Agglomerations are growing. Can Telco positively impact this transformation?

First of all, let me acknowledge the participation of two colleagues of mine in the redaction of this article: Raphael Rollier who is now responsible for the development of Smart City value proposition at Swisscom and Michal Piorkowski who has now the responsibility to develop the new Swisscom Mobility Insight platform.

A nightmare for policy makers and city planners

It is a global trend that the world population is getting more and more urban. By 2007 more than half of the world population was living in cities. It is expected that by 2050 this number will have reached 70% which is the current level of urbanization in Switzerland. However, even in Switzerland this global trend verifies itself, even if not as sharply. Recently, in 1997, statistician observed a noticeable inflexion point when the urban population started growing faster than the rural one. Furthermore in a country like Switzerland where the expansion of cities is tightly monitored and where the space devoted to cities is simply limited, these trends are directly translating into an ever growing density of the urban areas. Higher density translates in turn into an increase of traffic, higher occurrence of traffic jams, longer commuting times etc.

In summary in countries like Switzerland, accompanying these trends while maintaining the quality of life that everybody is aspiring for becomes a real nightmare for the policy makers and the city planners.

Repartition de la population

accroissment de la population

How traditional mobility models are created

In order to raise to the challenge, policy makers and city planners are facing a first and major difficulty: how to get a reliable picture of the current mobility patterns in a given area?

For decades, City Planners are using a set of tools comprising of:

  • Road sensors which strategically positioned count in near real time the number of vehicles passing by. However these installations are costly to install and can’t be deployed at each crossing roads. Furthermore once installed, they lack flexibility to adapt to changes of configuration of the traffic. Finally and most importantly, road sensors do not allow to reconstitute an end-to-end trip which seriously impedes the analytical capabilities of the City planners.
  • People manually assessing traffic flows, be it for vehicles or pedestrians. This approach clearly allows richer statistics but is obviously not scalable.
  • Census (such as the one organized by the Federal State every 5 years) which provides a very rich picture of the mobility with its 170 questions. They indeed cover many areas of the mobility spanning from the frequency and purpose of trips to the mode of transportation used and the number of people involved in the trip or from the number of vehicles per household to the availability of dedicated parking slots. Nearly 1% of the Swiss population participates to this survey. At the level of a canton, this typically represents a couple of thousands people. This method is obviously costly, becomes obsolete after two or three years and bears inaccuracies as it may rely on approximate or failing memories.

City planners are then correlating these various data sources, enriching them with open data (e.g. train tables) and introducing hypothesis in order to produce a mobility model. The elaboration of such model necessitate a significant amount of time and effort (sometimes adding to even a year) and constant adjustments following the fluctuations of the sensor data. Such model help for example better manage traffic lights in order to streamline the traffic. They also have more massive impacts as they influence infrastructure investments which can reach several billions of Swiss francs in one canton alone (e.g. new railways lines equipped with several stations, new section of a motorway, tunnels under a lake etc.). In these cases, the lack of trusted data can lead to enormous inefficiencies that society has to bear.

Telco Data at the rescue

This is where Telco Data could bring a real added value. Indeed in order to properly route a call or data to a mobile phone, a telco network needs to physically locate the device. Emergency services are also heavily dependent on this feature. Once properly aggregated and anonymized in order to fully respect the privacy of its customers as well as the Telecom Laws, a Telecom Operator can significantly simplify the work of civil servants while improving their insights.

In 2011, the project Ville Vivante in Geneva allowed to grasp the potential of such data. However the project mainly had an artistic nature and lacked practical applications. Swisscom innovation team started then to explore use cases with Cities and Cantons.

These activities with city planners demonstrated that :

  • Telco-based models provide very good results when compared with available data, even if data is not always one-to-one comparable.
  • Telco-based data provides more granular data. Traffic flows could for example be monitored on an hourly basis, number of individuals could be assessed instead of the number of vehicles which could present a high deviation for axis used by public transport.
  • Telco-based data with its scale at another order of magnitude allows to identify unknown “lignes de désir” (i.e. most wanted paths)
  • Telco-based data enables to study the effect of seasonality or special events like fairs
  • Telco-based data enables to constantly follow the traffic fluctuations and establish early trends.

In summary we are convinced that the usage of Telco Data allows appropriate and better steering of public investments while decreasing the costs of public administrations. Better allocation of the public finance allows in turn a significant improvement of the citizen quality of life and overall city attractiveness. We are proud that Swisscom is committed to respect the highest privacy standards while making a significant contribution to the public good. Furthermore we only are at the start of our journey as telco data can uncover many new capabilities such as the assessment of the mode of transportation or the development of predictive models to support scenarios developing the urban infrastructure. If you are excited by such prospects, do not hesitate to reach out to us!!


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