A Spanish company is well on its way to turn the Madrid city streets into information platforms, disseminating updates to pedestrians on weather conditions, poor pavements, slippery grounds and coupons for nearby restaurants. The streets will also inform local authorities on use of pathways and occupation of public spaces. The solution known as iPavement uses pavement stones with built-in computing capabilities and Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity. The company is also likely to create a library through city pavements, digitally distributing local works and promoting local writers as pedestrians walk by.
As baffling as it sounds, this truly is happening around the world. Technology penetration, increased mobile phone density and rapid growth in use of data services have opened up new possibilities for businesses around the world, which are finding new means to serve consumers in more effective ways. In particular, wide availability and reduced cost of Wi-Fi in a range of equipment has led to a new application known as ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT), illustrating a technology-enabled landscape where devices, sensors and everyday items like washing machines, ovens and refrigerators have computing capabilities and can talk to one another. The advent of IoT has also impacted the e-governance paradigm, where governments are exploring new possibilities for use of technology to improve service delivery.
Within e-governance, IoT has already found applications in sectors like healthcare, transportation, education and public safety in mind-boggling ways and means. On the one hand, governments are remotely measuring and monitoring bacterial level in water bodies due to public health concerns and on the other using sensors for reporting precise infrastructure repair needs and pipe bursts for water utilities enhancing delivery yields. Educationists are deliberating how student-specific devices can help unleash new teaching methodologies, whereby teachers will be able to monitor student behaviour at their tablets, covering as much as their stress levels, classroom temperature and students’ reaction to teachers’ instructions. Law-enforcement agencies have started using environmental sensors identifying exact locations of fired gunshots and taking cognisance of even the unreported crimes.
While the world is moving on this unbelievable technological trajectory, Pakistan’s e-governance rankings unfortunately have slid down. According to the UN Global E-government Survey (2016), Pakistan ranked 159th, claiming a position in the bottom 30 countries of the world, along with others like Afghanistan, Myanmar and Timor. Pakistan’s position on these rankings has been worsening over time, as the country was ranked 158th in 2014 and 156th in 2012. India on the other hand has been successively improving its ranking from 125 in 2012 to 107 in 2016.
The situation is, however, not all doom and gloom. With 133 million mobile phone subscribers, close to 40 million Internet users and a phenomenal growth in smart phone penetration, Pakistan is also not far behind in terms of technology adoption by citizens. Even within the public sector, there are some examples of cutting-edge technology work. In Punjab for instance, the Punjab Information Technology Board has significantly improved electronic citizen-state interfaces and has successfully used technology-backed solutions to improve accountability of officials in a number of sectors. Projects like safe cities in Islamabad and Lahore are using state-of-the-art technology for greater safety and security and are embracing the concepts like Big Data.
There is, however, a need to move beyond the current e-governance paradigm and embrace new technological developments like IoT to improve how citizens are served. First and foremost, there is a need to recognise this global shift from e-governance to smart governance and formally make it a part of government’s technology strategy or policy. India has already taken the leap forward and has begun to evolve its thinking around how public services can be improved through IoT, as articulated in its technology vision ‘Digital India — Road to Smart Governance’. A similar recognition from our government can compel various agencies to start thinking on these lines.
The next step is to identify areas where services can be re-thought through use of IoT. Public safety, for instance, is one such area, where Internet-enabled devices can greatly improve crime detection. Similarly, explosion of boilers in industrial units has caused some serious damage in recent years and a licensing regime, incorporating IoT devices can make inspection far easier and well-targeted and prevent colossal losses of life and property. Repairs for mega infrastructure such as overhead bridges, underpasses and newly built metro lines is another area, where IoT can result in timely repairs and help prevent accidents. In the agriculture sector, IoT can bring a world of change through use of devices for adaptive irrigation and on-farm sensors to measure soil, plant and environmental variables resulting in improved productivity.
In order to make use of these wonderful applications however, there is a need to build technology-related capacity of civil servants and government employees. They need to be well versed in latest technological developments before they can start thinking of innovative ways and means to transform their respective organisations. Moreover, the government also needs to scale up its investment in promoting digital literacy for the masses so that they can better adopt and avail such services.
Globalisation and increased connectivity has bypassed the need for countries to leapfrog on technology trajectory and it is far easier for governments to now embrace these breakthrough technologies at once. What is needed is a firm policy commitment from the top and a robust institutional structure below to deliver such vision. This can take Pakistan towards smarter governance and smarter cities in the years to come.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 14th, 2017.