India’s smart cities are leveraging various technologies to help support the recovery from COVID-19.
A recent report by the World Economic Forum shows that India’s city governments with the extensive use of technology and data science played a key role in managing the disastrous impact of the pandemic.
As part of its emergency response to the pandemic, the Indian government leveraged its Smart Cities Mission, an initiative launched in 2015 to enable cities to effectively leverage technology in improving citizen services and overall quality of life.
Tech solutions used in response to COVID-19
The study identified cities such as Bengaluru, Surat, and Pimpri Chinchwad leveraged technology to coordinate between different city-level agencies to plan and monitor their COVID-19 emergency response.
On why these cities were singled out, the researchers said that these smart effectively used their Integrated Command and Control Centers (ICCC), which form the “brain and nerve center” for the city’s operations management, as “COVID-19 War Rooms” for analyzing city-specific data, coordinating activities of various state and city agencies and connecting with citizens.
These cities also used data collected through various sensors and smart solutions, cities carried out data modeling and predictive analytics, creating dashboards, scenario visualization and simulation models to analyze the virus spread and plan their response.
These centers also provided cities with a single platform for bringing civil society, local businesses and others to collaborate with the city administration for the following activities:
- Information dissemination and citizen outreach
- Contact tracking and tracing of possible cases and organizing treatment
- Managing the impact of local lockdowns through organizing doorstep delivery of essentials
- Providing food and shelter for the economically weaker sections of society and vulnerable citizens
- Ensuring sanitation and hygiene
- Providing emergency services
The magnitude of the COVID-19 crisis presented many challenges for cities to overcome, including a lack of available staff, technical knowledge to repurpose existing smart solutions, and capacity building and training for those manning COVID-19 War Rooms.
The three cities studied found ways to overcome these issues quickly, offering examples for others facing the same dilemmas.
For example, as Bengaluru did not have a functional ICCC, establishing the COVID-19 War Room as the command-and control centre was a new concept for BBMP. However, the Indian Institute of Science and other locally-based organizations supported Bengaluru in setting up its COVID-19 War Room. Bengaluru then shared its experience in setting up its COVID-19 War Room with other cities through various webinars.
The Surat Municipal Corporation with the help of local partner organizations arranged training sessions on COVID-19 protocols for healthcare workers and doctors manning the COVID-19 War Room. In the absence of its own city data policy, following data-sharing protocols per NSDAP and other guidelines currently, these initiatives are funded through the city budget. However, Surat is exploring potential for future data monetization through MoHUA’s India Urban Data Exchange (IUDX).
Pimpri Chinchwad had municipal officers, health workers, city police and volunteers manning the COVID-19 War Room. But there were ample challenges. The staff faced challenges in understanding of IT systems and how it can talk with the existing IT systems. For example, the city deployed GPS for location tracking. However, it was later found that, for better accuracy, the solution requires use of local Wi-Fi.
Key lessons learnt
The rapid pace of changing technological trends, lack of standardized ICT framework and architecture, and the interoperability of systems across city agencies often make it difficult for a city to adopt technological solutions, and Indian cities too were no exception. The report highlights certain key lessons learnt from this exercise:
*Cities should create technology management policies and strategies for ensuring standardization and interoperability.
*There needs to be data policies in compliance with national laws and guidelines to ensure citizens’ data security and protection, as well as standard operating procedures that address data collection, storage, usage and sharing.
*Stakeholders must establish mechanisms to share information among city and state agencies, and define protocols for responding to incidents, with the city’s ICCC acting as a platform to coordinate and monitor these activities.
*Cities should appoint data officers and strengthen the city data cell by including professionals in areas such as data architecture, security, privacy and analytics.
* Using assessment frameworks, such as MoHUA’s Ease of Living, Municipal Performance, Climate Smart Cities, Data Maturity, and ICCC Maturity, cities can assess their performance through objective parameters and learn from the experiences of better-performing cities.
*Citizen outreach is essential, as no approach is complete without implementing connectivity-related smart solutions to facilitate citizen contact over multiple channels including help desks, call centers, citizen portals and mobile apps.
The report demonstrates that innovation and technology can make a significant difference to how cities manage COVID-19 and by implication, other major crises. To make the transformation sustainable, cities and governments would also need to invest in the people and processes that support innovation and technology. They can serve as models for helping other governments around the world realize the benefits of smart cities in a post-pandemic world.