• India's smart cities are leveraging tech to help support the recovery from COVID-19.
  • A new paper highlights key findings on effective strategies that these cities deployed.
  • These include ensuring data protection, hiring specialized experts and facilitating citizen outreach.

COVID-19 has resulted in widespread turbulences across the world. In India, the challenges of the pandemic were compounded by the strain on healthcare capabilities and the vulnerability of many to the economic hardships of the downturn.

Citizens are looking to their governments for credible information, guidance and leadership to keep them safe and healthy and avoid economic hardships. The technologies used in developing smart cities could offer a way forward.

Leveraging technology for emergency response

As part of its emergency response to the pandemic, the Indian government leveraged its Smart Cities Mission, an initiative launched in 2015 to enable cities to effectively leverage technology in improving citizen services and overall quality of life.

A new World Economic Forum report, in partnership with Deloitte, Technology and Data Governance in Smart Cities: On the Frontlines of India’s Fight against COVID-19, shows how Bengaluru, Surat, and Pimpri Chinchwad leveraged technology to coordinate between different city-level agencies to plan and monitor their COVID-19 emergency response.

Many of India’s smart cities effectively used their Integrated Command and Control Centers (ICCC), which form the “brain and nerve center” for the city’s operations management, as “COVID-19 War Rooms” for analyzing city-specific data, coordinating activities of various state and city agencies and connecting with citizens. Using data collected through various sensors and smart solutions, cities carried out data modelling and predictive analytics, creating dashboards, scenario visualization and simulation models to analyze the virus spread and plan their response.

These centers also provided cities with a single platform for bringing civil society, local businesses and others to collaborate with the city administration on the following activities:

  • Information dissemination and citizen outreach
  • Contact tracking and tracing of possible cases and organizing treatment
  • Managing the impact of local lockdowns through organizing doorstep delivery of essentials
  • Providing food and shelter for the economically weaker sections of society and vulnerable citizens
  • Ensuring sanitation and hygiene
  • Providing emergency services

Overcoming challenges

The magnitude of the COVID-19 crisis presented many challenges for cities to overcome, including a lack of available staff, technical knowledge to repurpose existing smart solutions, and capacity building and training for those manning COVID-19 War Rooms.

The three cities studied found ways to overcome these issues quickly, offering examples for others facing the same dilemmas.

For example, the Indian Institute of Science and other locally-based organizations supported Bengaluru in setting up its COVID-19 War Room. Bengaluru then shared its experience in setting up its COVID-19 War Room with other cities through various webinars.

The Surat Municipal Corporation with the help of local partner organizations arranged training sessions on COVID-19 protocols for healthcare workers and doctors manning the COVID-19 War Room.

Pimpri Chinchwad had municipal officers, health workers, city police and volunteers manning the COVID-19 War Room .

Moving forward

The Smart Cities Mission has formulated the DataSmart Cities strategy based on three key pillars of ‘People’, ‘Process,’ and ‘Platform’, with the National Urban Innovation Stack as the guiding philosophy to institutionalise data-driven governance. It guides and supports Indian cities’ sustainable effectiveness in six key areas.

1. Standardization and interoperability: Cities should create technology management policies and strategies for ensuring standardization and interoperability by adopting strategies formulated by the Mission.

2. Data security and protection: There needs to be data policies in compliance with national laws and guidelines to ensure citizens’ data security and protection, as well as standard operating procedures that address data collection, storage, usage and sharing.

3. Coordination among agencies: Stakeholders must establish mechanisms to share information among city and state agencies, and define protocols for responding to incidents, with the city’s ICCC acting as a platform to coordinate and monitor these activities.

4. Specialized skillsets: Cities should appoint data officers and strengthen the city data cell by including professionals in areas such as data architecture, security, privacy and analytics.

5. Assessment frameworks: Using assessment frameworks, such as MoHUA’s Ease of Living, Municipal Performance, Climate Smart Cities, Data Maturity, and ICCC Maturity, cities can assess their performance through objective parameters and learn from the experiences of better-performing cities.

6. Citizen outreach: No approach is complete without implementing connectivity-related smart solutions to facilitate citizen contact over multiple channels including help desks, call centers, citizen portals and mobile apps.

The experience of Indian cities in responding to COVID-19 has clearly demonstrated that technology and data-driven decision making are critical for ensuring effective citizen outreach and service delivery. They can serve as models for helping other governments around the world realize the benefits of smart cities in a post-pandemic world.