Skywalking — getting smarter with technology

SceneIn a phenomenon that is pervasive globally, rapid urbanisation and the migration of millions of people to cities are not only shaping our societies and businesses, but are also putting an enormous stress on transportation related infrastructure. In this post we attempt to explore opportunities presented by emerging technologies and present a few practical technology solutions that can help resolve the Mumbai skywalking experiment and similar concerns faced by other metros across the globe.

Using big data to solve some typical issues in Maximum City

Mumbai — the city that never sleeps — has seen a burgeoning influx of people over the past few decades, overwhelming its infrastructure, particularly transportation-related infrastructure. This bottleneck, combined with infrastructural issues of unmaintained sidewalks, footpaths over-spilling with hawkers and unsafe subways, has added to the woes of pedestrians. To address this issue, the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) had taken up the task of building skywalks in the city and its suburbs. However, the residents do not seem to be very enthusiastic about the initiative. The authority has set up more than 36 skywalks entailing an investment of more than INR7.5 billion, but most of these have been reporting dropping footfalls over the past few years. While in June 2011, 1.2 million commuters used skywalks, the footfall during the same dipped to 740,000 within a year. These figures clearly indicate that there is a discrepancy between commuters’ needs and the way that skywalks have been built. This is despite the fact that Mumbai has almost 65 million pedestrians daily. Studies indicate that 57% of road fatalities in the city involve pedestrians. Hence, there is a need to take quick action to save the fate of city’s foot soldiers. The recent news of the forthcoming opening of Grant Road/ Nana Chowk skywalk, built with an investment of INR. 500 million, was followed by the typical criticism reserved for its kind, dating back to when the first skywalk was opened in 2008. The public raised objection to how these skywalks have been planned and criticized them for not taking end user preferences into consideration and eventually translating into ill-conceived routes. Moreover, the disabled and elderly have not been provided adequate access to skywalks. To add to this, there are safety and security concerns. As a result of such a multitude of concerns, declining footfalls and huge cost involved (INR. 250 million per annum) in maintaining these 36 skywalks, the program was shelved in 2011. While the MMRDA Chief asserts the need for skywalks in the city, he emphasizes the pivotal role of proper examination of consumer preference and feasibility. So where does one go from here? In this post we attempt to explore opportunities presented by emerging technologies and present a few practical technology solutions that could prove useful.

‘Big data’ to aid in the planning of skywalks

‘Big data’ refers to the collection of large, complex and unstructured data sets. This data is collected from various sources such as mobile devices, tracking systems, RFID, social networks, internet searches, automated record keeping and e-commerce. It is characterized by not just an enormous volume of data, but also the sheer variety and velocity of such data generated. Technology has progressed to a stage where inexpensive storage, ever-increasing computing power and modern analytic tools can be used to analyze large chunks of such continuously generated ‘big data’ data to provide useful insights. Most people carry a mobile phone while travelling. By using technologies such as network triangulation, network carriers can identify the approximate geographic location of any mobile user through roaming signals. Algorithms that calculate the speed of movement of a device can be used to detect whether it is a foot journey or a motorized one. By collecting such data over time and mashing it up with the map of Mumbai, authorities could manage to get a live feed of Mumbai’s foot journeys. As the population being tracked is not just a representative sample but the entire base of pedestrians, this mash-up could provide accurate and real-time data. Moreover, to remove any outliers, mobile data should be collated from multiple telecom service providers with a high subscriber base in the city. In addition to the network triangulation technology, through the use of Global Positioning System (GPS) technology, telecom operators can pinpoint the exact geographic location of a GPS-enabled mobile phone. This may further increase the accuracy of the study, and the proliferation of smartphones has made this feasible. Skywalks could then be planned as per routes of such foot journeys undertaken. Also, entry and exit points could be constructed over those long skywalks to provide more convenient accessibility as per the needs of pedestrians. Privacy concerns of individuals can be sufficiently addressed by anonymizing the data being used. Telecom service providers in other countries are adopting big data technologies to offer new services to private and public sector organizations. For example, a Spanish telecommunication company has set up a new business unit to offer companies and civic bodies with analytical insights based on the anonymized location data of its users. It will provide location “heat maps” of its users’ movements throughout the day. Anonymized and aggregated mobile network data could help government authorities make better informed decisions for the city’s infrastructure and traffic planning, reduce costs through increased efficiency, understand and serve the needs of the citizens. Hence, the huge amount of data generated through the mobile devices of the public could actually help civic bodies plan strategically and provide a better quality of life to its citizens.

Improving safety using advanced ‘video analytics’, another ‘big data’ application

Security has remained a primary concern for residents while travelling on Mumbai’s skywalks. Most of the commuters avoid these skywalks in non-peak hours because of the presence of beggars, drug addicts and other antisocial elements. While, CCTV surveillance is a necessity, the accompanying challenge is whether we would need armies of people monitoring such live feeds. Due to technological advancements this concern can be resolved –– there are video analytics tools available that can compress long hours of video into a few minutes of relevant feeds. Such tools allow pinpointing of an area of interest in the video and also indicate unusual activity, thus doing away with the need to view the complete video. Out-of-home advertising through well-lit displays on the walking path could also contribute to making an area safe. Also, if hawker movement is restricted to certain areas, this may make the skywalk safer with the path being ‘alive with action’.

Improving convenience

Another area of concern is that these skywalks are not user friendly: they have stairs to climb and are long on foot, making it unfeasible for senior citizens and the physically disabled. To absolve this concern, civic bodies need to install moving walkways. Authorities could consider installing various types of moving walkways including inclined ones (such as escalators, inclined ramps and spiral ramps to climb up to the skywalk) and horizontal ones (such as travelators on the skywalk path).

Monetizing skywalks using digital OOH technologies

Authorities could consider generating revenue through out-of-home (OOH) advertising. Hoardings or digital OOH displays could be placed at strategically chosen areas along the path of the skywalk. Given that most consumers are time crunched, they prefer to skip advertisements presented through traditional formats such as television and radio. However, advertisements are unavoidable in higher traffic zones where people get stuck or have to wait in long queues. Digital OOH displays are gaining acceptance from marketers as they address this ‘captive’ audience. Content distribution and scheduling is managed centrally using a content management server. In the backdrop of falling CAPEX requirements for technology rollouts and flat screens or digital displays, and adequate availability of reliable broadband technologies (for content dissemination), digital OOH is set to gain steam (from a false start a few years ago). Apart from all these, who knows, if future would see ATM booths on skywalk once these areas are considered safe and secure by the pedestrians. Overall, while skywalks are a brilliant idea, authorities may want to step up their planning efforts. Recently, the Chief Minister of Maharashtra approved MMRDA’s INR500-million budget for skywalks to be built in FY14. However, before taking a step forward, authorities should consider taking a deep breath, studying and fixing few genuine issues that plagued Version 1.0 of skywalks. Also, leverage opportunities presented by various technologies such as big data and video analytics (for better planning), and digital OOH (for monetization). (*The author is a partner with advisory services at EY LLP, and a thought leader on matters of technology application for solving real issues. These views are personal in nature).

2 thoughts on “Skywalking — getting smarter with technology

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