Street smart: ushering Dubai into a new era

Samia Qaiyum
Samia Qaiyum

Digital innovation in governance is the way forward in helping Smart Dubai fulfil its vision of making Dubai the happiest city on Earth. Samia Qaiyum learns how to use data smarter, from the Director General of the Smart Dubai Office, Her Excellency Dr Aisha Bin Bishr

Q. How can big data give government a competitive advantage for attracting resources and talent to maintain a global smart megacity status?

A. In Dubai, we have the Dubai Data initiative – a citywide project that will guide the opening and sharing of city data across the public and private sector. With this, we hope to provide better knowledge for decisionmakers, entrepreneurs and individuals. For instance, if city planners know of an area where people are unhappy because of a certain service, they will be given more insights in order to improve. Our goal is to always keep Dubai at the edge of competitiveness. What we are trying to do is attract talent by opening and unleashing the data of the city, and allowing this talent to test their ideas and develop prototypes atop our platform.

Q. Do you see a demand for more digital innovation in government? Who from, and what kinds of innovations are they requesting?

A. I would say our people – our leaders and our residents – are making these requests. His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum himself is eager to see the best utilisation of technology; back in 2003, where meetings online weren’t commonplace, he specifically called for a press conference to be held over the internet. We have a young population, and considering the 200 per cent smartphone penetration in the country, it is clear they have an increasing demand for online, digital and smart services. This is what keeps us innovating.

Q. How do you think city ‘happiness’ is influenced by its smartness, and vice versa?

A. Firstly, we are defining a smart service as providing an efficient, seamless, safe and impactful city experience. If I’m trying to offer an experience of this sort to reduce trivial problems like traffic and queuing for each one of us, does this bring about happiness? Absolutely. We see smartness and happiness as different faces of the same coin.

Q. Frost & Sullivan has indicated that almost half of the world’s 26 ‘smart cities’ are located in emerging markets. Is digital innovation in emerging markets a trend you’re also starting to see?

A. Yes; with rapidly increasing technology adoption, every city wants to target itself as a smart city. However, they are only tackling specific challenges like traffic density and inefficient utilisation of resources by turning to smart technology. What we are trying to introduce is a holistic vision that covers all aspects of life.

Q. In reference to the Dubai Data initiative, how do you think value can be best extracted from raw data?

A. We’ll soon launch the open data platform wherein people can access data sets, providing them with tools to develop applications based on the same. And there are benefits for businesses, families and city planners alike. An entrepreneur may spend six to nine months moving from one entity to another for matters like visas and registrations. Think about the boost in productivity if this time can be spent on business operations instead, handling formalities online within a matter of minutes. If a family is made aware of how much petrol it collectively consumed during the previous month, some members will consider the shift to public transportation. But this won’t happen if data can’t be seen in a proper way, so it’s these new ways of running the city that we want to bring onboard.

Q. What are some particularly exciting hi-tech projects you can point out that are either being introduced to Dubai, or already in use?

A. There are two establishments here within this office. One is the Smart Dubai Government Establishment – they design, run and manage the technology infrastructure for us. The second is the Dubai Data Establishment that guarantees policies are implemented, making sure data is open and shared. They also spread awareness about what data science is. Through these two, we are providing the whole city – whether private sector or public – with proper infrastructure and sharing platforms when it comes to technology. And because management styles will become more data-driven with time, we will soon launch master classes on data science at the Mohammed bin Rashid School of Government so as to educate people about datarelated laws and their benefits.

Q. Who are some other municipal leaders that are showing real skill in linking breakthroughs in technology and data analytics with governance of their citiesand regions?

A. We have established very strong global partnerships by being a member of the City Protocol Society, an NGO that brings together cities, commercial organizations and academia to discuss the new city sciences. We recently signed a MoU with Estonia, one of the world’s most advanced countries when it comes to e-Government. We also collaborate with Amsterdam, London, Paris, Barcelona, Chicago and New York, as well as Eastern cities like Seoul, Hong Kong and Singapore.