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The quest for the smart city: unlocking public data

Data is now an integral part of all of our everyday lives. Whether it is retailers building up a detailed profile of our activities in order to provide more personalised offers or a mobile map tool dynamically finding a new route in order to avoid congestion, the latest technologies gather and analyse information all around us, often in ways we don’t even notice.

In the years to come, the potential for this is only set to grow, as the amount of information we generate increases exponentially. As more people get online and tools such as mobile devices become ubiquitous, this will present companies with a huge new resource they can tap into to learn more about consumers and how they interact with the world around them.

According to research conducted last year by Cisco, more than half the world’s population will be online by 2019 – amounting to nearly four billion people. This will result in around 168 exabytes of data being sent around the globe every month by the end of the decade, from 24 billion connected devices.

This is a mind-boggling amount – around three times what is seen today. So therefore, it’s vital that all organisations, including both the public and private sector, are able to harness as much of this as possible, in order to develop innovative new solutions to transform our lives.

The need for better data in our cities

One of the key areas of interest will be in using this data to transform urban environments. According to the World Health Organisation, just a third of the global population (34 per cent) lived in cities back in 1960. However, by 2014, this reached 54 per cent, and the global urban population is forecast to continue growing at a rate of 1.84 per cent a year until 2020.

This has the potential to bring a range of problems, from added pollution to public transport networks that struggle to cope under the strain of extra traffic. But this is where effective use of data can step in.

The concept of the ‘smart city’ is one of the hottest topics around at the moment. Essentially, this involves placing IT at the heart of the planning and management of all a city’s key activities, from transport and energy usage to leisure and healthcare provisions.

Strong use of data will be vital to achieving this. Indeed, a recent report by the Future Spaces Foundation noted that making data accessible to developers will be one of the biggest differences between cities that are truly ‘smart’ and those that lag behind. A fully-connected urban landscape helps create a city that is “economically and environmentally sustainable”, and can even save citizens money.

Innovation already underway

This isn’t some vision of the future either – many cities around the world are already very advanced in their efforts to roll out smart city technology. The Future Spaces Foundation’s research, for instance, noted that London’s approach to data sharing has made it as global leaders in this field, with more than 460 apps already available that use data collected by Transport for London to make it easier to navigate the city.

It also highlighted another example of a leading global smart city – Singapore. It noted the Asian city-state has done particularly well when it comes to converting data into user-friendly and informative travel apps for its citizens. But this is only the tip of the iceberg for Singapore’s transformation to a technology-driven, digitally-focused city.

Speaking to Wired, professor Low Teck Seng, chief executive of the country’s National Research Foundation, explained a key goal is to virtualise the entire city, which will include creating 3D models of each building, including glass, cement and the internal geography. This can then be integrated with live data from cameras and sensors around the city for use in everything from traffic management to disaster planning.

Research using this information has shown that with the right technology, Singapore’s mobility needs could be met with just 30 per cent of its existing vehicles. Professor Seng stated: “We don’t want to increase the number of cars on our roads. Autonomous public transport makes more sense than autonomous private cars.”

Reaping the benefits

The results of this are already plain to see. In London, for example, TfL estimates that commuters and visitors are saving as much as £116 million a year just through the use of travel apps that can help them avoid congestion and get to their destination quicker.

Vernon Everitt, Managing Director of Customers, Communication and Technology at TfL, commented: “Making our data freely and openly available has delivered major benefits to our customers and road users through a whole range of new products and services.”

Indeed, better traffic management has been one of the early use cases for smart city technology, whether this is dynamically adjusting traffic lights or speed limits in response to road conditions, or even simply giving drivers more information on available places to park.

But it’s not just on the roads where smart city technology is transforming the UK’s cities. In Scotland, for instance, the University of Glasgow is developing a ‘smart campus’ that will make the university more sustainable. The campus “actively learns from and adapts to the needs of its people and place, unlocking the potential of technology and enabling world-changing learning and research”.

The technology behind the scenes

To achieve these goals, there are several key technologies that must come together in order to gather the relevant data, distribute it, analyse it quickly and then convert the results into usable insight.

