Customer Engagement

Sensors Do Not A Smart City Make—Part 2

iStock-539824172 [Converted]_smart cityscape_resized.pngIn part one of this blog series we asked if now is the time for departments and agencies, who may have been pursuing their own intelligent service projects, to come back together to achieve the 1 + 1 = 3 effect of collective action?

After all, street lamps that report themselves when they fail are becoming more widespread—reducing the cost and time needed to keep streets well-lit and producing corresponding benefits for traffic and public safety.

And, we now have the ability to connect, merge and analyse the data provided by networks of fixed and mobile sensors—reporting on items such as traffic flow, air quality and weather—to predict where pollution and traffic-jam hotspots may occur. We can then feed that back to commuters to help them avoid hold-ups, reduce their journey time and improve the city’s atmosphere.

Networks of sensors, fixed and mobile smart devices, and other operational systems that monitor and manage most elements of our public services and infrastructure result in vast amounts of data that can be used to improve life for citizens—against a backdrop of economic and environmental uncertainties.

There are two key ways in which we can use the Internet of Things (IoT) and associated technologies to breathe life into the notion of smart cities: analysis and action.

A portion of the data these devices generate is directly and simply actionable. In the example of the smart street lights and trash cans mentioned in Part 1 of this series, sensors will send alerts that can trigger replacement or other attention that helps minimize the cost and inconvenience of these occurrences.

On the other hand, nearly all of this data can yield insights and action when subjected to more sophisticated aggregation and analysis. In these scenarios, the combination of data about traffic flow and volumes, pollution levels, and ongoing street repairs could be fed to adaptive algorithms that control traffic lights—and then into publicly accessible apps such as City Mapper and Google Maps to suggest alternative routes that will ease congestion and pollution hotspots.

That same data continues to work hard as it is fed into strategic planning activities that look for the patterns, trends and capacity requirements that will guide policy initiatives for years to come. And, as these diverse implementations grow in number and scope, we start to see potentially unexpected results and benefits affect the future trajectory of Smart City initiatives.

At the University of Newcastle-on-Tyne in the United Kingdom, the Urban Observatory have used a network of 700 sensors to build up an ever more enlightening set of data that has revealed some unanticipated trends.

One of those trends? The data led the city’s council to switch its investment in electric vehicle charging points from city-centre parking locations—where it was thought they would encourage commuters to use more environmentally friendly vehicles—to convenient locations on the major routes in and around the city. Why?

Because, to everyone’s surprise, the data revealed that the city-centre charging points were invariably being blocked all day by commuters using them to top-up batteries that already held more than enough charge to safely complete the return journey home. Conversely, rapid charging points on the motorways and major routes through the city were used in short bursts throughout the day to enable the completion of a far higher volume of zero-emission journeys.

Now the same network of sensors, using data on traffic flow and traffic-light control, is enabling apps that tell drivers the optimum driving speed to smooth their passage through multiple sets of green lights. Not only does this reduce congestion and pollution—it also eases the frustration that we all know quickly builds when it seems that every set of lights is against us!

In Part 3 of this series, we will look at some sensors not typically present in our thinking and the unique contribution they can make to the cities of the future.


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