Building smart city solutions

By | 5 minute read | October 28, 2016

The human side of technology

The main theme of many Smart Cities conferences nowadays is people. The reason is that the millions of people who live in cities have different perspectives and priorities, meaning that offering new Smart City solutions to suit these diverse needs can be very tricky. A successful Smart City implementation in one country does not necessarily mean it can be easily replicated in another city.

One way of understanding the people’s needs is via an engagement platform: either physically in meetings, forums or discussions or in the cyber world through online mechanisms (portal or mobile apps.)

REDtone’s IOT solution is an app that enables citizens to engage with local authorities through crowdsourcing and crowdsensing – reporting on issues such as abandoned waste, roads in need of repair and faulty traffic lights. The app harnesses the power of IoT technology to keep track on developing situations and provide sustainable solutions. An example of a Smart City solution would be a Smart Waste Management solution that monitors sensor-equipped garbage trucks and waste bins, to address the issue of unattended garbage.

REDtone’s solution involves six steps:

(1)  Crowdsensing – provide tool to citizens and encourage them to participate

(2)  Identify and Solve – City authorities need to respond and resolve the reported issues

(3)  Livable Cities – citizens will be satisfied with the efficiency of the city authorities

(4)  City Indicator – be more transparent by sharing their Key Performance Indicators

(5)  Rank and Decide – prioritize the main points

(6)  Build next Smart City solutions – take the necessary action immediately.

Smart City infographic

Smart City infographic

A citizen engagement app with a difference

Unfortunately, many citizen engagement mobile apps have failed in the past simply because they were unable to sustain popularity, usage, and continuous enhancement. REDtone’s solution is an app with a difference, successfully negotiating the pitfalls of disengagement, siloed working and lack of publicity. Below are some tips as to how city authorities could avoid problems like these:

Involve both officials and citizens

For smart cities to be successful, the participation of both parties is required. If residents feel that their complaints will fall on deaf ears, no action will be taken. Meanwhile, the local authorities prefer citizens to channel their complaints into proper channels, where action can be taken, rather than on social media. However, in many cases, even after launching their own city’s citizen engagement mobile app, the take-up, and reports from the people are lukewarm. The problem is in part due to lack of publicity.


If you ask people on the streets whether they have heard of an app designed to report problems to local authorities, it is likely that the answer will be ‘no’. It’s easier to get the message across using social media. It’s also the fault of local councils who use only their official website portal to announce or publicize the citizen engagement mobile app. After such a big hype during the launch of the service, continuous effort must be made to educate the public.

Find the concerned citizens

What type of individuals are concerned about the cleanliness or safety of their surroundings? Sometimes, those most likely to make a complaint on social media are least likely to use an official reporting tool. They love to complain but not to take action when given the opportunity to participate. You might think – what about savvy smartphone users? Are they the majority of the users? Surprisingly, data shows that these user groups are sometimes more concerned with their message going viral (fifteen minutes of fame) than with the message itself.

Incentivisation and gamification

People want an incentive to participate in a crowdsourcing initiative – perhaps payment in money or prizes. Another option is to gamify the app in such a way that it gives some form of status within the community. Each report gives points, which can elevate the user into a higher rank on a leadership board.

Pressure groups

No city administrator wants to receive complaints every day. But there is an opportunity to be proactive rather than reactive – fixing issues as they come up, and therefore minimising the ensuing reports. Sometimes, city authorities need a little push from the people.

Social media channels

The most popular official channels by local councils are phone, fax, web portal or email. But technology has rapidly changed the landscape of communications with the advent of smartphones, mobile Internet, and social media. Allow the citizens to communicate on their favorite social media channels, but make sure you are monitoring and responding to their comments.

In-house development is not always feasible

There are a lot of citizen engagement mobile apps in the market. But most developers forget that the backend system that handles the reports are not visible to them. Thus, a lot of cities who thought that they could just develop the mobile app (i.e. the front-end) in-house did not realize what they are going to end up with. Most local council IT departments are not set up with product development teams due to lack of budget. Handling a continuous development and future enhancement of the backend system requires sustainable IT support resources. Emerging technology must quickly be adapted within the current process workflow. Think twice before developing the system in-house.

Smart City vision

Citizen engagement is only one component in a Smart City. They are many applications which require integration to a smart city platform; thus, it cannot be developed in silo manner. Remember that IoT also requires input from physical sensors (other than the sensors from the smartphones.) A real Smart City needs an integrated platform that collects and aggregates various sources of data (structured or unstructured) to discover the insights of the city and make cities a better and sustainable place to live.

It’s not an IT job

Of course, any IT company can develop a citizen engagement mobile app. However, IoT requires different skills that encompass embedded programming, understanding different communications protocols, cloud services, and big data analytics.

The multitude of citizen engagement experiments a city starts can cause an increase in “engagement fatigue” and also give high expectations for change among citizens.  Among the city authorities, the experiments can be staff intensive, time consuming and provide little return for the city investment.

Done correctly, with integration of sensor data, analytics and a user-friendly reporting interface, citizen engagement apps can make a real difference to the working and living environment. Take a look at REDtone’s solution for more information, and to see how this solution in action.