Marching towards better cities with data

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Malaysia Urban Observatory to offer centralised and integrated big data solution for policymakers 

By: Yip Wai Fong

As cities evolved towards sustainable and smart habitats for their population, data has become indispensable for city planners and policymakers. In fact, cities hold vast potential as cradles of well-being for their inhabitants once the vast trove of information they create on a daily basis – for example on public transport usage, air quality, population size in a specific area and land use – are properly collected and harnessed to provide insights and generate solutions.  

Data is also an indispensable ingredient for the aspiration to develop smart cities in many countries including Malaysia. The 4th National Physical Plan (NPP) has set out a target to turn the country into a Smart Nation by 2040 through the transformation of cities into smart cities that are in line with the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goal (SDG). A smart city, envisioned by the Housing and Local Government Ministry (KPKT) in 2018 and which was reaffirmed recently by Minister Nga Kor Ming, uses information technology and technological advancement to address urban issues, improve quality of life, promote economic growth, develop sustainable and safe environment and encourage efficient urban management practices. 

Towards this end, the NPP, the highest physical development plan framework stipulated under the Town and Country Act 1976, has outlined the setting up of the Malaysia Urban Observatory (MUO), a centralised database of urban areas model after the UN-Habitat’s urban observatory system. MUO development started in 2021 following a roadmap where it will become a full-fledged big data analytics platform for urban planning in 2025. 

"MUO is an urban monitoring system at the national level that integrates diverse data platforms and analytical functions to enhance comprehensiveness, inclusivity, and effectiveness, driving sustainable development for the well-being of the community," said Town and Country Planning Department (PLANMalaysia) town planner Peter Amandus Jr at the 31st National Real Estate Convention.

“It aims to be able to provide big data applications and solutions to policymakers, serving as a platform to monitor and analyse localised indicators and national priority issues, leveraging on smart partnership collaboration across different government agencies,” he added. 

The development of MUO involves capacity building in six areas - progress monitoring towards national and international sustainability goals such as the 12th Malaysia Plan (12MP) and the SDG, a system of data automation for comprehensive data collection, generation, and analysis, a network for information exchange and capacity building, geo-analytics solution, a data centre housing diverse data sources related to urban and rural planning, which ultimately serves the local councils roped into the National Smart City Platform (NSCP) as the central hub. 

MUO will be offering various tools for its stakeholders and users from government agencies. These tools are grouped into modules such as the Monitoring and Reports for Urban Sustainability, which contains data and analysis for indicators such as the SDG, Murninet and the Happiness Index, a Decision Support System module that allows users to perform decision-making with reference to selected data library. Examples of such data are potential areas for development, location for new facilities and housing. Another module is the Geohub where users could share their data and have access to other collaborators, and the dashboard module showcasing dashboards that have been developed with different topics on urban issues, and several other modules. 

“The system is still in development as it is a Beta version. These modules are in a staging environment, and would be 100% deployed in production by end of 2025,” said Amandus , adding that the modules will be characterised by flexibility for various uses, high interoperability, scalability, integrated, equipped with location-based data and offering analytics that are descriptive, diagnostic, predictive and prescriptive. 

“The aim is to have over 200 data varieties from collaboration across government agencies, state government, local government and government-linked corporations (GLCs) or statutory bodies,” Amandus said.

Released in Jan this year, MUO’s beta platform at muo.gov.my has several dashboards open for public viewing, ranging from the status of affordable housing provision as targeted under the 12MP, trend in housing supply in the Peninsular and Labuan FT, potential new areas for housing development in Selangor, housing affordability in 2022, the availability of land for development, provision of public facilities and more.

“From the data, we’ve detected a slight upward trend in land use for housing between 2017 and 2022. During this period, the number of housing units has shown a steep increase, suggesting significant developments for high-rise residential buildings,” Amandus elaborated.

“Data also suggested that house prices in 2022 far exceeded the median income of Malaysians except for houses under government provision which are mostly flats and low-cost houses,” he added.

Reiterating that the data sharing and integration progress is still on-going, Amandus shared that the next stage in the roadmap will be integrating machine learning and AI into MUO’s  big data, the creation of an intelligence centre and reaching out to institutions and experts to use the MUO platform. 

“While the data challenge can be low granularity and quality, MUO’s emphasis still rests on data sharing between agencies and centralised data analysis to support evidence-based decision-making on urban related issues,” said Amandus.


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