Microsoft CityNext transforms the ‘digital architecture’ of residents’ everyday lives

Editor’s note: The following is a post from Suzanne Choney, a staff writer at Microsoft News Center.

In Denmark, where an increasingly aging population is straining the government’s health care resources, preventive care is becoming a must, not just a catch phrase on a white board in a meeting or in a binder on a bureaucrat’s desk.

How do you get seniors to make sure they take care of themselves to minimize ambulance calls? Or to monitor their physical rehabilitation after a surgery so the chance of setbacks – and costly additional doctor’s visits — are reduced?

The solutions – including remote health care monitoring and using Kinect to help guide physical therapy at home — are being forged by the people and partners taking part in Microsoft’s CityNext initiative.

“Denmark wants to reduce costs to provide a better quality of health to individuals who need rehabilitation, so they don’t have to be transported to physical therapy appointments if they can be avoided,” says Laura Ipsen, corporate vice president of Microsoft Worldwide Public Sector, and one of the leaders of CityNext. She was in Denmark recently to meet with government officials and local business partners to get a program underway for remote health monitoring and “virtual rehabilitation” in situations where they can be done from the patient’s home.

“Often, because of Denmark’s cold weather, just having someone who is older and more physically fragile be outside, even for short times, brings on new problems itself,” she says.

Ipsen will speak about CityNext at the Smart City Expo World Congress Nov. 19-21 in Barcelona; a world-class city where tourism – and traffic – are huge and where one of the newest CityNext projects is taking shape.

Barcelona worked with Microsoft and business partner Bismart to build a hybrid cloud to store and analyze big data, including information from social media and GPS signals from mobile phones to improve city services for residents and tourists.

“Using information from social networks and mobile apps is important to understand the needs and traffic patterns of people including tourists,” Albert Isern, Bismart CEO said recently. “This includes knowing where to place more public bike stations and security cameras, or which corners of the city need more restaurants and ATMs.”

Previously, each of Barcelona’s city agencies were using different systems and third-party tools to gather this information, meaning “that staff had to manually compile disparate data to create insight into city services including transportation and emergency-response teams,” according to a recent Microsoft case study about Barcelona’s situation.

“Not only did these manual processes slow efficiency, but they also inflated costs.”

CityNext’s successes and innovation goals also are being shared this week at the National League of Cities Congress of Cities meeting in Seattle, where Brad Smith, Microsoft executive vice president and general counsel, is one of the opening general speakers. Also this week, in Singapore at the Analyst Summit Asia 2013 Microsoft signed a memorandum of understanding with CITYNET (The Regional Network of Local Authorities for the Management of Human Settlements) to collaborate to help cities across Asia tackle many of their biggest challenges such as urban migration and decreased budgetary resources.

Launched in July, CityNext is a global initiative with a very local focus. The idea is to empower people to transform their cities and their futures by using data and the ideas, energy and expertise of citizens to create healthier, safer and more sustainable places to live and to work. The tools include cloud technology, mobile devices, apps and social networks.

“We’d seen a lot of programs around smart cities, but it still didn’t seem like the ball had been moved forward in a way where people believed, ‘Hey, we’re much more connected as a city’” says Ipsen.

“Most of the time cities are thinking about things like buildings, energy and transportation – the physical architecture. What we really think about is the digital architecture, how we map what happens in the physical world and digitize that to make a difference in the experiences of citizens, businesses and governments.

“CityNext’s portfolio includes everything from transportation to energy, health, education, judiciary, the administration side,” she says. “What excites us in the public sector is that we’re able to weave those together and then create this new way that cities can work and interact.”

Since July, with the help of Microsoft’s 430,000 worldwide partner ecosystem, Microsoft has launched CityNext programs around the world, in cities across Germany, England, France, Morocco, Ecuador, New Zealand and in the United States, in Seattle.

The problems that need solving, while similar, are unique to each location; CityNext isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. In Denmark, for example, where unemployment is high, health care is a national right and nearly one in five Danes are 65 or older, officials have been struggling with how to reduce the costs of care for seniors.

There, Microsoft partner KMD Online Osmorg makes it possible to deliver some care services via online video as a complement to – not a substitute for — doctor’s office visits. And, Welfare Denmark, a company that develops innovative welfare technology products, created Virtual Rehabilitation, a device based on Kinect for Windows that works with Microsoft Lync and Skype to guide patients through rehabilitation exercises, monitors and corrects their movements in real time.

“We’re really focused on engaging cities on how they do more with less, how do they do not only do more with less, but also ‘new with less’ – such as remote virtual rehabilitation – and then how do we create jobs locally on top of that?” says Ipsen.

“CityNext is focused on working with local partners, developing local solutions, who then can replicate their solutions to scale and sell elsewhere. I love that model because it achieves cost savings, a better quality of service for citizens, and by engaging local partners, the model ultimately creates more jobs.”

CityNext success looks different for each city and the challenges they face:

  • In Hamburg, with 1,900 port authority employees working on both ships and land, workers can do their jobs more effectively using mobile devices that have Microsoft Office 365 apps. When there are dangerous storm surges, for example, employees have been able to get to the scene of an emergency much more quickly than before.
  • In Auckland, New Zealand, where the city’s population of 1.4 million is expected to double by 2040, Auckland Transport was able to give residents new options – such as filling out bus cards online and reporting potholes and other road damage via the “MyStreet” app from a smartphone. The city posts the repairs that are done, as well as scheduled work, to MyStreet, and citizens can monitor the work in progress.
  • In Manchester, England, mobile apps for those using the Greater Manchester transportation system were already in use. But the agency decided to make its data publicly available and to create and host a real-time open data platform so that third-party developers could create apps for public transportation. Now, more than 100 development projects are in the works.
  • In France, IssyGrid is the country’s first smart-grid neighborhood. A project there has reduced energy use – and homeowners’ bills – by 10 to 20 percent in the town of Issy-les-Moulineaux. Some 200 homes have been outfitted with energy-consumption monitoring devices. Data from the devices is processed in real-time using Windows Azure cloud services. A consortium that includes local utilities and Microsoft partners analyzes the information so that individuals can see how they’re using electricity, and conserve as needed. The goal is to expand the program to the town’s 5,000 residents and 10,000 business employees.
  • In Seattle, the city joined Microsoft, Accenture, the Seattle 2030 District and Seattle City Light to put into place software similar to what Microsoft has for increasing energy efficiency in large commercial buildings across Seattle’s downtown corridor. The aim is to reduce downtown energy use by 25 percent, and plans are to expand this pilot program next year.

“One of our goals of CityNext is doing a great job of listening to what a cities’ priorities are and helping them solve their biggest challenges — not just trying to sell new technologies that we think are cool,” Ipsen said.

“By really understanding the goals of the city, Microsoft and our vast ecosystem of partners can enable cities to do new with less. Our customized approach and our diverse case studies can help them understand where we can create economic value and citizen impact, without re-creating the wheel.”