In Seoul, no rest for the wired

In Seoul, no rest for the wired

In Seoul, at virtually every street corner stands a “PC bang,” a rabbit warren of high-speed Internet connectivity where youngsters sit facing rows of desktop monitors aglow with online games. Here, more than eight in every 10 homes are linked to broadband Internet cables. Every motel room comes with a complimentary desktop with high-speed Internet. Every subway car has a wireless connection, allowing passengers to pay bills, watch soap operas, and meet many other everyday needs — all on their smartphones.

And if you are all fat thumbs on your smartphone? Give the city a call. In Seoul’s Dial 120 Dasan Call Centre, hundreds of specialists work around the clock answering most any question from 47,000 citizens a day. A businessman seeks the quickest route to his destination. A teenager is in a heated debate with a friend — which has bigger paws, a tiger or a lion?

“The first’s easy. We have a programme that shows real-time traffic conditions anywhere in the city,” said Yeo Ki-jeong, 28, a two-year call center veteran. “For the second, I called the municipal zoo to get the answer.”

As cities grow more crowded and complex, they try to keep their residents as constantly connected as possible — through cables, wireless networks and even such traditional tools as call centres — in order to compete with other global cities, but also to stay liveable and, to some extent, governable. The urban quest is increasingly to make high-speed connections available anywhere, at any time, and for a reasonable price.

Seoul leads the pack, in its characteristic hurry. And, city officials say and many outsiders agree, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. In the next three to four years, Seoul’s Smart Seoul 2015 infrastructure program is set to establish new benchmarks for being connected.
“We will expand digital welfare to every corner of the city,” said Hwang Jong-sung, head of Seoul city’s Information System Planning Bureau, which is leading Smart Seoul, a 900 billion won, or $792 million, effort to transform municipal services for a mobile Internet era.

The city is already one gigantic hot spot. Nine in every 10 residents subscribe to a high-speed wireless Internet connection. By 2015, when 80 per cent of the residents are expected to carry smartphones or tablet PCs, wireless connectivity will be almost as free as it is ubiquitous: the municipal authorities are installing free Wi-Fi wireless hot spots in all the city’s public spaces, including 360 parks, 3,200 intersections and 2,200 streets around shopping centers.

People on any wireless device will no longer have to pop into Internet cafes or wait until they get home to check e-mail or get stock updates. And the number of wireless devices is expected to keep growing.

Already in Seoul, which is ranked No 1 in Rutgers University’s global survey of local “e-governments,” citizens can make copies of their income tax returns, pay all city bills and book a seat at the municipal concert hall through the Internet. By 2015, they will be able do this and much more with smartphones.

Prospective contractors seeking work with the city government must now place their bids online and all bids are posted. This process has helped reduce corruption in a municipal government once so riddled with graft that it was called “bokmajeon,” a Korean equivalent of Pandora’s Box.

And as goes this capital city so goes the nation. By 2015, all South Korean students will be issued tablet computers instead of paper textbooks. Homework will be uploaded rather than carried in back-breaking backpacks.

“U-safety” service

By 2015, Seoul will also introduce a “u-safety” service that will allow parents afraid of their children’s being kidnapped to track their whereabouts from home computers and smartphones. The children who sign up for the service will be fitted with electronic tags.
Over all, the city also hopes to reduce its crime rate 10 per cent by installing more closed-circuit cameras, some of them able to detect a human cry for help.

This connectedness is forever changing the way the government is run and how people live their life in this metropolis of 10 million.

On a recent day, Yoon Hyo-mi, a high-school student, breezed through an electronic turnstile at the Gwanghwamun subway station in central Seoul. A chip embedded in her bank card paid the fare.At a bus station outside, an electronic sign board said her bus would arrive in six minutes. If she wanted, she could check a real-time update on its expected time of arrival at any station in the city, from anywhere, using a smartphone.
The smartphone application was invented by a fellow high school commuter using the data on Seoul’s intricate bus network, part of a growing body of municipal data the city is opening to the public to encourage the creation of smartphone applications.

After clambering on the bus, with her chip in her wallet again paying the fare, (it is smart enough to recognise her as a “transit” passenger and thus eligible for a discount), Yoon finds a seat and watches an online English class on her phone.

In this city famous for protest rallies, activists already organise through Twitter. Twelve per cent of students here are considered Internet addicts by the government, and teenagers buy and copy essays and term papers from online archives. Fans root here for their teams at Internet chat boxes while watching professional baseball games broadcast live and free on Web sites.

There are smartphone applications that allow adults to locate the city’s sleazy “room salon” bars and apps for couples to track each other’s whereabouts. Similar services have now spread to other cities around the world. But Roland Villinger, country head for Korea at McKinsey & Co, says that global electronics and other consumer goods companies are recognising Seoul as an increasingly important testing ground for innovation and introduction of new products.

Fifteen-year-olds in South Korea scored highest in their ability to absorb information from digital devices, according to a 2009 study by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. McKinsey’s “i-consumer“ survey this year found that South Koreans were the fastest smartphone adopters among six countries it studied, including Britain, Germany, Japan, Spain and the United States. Long before Facebook became a global phenomenon, millions of South Koreans had already networked through Cyworld, a local Internet community service that shares many similarities with Facebook.

With its birthrate among the lowest in the world and its population aging, South Korea must find a new way of increasing its productivity and it increasingly recognises high-speed connectivity as part of a solution.

For now, South Koreans work longer hours than any other people but their per capita output is about half Germany’s, according to the OECD. The problem is attributed in part to corporate and government red tape and the Korean office culture, where workers often sit idle at their desks until their bosses leave.

Both the government and private sector now champion “working smart.” Corporations like Korea Telecom and Posco are allowing more of their workers to work from home, using cloud computing technologies and the Internet. They are also building “smart work stations,” satellite bare-bones offices where white collar employees can work temporarily. Strategically located across Seoul and the rest of the country, these offices help people save some of the time and fuel they would otherwise spend commuting.

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