The first stage of this, the collection of data, is being made possible by a new wave of connected sensors known as the internet of Things (IoT). These can include GPS trackers that can monitor the progress of a vehicle or container, to devices that can control and send data from HVAC systems or traffic lights.

According to Gartner, the number of connected ‘Things’ in use around the world is set to reach 6.4 billion this year – up by 30 per cent from 2015. By 2020, there will be almost 21 billion IoT devices in use, of which 13.5 billion will be consumer-focused.

But simply collecting this data is only half the challenge – it is how this information is shared and analysed that will make the difference. Making as much of this as possible publicly available will be the key here. Fortunately, there are a wide range of resources developers and businesses can turn to when planning smart city projects.

For instance, these are just some of the public data sources that UK developers can take advantage of when designing initiatives, from both public sector bodies and private enterprises.

The information that can be gained from this has the potential to transform how companies use data, and allows any startup with a great idea and a bit of technical know-how to get involved. Having access to this data means any firm can start building solutions, without the need for massive hardware infrastructure and data storage facilities.

Given this potential it’s no wonder that a report by the Future Cities Catapult identified more than 32,000 companies around the world providing smart city solutions, with developments focused on areas including healthcare, transport, education, and smart grids and energy.

Managing the risks

However, the era of the smart city won’t be without its challenges. Effectively managing the risks involved with the technology can be the difference between a system that works and is relied on by citizens and one that is viewed with suspicion and therefore will never live up to its potential.

One of the biggest concerns for many people is the privacy implications that smart cities can bring. While many people think about surveillance, they imagine a network of CCTV cameras watching their every move, but in the era of the smart city, the implications could be far more wide-ranging.

For instance, the use of mass data collection could not only help pinpoint an individual’s location at any given time, using everything from smartphone GPS beacons to vehicle numberplate recognition systems, but also give an insight into their behaviour and personal preferences.

For this reason, it’s vital that any developers and local authorities keep ethics at the front of their minds when creating smart city initiatives. This is something that’s recognised by the government, which is why earlier this year, it announced that it would be setting up a ‘Council of Data Ethics’ to ensure this wealth of information is used appropriately.

Nicola Blackwood MP, chair of the House of Commons’ Science and Technology Committee, which recommended the idea, said: “Big data has enormous potential to improve public services and business productivity, but there are also justified privacy concerns when personal data is used in new applications, services and research. Getting the balance between the benefits and the risks right is vital.”

This is an approach that needs to be mirrored by the private sector, however. Any organisation that wants to be a custodian of public data needs to demonstrate what steps it is taking to anonymise personally identifiable information.

The future of the urban environment

Despite the concerns, the future looks bright for the smart city. The opportunities for technology to transform the day-to-day lives of the world’s growing urban population are immense, and at the heart of this is data. By harnessing this and using it to inform decision-making at every level, developers can help bring environments that even a few years ago would have seemed like the realms of science fiction.

Of course, it’s hard to predict what our cities will look like 50, 20 or even ten years from now, but there are a few innovations that are likely to be seen in the coming years. Automated traffic systems that can reduce congestion, building systems that can control heating and electricity usage, and location-based tools that can deliver up-to-date information or even retail offers to people based on exactly where they are will all have a part to play.

What these have in common is that they are responsive to the environment, adapting in real-time to changing circumstances. It’s hard to underestimate just how important the ability to respond intelligently to its physical surroundings will be to the future smart city. Indeed, some commentators have already dubbed this as the cornerstone of the ‘fourth industrial revolution – following on from the advent of mechanisation, mass production and the digital era.

Economist, engineer and founder of the World Economic Forum Klaus Schwab said, for instance: “We stand on the brink of a technological revolution that will fundamentally alter the way we live, work and relate to one another. In its scale, scope, and complexity, the transformation will be unlike anything humankind has experienced before.”

Smart cities, driven by real-time data obtained from IoT sensors, mobile devices and connected vehicles, will be at the heart of this. And with so many sources of publicly-available information on hand for developers to take advantage of, we can expect many more innovative uses of data to emerge in the coming years.

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