AWS Public Sector Blog

Powering Smart Cities through Connected Devices

This is the second post in a three-part series around smart and collaborative cities, showing how AWS can help cities of all sizes benefit from the cloud. If you missed our first post in the series, Cities of the Future, Today, you can read it here. In this post, we will explore how cloud computing can help cities collect data from both people and devices to provide enhanced citizen services.


Today’s “always on” and “always connected” world can lead to powerful transformations in our cities. These new mobile technologies allow city leaders to gather data in ways they never could before. Citizen data and sensor data can help provide better intelligence, understand citizens’ needs, and ultimately, provide improved services. The cloud can help lower barriers to entry, helping them create new services with the goal of making our lives easier, but also help quickly create low-cost and easy-to-apply services.

Citizen Data

It is inevitable that you will see people glued to their phones. Whether you are at dinner or on your morning commute, instead of getting annoyed, think about how these little computers make life easier. Citizens now have access to mobile applications that allow them to voluntarily provide data to the city by participating in surveys or by using mobile applications. These applications leverage smartphone features, such as accelerometers and GPS functionality, to track the location and movement patterns of their users. And this data can help cities make effective changes.

For example, the City of Boston, with technology partner Connected Bits, has created the Street Bump program to tackle tough local government challenges through innovative, scalable technology. With an app that uses a smartphone’s sensors they are able to capture enough (big) data to identify bumps and disturbances that motorists experience while they drive through the city. The data helps Boston’s Public Works Department better understand roads, streets, and areas that require immediate attention and long term repair.

AWS allows them to create a scalable, open, and robust infrastructure for this information to flow to and from city staff via the Open311 API. This solution developed by nonprofit OpenPlans, was created as a large multi-tenant software-as-a-service platform so other cities can also leverage the same repository, creating one data store for all cities.

GPS is one way to gather data, but another source of data comes from social media streams. City leaders can track whether their citizens are struggling with traffic jams, train delays, or other issues. They can learn about their citizens by analyzing social media, such as the Twitter Firehose, which provides data on public tweets around the world. Every tweet includes location information (if allowed by user), and users can create a geographical bounding box to monitor tweets published in or near to their city.

One common analysis of social media streams is sentiment analysis, a method that uses language processing and text analysis to understand the sentiment of a specific string. This can be beneficial to a city looking to understand how changes are affecting their population and the status of public services. For example, is there a hotspot of citizens complaining about waste collection? The below diagram shows how you could use AWS services to build a real-time social media analysis application.

Using AWS services and social media, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) in Australia, in partnership with the Black Dog Institute, created the We Feel project. This project explores whether social media – specifically Twitter – can provide an accurate, real-time signal of the world’s emotional state. It uses several Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2) instances to capture tweets from Twitter’s public API at an average of 19,000 tweets per minute. A separate Amazon EC2 instance processes the tweets, analyzing usernames to determine gender and identifying phrases that reveal emotional content. The information is funneled into an Amazon Kinesis stream, and then the tweets are copied to a scalable Amazon Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3) for storage. The stream is monitored by another Amazon EC2 instance, which produces a summary of results every five minutes and transcribes it in an Amazon DynamoDB database.

Social media and mobility have the power to share useful information to city leaders to help them understand challenges, solutions, and opportunities within their cities.

Sensor Data

Changing cities for the better is, of course, bigger than social media. Internet of Things (IoT) technologies enable new and intelligent ways to collect data across many different industries, including health, transportation, energy and utilities, and agriculture.

AWS IoT is a managed cloud service that provides the ability for ‘things’ to easily and securely interact with cloud services and with other devices, at a massive scale. The connection to the cloud is secure, fast, and lightweight (MQTT or REST), making it a great fit for devices that have limited memory, processing power, or battery life. The AWS IoT service includes a message broker and a rules engine that allows things to interact with other AWS services. AWS IoT also includes “thing shadows,” a service that maintains a current state for each thing you connect. You can use “thing shadows” to get and set the state of a thing over MQTT or HTTP, regardless of whether the thing is connected to the Internet. Learn more about AWS IoT here:

By connecting all of the available resources in place throughout cities, authorities can leverage data to make smart decisions and create smart cities! Check back for our next post in this series, where we explore how customers can use big data and analytics to analyze and gain intelligence from  data.


Post authored by Steven Bryen, Manager, Solutions Architecture, Engineering, AWS and Giulio Soro, Senior Solutions Architect, AWS