Smart cities to get even smarter

Gulf governments are ambitiously adopting the internet of things to improve communication and citizen services
Tech titan Abu Ltaif says Microsoft will continue to innovate in the future.
By Samer Abu Ltaif
Thu 12 Jan 2017 12:52 PM

Recent advancements in technology have delivered mankind into a new era, thanks to Internet-related technologies. Cloud, social media and the internet of things (IoT) are obvious examples. But big data, mobile apps, communications tools and improvements in business applications have also been made possible by global networks.

As 2016 takes a bow, we note the laudable ambition of Gulf governments to harness these new capabilities to bring about change for the better. The business of government is conducted in an increasingly digital fashion, and citizens benefit from streamlined services and feedback programmes.

In the UAE, in March 2016, the Ministry of Health launched a Happiness Index that allowed it to collect data from customers on their experience, and use it to improve processes. In 2017, we expect to see more of these projects launched, using the cloud and big data to enhance analysis.

The role of the data scientist will continue to expand in the years to come. As such, we expect national programmes to encourage young people to pursue careers in data-based disciplines. Education in general can benefit from a range of new technologies and young people can be introduced to them in the classroom.

Holograms, such as those created by Microsoft HoloLens, are a valuable tool for learning and teaching. Even games such as Minecraft can be laid out on the floor of a room and interacted with in startlingly different ways. Using technology like this can help the engineers and data scientists of tomorrow to find their footing.

When these innovators enter the workforce, their immediate challenge will be taking the technologies behind IoT, applying their own advanced analytics, and designing smart government and smart city solutions that will revolutionise the way we live.

Everything a city is, everything a city does, can be optimised through the shrewd application of IoT, machine learning and analytics. Traffic patterns can be analysed in real time and bottlenecks predicted. Motorists can be informed of impending gridlock ahead of time. Analytics can fine tune commuting habits until problems abate, or it can enable more knowledge-based decisions on infrastructure development.

Yes, data scientists will be an indispensable resource in our progression towards a smart society. But the cloud alone has the power to deliver innovation into our hands, because of nuances in its architecture and service delivery.

Firstly, the cloud shaves costs, not only in day-to-day IT operations, but in more grandiose projects. Artificial intelligence (AI) has traditionally been expensive and only fit for deployment by global corporations with extensive research and development (R&D) budgets, but service providers can dispense AI platforms more cost-effectively to customers by hosting AI tools in the cloud.

Secondly, the efficiency of platform as a service (PaaS) in building extraordinarily ambitious solutions, means that cloud customers can wave the R&D heavy portion of their visions and move straight to a delivery concept. For example, in 2016 Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA) built the Rammas Bot.

This is an AI customer service attendant capable of detecting the spoken or written dialect of the customer and delivering real-time responses to natural language enquiries.

The solution was built on multiple messaging platforms that had already been developed by Microsoft. DEWA did not have to expend years of effort developing semantic models or phonetic-parsing routines; it simply built the solution it wanted, based on pre-existing platforms.

We expect more use of AI in 2017, as regional governments consider ways to deliver services more efficiently. The UAE in particular has shown a willingness over the years to adopt a make-it-happen approach to national programmes.

We predict that the emirates’ government will continue in its traditional resolve towards diversification, and support the non-oil economy amid current uncertainties. These businesses will benefit greatly from the cloud and associated technologies.

As 2021 approaches, and the UAE plans a trip to Mars, data science, artificial intelligence and IoT will be brought to bear even more.

Samer Abu Ltaif, Regional General Manager, Microsoft Gulf

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