Data and technology improves preparations in Richmond

The Smart Cities Challenges paves the way for disaster plan upgrades to benefit residents

Richmond B.C., Wikimedia Commons photo
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Reported by Kathryn Tindale

The next time a disaster hits this region, Richmond will be more prepared than most.

It is working on systems to shut down the Massey Tunnel, to warn hospitals to cancel surgeries, and to automatically open fire-hall doors so that trucks can get out seconds faster.

Those are some of the strategies that Richmond is working on with local high-tech companies in a competition called Smart Cities Challenge.

“The benefits back to the city include improved co-ordination of emergency response; safer streets with the reduction of traffic crashes, congestion and commute times; greater community resiliency for 72-hour post-disaster; early instant detection of flooding, earthquakes and spills; improved communication for our residents, the list goes on,” said Grant Fengstad, Richmond’s director of information technology.

As an island city, Richmond is susceptible to flooding and is located in a seismic-prone region, so its proposal includes upgraded plans in the event of a disaster that will also improve everyday life for residents.

To do so, the city partnered with governments and businesses share their data from traffic, infrastructure and communication technology that weren’t initially integrated as an “intelligent operations hub.”

Future changes

Mark Masongsong, CEO and co-founder of UrbanLogiq, a Vancouver-based dataanalysis company, said improving communication to residents, such as an app, is being considered by Richmond in order to preserve data, but also to ensure that information gets to the public quickly.

“They want to push that data as much as possible, as fast as possible to residents,” he said. “But how do we create systems where, for example, people with certain disabilities or with different language capabilities, who may not be quite as comfortable using that.”

There is also the concern about people not being able to access the app because they can’t afford or don’t know how to use a smartphone, Masongsong said. These details are still being worked out.

Another strategy for improving safety during a disaster is new measures for first responders, said the director of the disaster mitigation unit for Emergency Management BC, Jesal Shah.

Shah said by integrating an earlywarning system for critical infrastructure, like hospitals, police stations and fire halls, Richmond can improve disaster responses with a three- to 90-second head start.

“So then they could shut down critical infrastructure, such as the Massey Tunnel,” he said. “It could open up fire-enginehall doors, so that fire trucks can leave quickly, because after an earthquake, it may damage the system. Also it could alert hospitals to refrain from doing any surgeries if the effects of a big earthquake are about to be felt.”

Adding sensors on the outside of critical infrastructure can also signal to first responders if it is safe to enter a building if there has been an earthquake, said Shah.

Preparation benefits residents

Masongsong said UrbanLogiq compiled data for traffic, transportation and economic development for Richmond’s proposal and there doesn’t need to be an earthquake or flood before they become relevant.

He said improving timing for traffic lights or optimizing the course for transport vehicles and ships arriving at the port can all be improved through the shared data from the intelligent operations hub.

Transoft Solutions, a Richmond-based company, develops software to aid developers with infrastructure and planning needs.

Steven Cheng, the chief operating officer for Transoft Solutions, sat on the Smart Cities advisory board because many  of their staff live and work in Richmond.

“If there’s anything that happened to Richmond or any disaster area, then we want to co-ordinate a bit in terms of what we want to do and for our business, [to] continue our business, and also our well-being for our staff,” Cheng said.

As a finalist in the Smart Cities Challenge, Richmond has a one in five chance to win $10 million. The challenge is an open competition for all municipalities, governments and communities across Canada to create a proposal incorporating the “smart cities” approach, which reaches solutions for residents by using data and connected technology.

Shah said the $10 million is just a starting point since the accumulating incentives from the Smart Cities challenge are worth more than the winning money.

“This award would raise the profile of Richmond and kind of give more onus to develop more smart initiatives,” he said.

Ted Townsend, the director for corporate communications and marketing in Richmond, said work projects with the provincial government have begun for  emergency communications.

“They’re looking at working with Richmond as a pilot-partner and in rolling out some of those projects,” he said. “Those will go ahead regardless of what happens with the Smart Cities Challenge.”

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