Digital city-building is no longer confined to SimCity

by Peter Griffin / 24 October, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - Digital city building Singapore

Singapore. Photo/Getty Images

In Virtual Singapore, you can zoom in on every apartment building to see its engineering characteristics, price and how many people are living there.

In the classic computer game SimCity you get to play mayor and town planner, laying down roads and constructing housing estates, power stations and bridges as you build your own virtual city.

I spent weeks at a time as a teen scrolling around “Peterborough”, as I called it, keeping tabs on air pollution levels, tax revenue and citizen sentiment as my town expanded. The game is quite geeky, but still popular more than 20 years later.

Now, the same concept is being applied to generate visualisations of real cities – sort of like a full 3D version of Google Maps for town planning and monitoring public services. Singapore, with 5.6 million people living on an island off the coast of Malaysia, is one of the first to build a virtual data model of the entire country – Virtual Singapore.

It is comparatively easy for a city-state such as Singapore to create such a model, but also a pressing need. It is small and populous, so good planning is paramount. Most efforts to visualise data of this kind are limited to individual cities, such as Vancouver, Melbourne, Shenzhen and Wellington.

But in Virtual Singapore, you can zoom in on every apartment building in the country to see its engineering characteristics, price and how many people are living there. Reports of dengue fever are tracked in another data layer, and planners can visualise the route a new cycle lane will take.

Many of the data sets are already available in some form, but the plan Singapore and many other governments are now pursuing is to have what the Singaporeans call “one single source of truth” – one virtual model that hosts numerous layers of data, much of it fed in from sensor networks attached to roads, buildings and public infrastructure.

Singapore’s virtual data model has layers allowing people to check apartment prices.

Singapore’s virtual data model has layers allowing people to check apartment prices.

The Wellington City Council has its own virtual city. In 2014, it partnered with Japanese tech company NEC to build the Digital City Model of Wellington. Every building, road and area of green space in the city is mapped in a visualisation that can then be overlaid with 80 sets of data, such as zoning information and buildings’ earthquake ratings.

One of its uses is modelling what the effect of sea-level rise will be on low-lying parts of Wellington. Simulate 50cm of sea-level rise – the current low-end estimate by 2100 – and you get an idea of the extent of inundation.

Like Singapore, Wellington has also been experimenting with sensor networks to feed real-time information into the digital model. It installed stereoscopic cameras at the ASB Sports Centre and the Wellington Railway Station to provide counts of individuals passing through pedestrian choke points. It is also considering deploying air quality-sensors at street level to monitor exhaust fumes from vehicles and industry – small particulate matter can penetrate the deepest part of the lungs.

CCTV cameras around the city were once used in a “behavioural analytics” project to detect violence and begging, which were to have been plotted on the map with the aim of improving safety in problem areas. But the city ditched its behavioural sensing work, which seemed a bit Big Brother.

In fact, after spending $500,000 on the Smart City project, the council recently parted ways with NEC, but plans to further develop the Digital City Model with other partners.

For its part, Virtual Singapore will be opened up to private companies such as architecture, engineering, property and development firms. Within two years, the model and numerous layers of data will be available to the public – weather, transport and health data are likely to be the most useful.

These digital models will really come into their own when sensors are so widespread that they can monitor a city in real-time, detecting leaking water mains or coordinating public transport.

Now, if only I could use my SimCity mayoral powers to sort out Wellington’s bus-route problems.

This article was first published in the October 20, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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