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Sydney squeeze: Data, technology key to designing smart city of the future, expert says

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Sydney needs to become a smart city that harnesses technology and data if it is to cope when the population doubles in the next 30 years, an urban scientist has warned. Professor Chris Pettit, director of the city analytics program at the University of NSW, said that while local and state governments were “on the cusp” of working with big companies to access our personal data, more collaboration was needed to share and analyse information that could help plan the city. That information might include Opal card data, Google Maps locations and traffic tracking and credit card geolocations, which form the blueprints for designing our future city and improving quality of life.”Data is being collected from us as we move around, so how can we analyse that data to unlock some parts of the city which aren’t fully utilised,” Dr Pettit said.

“The government doesn’t know where you’ve walked today, what website we’ve accessed, but Google knows that, Microsoft knows that, Apple or Android know where we’ve walked. “That information is already in the private sector, so if they have it, I’d like to see that information used to not just exploit us as consumers, but use it to help us plan our cities.” Last week, former NSW director general of urban planning Sue Holliday told ABC Radio Sydney that transport should be made a priority by government if the city was to cope with an increasing population. Dr Pettit agreed but went further to add that data could be better used to help plan where infrastructure was needed and to improve major employment hubs across Sydney.

His analysis of Opal card data, for example, found that 75 per cent of commuters to Blacktown travelled 30 minutes or less to work via train or bus.Of all students who studied at UNSW in Kensington, 36 per cent travelled over half an hour to get there, with the highest number living and working in western Sydney. Dr Pettit said such data could help governments plan better public transport connections, but also explore ways to “self-contain” suburbs by helping people live close to their place of work or study. “There are smarter ways of working — like allowing people only going to uni or work two days a week instead of five days a week. “This could fix congestion on the roads [and create] greater connections with our local community.

“Look at people and mobility of bikes … the data collected through smartphone apps which trace people as they move through the city using GPS data. “We can then map that and provide that information to planners and decision makers to understand how people are moving through the city and, for example, where can we put more cycleways.”

Accessing open data

“Data is the new oil,” Dr Pettit said as he referred to the fountain of information collected about our whereabouts and activities every few seconds.Yet while there is an open data movement happening in government, it needs to tap into the databases of the private business sector. Dr Pettit said big companies continued to operate under commercial business models concerned with privacy and protecting their commercial interests from competition. The State Government and some local councils already allow the public to access datasets which have the potential to “stimulate innovative approaches to service delivery” as described on the NSW data website data.nsw.gov.au.

The website has datasets that range from real-time travel times on roads and walking data to registered dogs and cats. Some councils including Lismore, Hornsby, Ryde and the City of Sydney also make local government area data available.City of Sydney recently launched its Open Data Portal that makes datasets like electricity consumption across the area downloadable and mappable. Dr Pettit said some telcos and private agencies were now “looking at how they could work with government”, although he said more needed to get on board.

“If we can use the data while preserving people’s privacy, we should access those data depositories to better plan our cities,” he said. “Data should not just be used for targeted advertising and marketing and where to put the next pop-up donut store.” Dr Pettit said data such as GPS location could be used, for example, to analyse: “Where are the bottlenecks when people walk through the city? How can we improve that?”

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