevin Ebi


By Susan Quinn, SAS

Like almost 9% of adults in the United States, I have asthma.  Asthma is a leading chronic illness among children and adolescents and is one of the leading causes of school absenteeism.    Asthma rates are rising dramatically, with air quality being the prime suspect.

I was understandably alarmed for people in the path of the fires in California, as well as those threatened earlier this year, by the volcanic activity in Hawaii. Many individuals must have been concerned about the potential for respiratory distress for themselves and their families.   As bad as these unusual events were, we are often faced with poor air quality in our everyday lives, in our neighborhoods, and where we go to work or school.    

Smart city initiatives
Air quality is one of the initiatives that several smart cities are addressing.  These include pilots in cities like Portland, Seattle, and Chicago in the United States and cities like Wuxi in China.    Air quality sensors measure ozone, carbon dioxide, and other gases, as well as particulates in the air.  And these cities are using sensor data to identify, analyze and address issues.  In addition, some of these cities now provide online maps of air quality ratings by neighborhood, which is a good first step at providing citizen awareness.         

Proactive engagement
However, for daily air quality and other quality of life aspects to improve, more proactive citizen engagement is needed.  When citizens can receive email or text alerts informing them of quality of life issues, then they can make better decisions that can positively impact their lives and the lives of their families.  

For example, the ability for someone to know if the air quality in their neighborhood is not good on a certain day or at a certain time can lead to better decisions about when to work in the garden.  Or, it can tell a mom that the air quality around her son’s school is problematic this morning, so that she can make sure he has his inhalers or, if it is serious enough, keep him home that day. 

Many times, just knowing of potential risks can help individuals stay out of trouble areas and reduce hospital visits, asthma attacks, respiratory symptoms and lost days of work or school.

So how can smart cities proactively engage with individuals and enable them to gain these ‘quality of life’ benefits?   

Currently, city officials analyze sensor data to identify and address issues.  However, through proactive engagement, information from smart cities initiatives can intersect with the everyday lives of individual citizens and provide immediate and positive impact on their quality of life.  

Various technologies exist today that can monitor streaming sensor data; make sense of it; and automate the ‘who, what, where and when’ of engagement.   

The challenge is monitoring that data and identifying meaningful events that are important enough to trigger a proactive communication to members of the public.    This is where advanced analytics, artificial intelligence, and decision management systems come into play.  

Engaging with the public – who and what

  • Engagement needs to start with understanding which citizens are interested in receiving communications by enabling individuals to opt into various dimensions of engagement.  Would they like to receive alerts via text or email?  What topics are they interested in? What geographic or micro-environments are of interest? Gone are the days where generalized city-wide alerts are sufficient.   
  • The ‘who and what’ of engagement requires communication and decision engines to support the outgoing engagement to the right individuals with the right messages.

Engaging with the public – when and where

  • When to engage is probably the most critical area to get right.  Citizens expect to be engaged when necessary, but not inundated with irrelevant or unnecessary correspondence.  Citizens expect timely communications, especially since conditions can change quickly.    Citizens are mobile and, as they travel around the city, they need to be situationally aware of what is occurring in micro-environments.    
  • The ‘when and where’ of engagement requires the ability to monitor and analyze enormous amounts of streaming data in real time   And, it requires analytics and decision engines to identify the right time, frequency, and level of alert.     Other technologies, such as geo-location and geo-fencing technologies, can be used to engage citizens whether they are at home, at a bus stop, or walking to the supermarket. 

Proactive engagement to the right members of the public, at the right time, with the right message makes the value of smart cities initiatives very personal and actionable.   Individuals can make more informed decisions to keep their families safe and comfortable.    And, the value of smart cities initiatives can be much more easily understood as individuals personally are able to act on that information and realize benefits that they can easily see, feel … and yes, breathe.

Susan Quinn is a Principal Solutions Architect at SAS.  In this role, Susan works with clients to identify analytically-driven, real-time decisioning and communications solutions that will enhance their current infrastructure and enable them to achieve their objectives.  Susan earned her MBA, specializing in telecommunications, and studied at Pace University, NYU, and the University of Dallas.    Follow her on Twitter and Linkedin.