Seoul: World's Most Wired Megacity Gets More So

The world's most wired metro area is extending city services with its U-city project. The U stands for ubiquitous

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Woohae Cho for TIME

Bus arrivals are displayed on an LED screen along Gangnam Avenue, a major artery

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Start with clean government. All city contracts are now put out to bid online, and all bids are posted. That transparency, Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon tells TIME, has reduced corruption in the city significantly in the past 10 years. "Since all information is disclosed real time over the Internet, influence-peddling over the bargaining of government permits becomes impossible," he says. "The online system tracks the flow of approval routes and leaves behind evidence in real time. If a manager holds on to an application for too long, he becomes a suspect. So administration becomes faster and uncorrupt." And while every big-city mayor may boast that his government is less corrupt than the last guy's — and corporate corruption has been an acknowledged problem in South Korea — Seoul has been named the world's most "advanced and efficient e-government" for several years by a U.N.-sponsored e-government-evaluation agency.

The city services accessible via Internet technology are already vast and growing rapidly. When Lee was returning home from work one day, she needed to pick up a copy of her social-security certificate. She did so at a subway station near her office, using a fingerprint-recognition kiosk: she placed her thumb on the machine, it read her print, and out popped a copy of the document. If she had so desired, she could have also printed real estate and vehicle registrations. It goes without saying that Lee pays her city taxes and utility bills online — or with her mobile phone's browser — and recently she dialed 120 to find out why the electric company had overcharged her. She was calling the Dasan Call Center, a 24/7 government agency that fields all questions regarding city services. A service rep did a quick check, confirmed the error and made sure her bill for the next month would reflect the correction.

Seoul has even greater e-ambitions. It has begun to implement a project called Ubiquitous Seoul — or U-city — which will extend the city's technological reach. Seoul's nearly 4-mile-long (6 km) Cheonggye Stream walkway, which runs through the high-rises of downtown Seoul, is the site of a U-city pilot project. Via their phones and laptops or on touchscreens located in parks and public plazas, citizens can check air-quality or traffic conditions or even reserve a soccer field in a public park. The city also sends out customized text messages. The city's chief information officer, Song Jung-hee, says those with respiratory problems can get ozone and air-pollution alerts, and commuters can get information about which route is the most congested at any given time. The city calls these real-time, location-based services.

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