Are you happy? Data may decide for you

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Arabnet Dubai
Welcoming to Arabnet Dubai 2016. (Image via Jacqueline Sofia)

“Happiness is very personal. How far do you want us to go to make you happy?” said Marco Christiaan Janssen at this year’s Arabnet Digital Summit, shifting a formidably-named Rise of the Machines panel into a thought-provoking conversation about using data to turn smart cities into happy cities.

Despite the steady drone of entrepreneurs peddling their latest gadgets and mobile apps outside the conference hall, this particular panel managed to step back and assess the larger picture of technology and its role in the lives of Dubai’s people.

Dubai’s Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum has declared a goal for Dubai to become the happiest city on earth by 2017. The UAE has gone so far as to appoint a Minister of Happiness. There’s even a park in Dubai that is meant to induce feelings of happiness for its visitors.

But the question posed by Janssen, director of smart grid project management office of Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA), raised an important point: happiness is not measurable by a standard set of parameters or apps, so how does one make an entire city happy?

The tech crunch

One way is to identify and eliminate happiness inhibitors that otherwise cause "friction", according to Amyx+ CEO Scott Amyz.

Friction is caused by problems around three elements - people, processes and tool. Once these are smoothed over “true” happiness becomes attainable. 

Rise of the machines
A Terminator movie? Nooo, an Arabnet panel. (Image via Arabnet)

Amyz gave Dubai Mall as an example: when you walk into the enormous shopping center a myriad of emotions start to course through you, excitement to have so many options for browsing and purchasing; satisfaction at finding exactly what you need; even confusion and a sense of being overwhelmed.

“You create a haphazard system of heterogeneous ingredients,” Amyz told the Rise of the Machines audience.

First there is the ‘tool. Amyz described Dubai Mall as a tool similar to Instagram or Twitter. These popular social media apps could be useful for promoting a business or fielding questions from consumers, but could also distract from the main task at hand and diminish their ‘happiness’ factor.

Likewise, Dubai Mall is an incredible tool for shopping, but getting lost on the way to Levis or becoming distracted by the enormous waterfall installation can induce anxiety and override its appeal.

Engaging the elements of people and processes can sidestep these ‘problems’ and result in greater individual happiness.

“When I go to the largest mall in the world, I get lost. So, having to resort to an information booth or kiosk is cumbersome,” Amyz said, who proposed a greater focus on the people and processes connected to these tools.

For example, creating a useful application that allows mall-goers to identify their destinations before entering, and geotagging their intended destinations to create a personalized map that reduces the anxiety surrounding a trip into the shopping behemoth.

Data democratization

Dubai Roads and Transport Authority executive Abdulla Ali Al Madani is preaching the democratization of data to understand what people need in order to reduce this friction.

“Governments don’t have [research and development] departments, we’re not good at it,” Al Madani admitted to the audience, but the Dubai government was keenly aware of the resources it had within its own citizens.

The Dubai government wants to crowdsource technologies and applications that will address the needs and desires of its people by working with the private sector, and the new Dubai Data Agency is taking the lead to centralize and make data available to the masses as a resource for further research and development.


(Left) Ziad Matar, head of strategic business development, Qualcomm moderating the panel and speaking to Abdulla Ali Al Madani, Ceo, corporate technology support services for RTA.(Images via Jacqueline Sofia)

Al Madani cited London’s approach to creating a smoother experience within its transportation system as a way data can be make user happier.  

The city opened up data sets to mobile app creators, which resulted in approximately “400 apps that helped people…to navigate the London transportation system.” Eventually, those applications were narrowed down to a fraction of usable tools for people. This process allowed people to discover which tools worked best for them and reduced the friction they experienced with navigating their city commute.

According to Al Madani, there are systems in place to regulate access to and protect certain types of data. The Dubai Data Agency has formulated the Dubai Open Data Law based on certain data characteristics; there are three main categories of protected data that are not open to public use or consumption. They include Personal Data, Shared Data (formerly Restricted Data), and Sensitive Data.

Abdulla Ali Al Madani
Abdulla Ali Al Madani, CEO, corporate technology support services for RTA, interacting with audience following panel discussion. In background: (left) Scott Amyz, CEO, Amyx+ and (far right) Assem Hijazi, VP,ICT & Smart City Division, Al Ahli Holding Group.

Guaranteed Happiness?

It appears that a unified approach is being formed by private and public entities when it comes to creating a smart city.  

“[We’re] moving away from the debate of technology and into the debate of people,” said Enevo Inc chief sales and strategy officer Charbel Aoun.

Al Madani echoed this by saying the challenge wasn’t just to implement technologies, “but to make [them] smart in a way that [they] will serve people…If we just implement technology, that does not mean that people will be happy.”

It’s not Rise of the Machines, but the idea is that it’s the data people create that will provide the solutions for reducing everyday frictions.

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