Exeter City Council and Devon County Council are deploying smart IoT sensors in lamp posts to ease congestion and become more environmentally friendly. Smart cities, it seems, are fast becoming reality, wherever you are.
At the end of last year, the two councils unveiled their two-year “intelligent transport” project for the area. The news made few headlines, as you might suspect, but it’s actually an interesting initiative which could ultimately boost the local economy and improve the living and working conditions of residents and commuters alike.
Internet of Business caught-up with representatives from Devon Council and its technology partner NTT Data to find out more on everything from the roll-out of the project to privacy concerns, the power of the Internet of Things (IoT) and the future of smart cities.
The so-called ‘Engaged Smart Transport’ project is, it seems, all about connecting the new and the old data to make Exeter a smarter city.
In the press release sent to IoB, it was said that the project “uses real-time traffic and weather sensor data, combined with other data sources such as eyewitness and behavioural information, to better understand the factors affecting people’s travel behaviour”.
In essence, it reveals where, and why, congestion happens and identifies solutions to address these problems. One simple suggestion is to suggest alternative routes for commuters.
And while it may be early days for the project, it has already received significant backing; Innovate, the UK Government’s innovation agency, has pumped money into the consortium behind the project, while the consortium itself carries a number of recognisable technology partners.
Consortium lead NTT Data is working on smart transportation technology, while partners include Imtech Traffic & Infra (for intelligent transport systems), Vaisala (for the environment IoT sensors), the University of Exeter (for behavioural research) and Black Swan (for data analytics on social media).
Speaking to IoB shortly after the project was announced, NTT Data’s project lead Ben Morris talked of trying to solve Exeter’s road problems, and was especially keen to play up the importance of “using the data to help make better decisions, keep people informed, and making the roads run more smoothly.”
The project began in November, with prospective partners invited to make bids to participate. Morris believes that Exeter is the ideal testbed – and hinted that NTT could look to work with other cities in a similar manner in the coming months.
“Exeter is the perfect city; its huge growth in terms of population, there are lot of businesses moving to out of town business parks, so there’s real pressure on the infrastructure from capacity perspective.
“Also, in light of funding cuts we’re living through, we need to think how to do things differently.”
It’s a fair point because Exeter is indeed a fast growing city – in fact, it is on a growth plan to deliver 12,000 new homes, 60 hectares of new business land and 40,000 square metres of new retail space by 2026. The City has a population of 120,000 and congestion increases when local events, such as football and rugby union matches, are hosted locally. The Internet of Things (IoT) could just help with managing all of that going forward.
IoT and data analytics
A fundamental part of the project is the entwining of new and old data, mixing data sets from the council and those from the technology providers.
For example, while the project will use real-time GPS data to look into journey times, traffic flows and main directions of travel (suggesting alternative routes if necessary), Wasalo will also collect weather data from its IoT sensors around the city.
Data sets are integrated with the council’s own, and the consortium is currently looking at software for collecting social media data and what citizens leave as feedback. All of this is packaged up and presented in a ‘user-friendly tool’ from Black Swan, with the ultimate aim that both councils and citizens could peruse this information for their own insight into what’s happening the city.
For Devon County Council Councillor Andrew Leadbetter, the partnership is key because he says the councils don’t have this kind of expertise in-house to achieve a ‘free flowing city’.
“We get awful lot of information as transport information, but we haven’t got expertise to crunch that number. So we were very pleased NTT approached us and what to do for us, to service residents better, give information when there’s congestion, when car parks are full, and for consistent journey times.”
Privacy and transparency
Morris admits the consortium is currently looking into ways get information into citizens’ hands, but “haven’t quite scoped that out yet.” “It could be a mobile application, it could be a multi-channel approach,” he said.
Leadbetter says they would then be able to make an informed choice on mode of travel. He, and Morris, both admit that data privacy is something to be aware of but says the general reception to the project has been positive.
“The project is in its infancy. However, anecdotally the reaction from the public and businesses about the aims and objectives of the scheme has been positive and the coverage from the local media has generated genuine interest.
“Once we have developed and tested the tools we will look to communicate some preliminary findings in the Spring or Summer 2016 through our usual channels of social media, the Devon News Centre, our district and parish council partners and other stakeholders including the business community and drivers’ groups.”
He also reassures citizens that the data is secure, kept private and anonymized.
“Most of the data we are using for this project is open source, and therefore not personal data. Where GPS data is being used it will all be anonymised, aggregated and stored securely in line with the data protection act.”
IoB asks both Morris and Leadbetter if this project could ultimately lead to a much more comprehensive smart city project, one that has been pushed out by Bristol among many other UK and global cities.
Both say it is “very early days” for such talk, with the immediate focus elsewhere.
“It’s a two-year project, so really the next 3-6 months are all about defining and collecting the data, defining the sources we need, and integrating into the Black Swan platform, and really providing those visualizations for the consortium to look at,” said Morris.
He expects so-called ‘softer inventions’, like social media apps, to test the water on how to engage with the public.
“The end goal for us really, in collaboration with Exeter, is to figure out what works, package it up, and take up other councils in similar position. It’s not a lot of money investment, and our aspirations are to make lives and travelling experience better for citizens.”
Leadbetter backs this up: “As we are at the start of a two-year project, we are still collating and integrating a lot of the data. We expect some early findings next year with further findings in 2017.”
Nonetheless, it is clear that Morris in particular is keen on the smart city concept.
“I think that the term smart cities is here to stay, it’s about figuring out how make better use tools and capacity have available through use of tech, engaging cities in more personalised way, rather than building more capacity.”
However, he adds: “There’s a number of challenges, one is privacy and transparency, that’s been ongoing debate for a long time and not just in transport.
“I think there are also the challenges around open-data formats. As an industry, we’re going to have to move more towards openness of data, a clear standard-based approach, be prepared to share and interchange data. From transparency perspective, there’s a lot of work done with councils and citizens make sure informed how’s data being used for, benefit for them, being stored safely and securely, used for them rather than anything else.”