Taipei’s free municipal wi-fi provides real-time data for cell phones, computers and even TV sets

Taiwan’s capital city, Taipei, has launched a free municipal wi-fi network, which provides cell phones, personal computers, video game consoles and even television sets with everything from typhoon alerts to store coupons.

On a visit there last fall, leaders of Taipei’s Department of Information Technology described the new system and provided a glimpse into the planned evolution over the next 20-30 years for the network, which last year was already winning international awards.

By last fall, more than 80% of Taipei was enjoying free wi-fi, according to city officials; just tap on the “TPE-Free” SSID and you are on the network. Apps for cell phones and mobile devices are detailed on the system’s web site, with everything from real-time bus schedules and traffic information to guides to hiking trails and pothole reports.

Emergency information was key from the beginning: typhoon warnings, reports of fires and evacuation alerts were programmed as priorities.

“Taipei city is very proud,” said Eric Chen, Section Chief of the Department of Information Technology, both because of the extent of the network and because of how it can be prioritized. For example, within minutes of a disaster alert, the first page on all platforms in the entire system (including television sets) can be populated with real-time information on school closings and changes in street parking rules.

But most of the data on the network will not come from the government.

“The government is not in the content business,” said Yu-Lin Cheng, Senior Specialist in the Department of Information Technology.

Instead, Chen said the network was opened to individuals and merchants – stores certified by the Economic Development Department – to develop applications. That way, Taipei officials expect the new network to become a tool of economic development.

Merchants certified by the Economic Development office can already interface with the network, according to Chen, and can push coupons out to computer and cell phone users. Are you walking past a department store? You might discover an alert on your mobile phone that you have just been given a discount coupon for shopping in the store – right now.

Think of the possibilities: The network knows where you are (from your cell phone’s location) and who you are (from your phone number). The opportunities for real time, individually targeted ads and coupons is nothing short of the sci-fi world of “Minority Report“.

However, store coupons carry less urgency than public service information, all sorted into 155 different categories of open data, each with an assigned priority level.

Most popular, according to city officials, are the train and bus schedules. Taipei is served by 78 different bus companies, and all of their schedules are merged into the network with real-time arrival information for each bus stop. Just to maintain all of these transit schedules requires 160 GB of data every day.

The network also includes national and local rail schedules, real-time traffic information on Taiwan’s freeways and streets, and even information on where to find empty parking spaces, right now – just click on “iTaipei Parking.” If you don’t want to drive yourself, you can also use the network to book a taxi.

Residents and visitors can also get maps, images of street views, guides to popular tourist spots, and audio guides, according to city officials. The network also has business information including the latest currency exchange rates.

Another popular application, according to Chen, made real-time information about Taipei’s parks available. In a city where bicycles are a major form of transportation and recreation, riders can set their phones for navigation assistance. They can even set up an alert that lets riders know when they are close to a public rest room. Chen said the parks app works with Android phones, but because of objections from Apple, the app is not available for iPhones.

One surprise was the role of plain old television in an era of digital devices and mobile platforms. Phase one of the network targeted computers, and phase two was for the rapidly increasing number of cell phones. But phase three is for television sets.

Cheng explained that the city was targeting television viewers to reach people at home, mainly older citizens, who were not computer literate. TV viewers, said Cheng, could access the network’s data and apps through their remote controls. The television network was also being extended to kiosks in key traffic hubs and in 60 hotels around the city.

Beyond television — “for older adults,” said Chen — the network was also designed to provide health applications and other public service information for younger users via video game platforms, including Wii and X-Box game consoles.

The long-term goal for the network, 20 years in the future, is nothing less than to reimagine Taipei as what Cheng called “an intelligent city.”

“But this is evolution,” he added, “not revolution.”