HOW SMART IS YOUR CITY
Smart Cities – will yours be as smart as Hull and Newcastle?
Back when Hull became the City of Culture Andy Burton, Street Scene City Manager, Hull City Council, had another task on his mind as well as the preparation for this event. The cameras in his city needed replacing. Also working on the City of Culture were local company Connexion who were able to provide the infrastructure for the public connectivity needed. Someone suggested Andy speak to Furqan Alamqir the CEO and Founder of Connexin about what to do about his cameras. That conversation, which ventured beyond just cameras, was inspiring for Andy, who had always dreamt of really good ways to practically use technology, and Hull was put on the path to becoming the very smart city it is today.
Andy gives the example of gully cleaning.
A gully is what Hull calls the concrete pot positioned under the road surface with an iron grate visible from the road. Depending where you are you might know these as a sink, drain or pot. Andy points out that most councils have no idea of how full these are getting and just clean them on a rota but have to react when they overflow. Reacting to an overflow is way more expensive than being preventative and this shows the benefit of the real soul of a smart city – connected sensors. Connected over a LoRaWan network provided by Connexin these sensors can give Hull, and Andy, all the information they need to take preventative action rather than waiting for things to overflow.
As we will see in a moment this can have surprising other benefits as well. Furqan’s team at Connexin have ambitious ideas on connecting cities up with their City OS allowing all departments to interact and share data. Furqan strikes me as a true visionary and believes the move to a true internet of things for the City could be as significant as Bill Gate’s one computer per desk vision. I think Fuqan may be really on to something. Connexin have some really significant supporters including a very major connectivity player in Cisco.
I had a chance to sit down with Arvind Satyam the Managing Director, Global Public Sector from Cisco. Arvind is a passionate and compelling speaker. I get the impression when he speaks city Governments listen. He made the strong point that within a City a fragmented approach does not work and there is a real need to break down department barriers. As an example we discussed Smart Bin technology and how Councils might be able to reduce collections on certain streets if say the data was showing the bins were not getting as full. This could lead to better traffic flows on that street if a bin lorry didn’t have to stop and block access. Another knock on might be that road wear and tear might be reduced leading to fewer potholes. By working together with good data the Council department can be proactive rather than reactive.
Underlying all this is Cisco’s LoRaWan networking and I asked Arvind about the perceived reliability of this technology. He pointed me in the direction of the sensor manufacturers who had a choice of which networks to support and have very much adopted LoRaWan as a network of choice.
LoRaWAN is networking protocol designed for large-scale public networks. Part of the reason it is so good for city wide networking is that all the sensors work on a single frequency so it is better to have only one network operating in a single city to avoid clashes. This also means it is more suited to a central point of data collection rather than individual siloes.
One point I raised was the Bin Day issue we covered in a recent issue where if you wanted to say create an Alexa skill to say which bin is due to be collected on a specific day this would currently be nigh on impossible as no two councils publish this data in the same way. There is definitely no open API for this data. Arvind did mention that each council has different needs for such data and bin collections say in a UK county town might be very different to say a Barcelona or a Naples, but he is hoping that standardisation of the way data is exposed and also sensor standardisation will mean there is a lot more publicly available public data.
Obviously investing in Smart City technology is difficult how to show a risk/reward. Newcastle has an interesting approach for this concentrating less on the technology and more on the needs. They definitely see the benefits of connected data and have invested in what is probably the smartest street in the country with everything from air quality to street bins being monitored. Indeed I was shown a live example of the amount of rubbish in the street bins. The emphasis here is the benefit to the people of Newcastle rather than the fact they have the smartest street. No one really cares about the technology but they certainly notice the fact that the bins are not overflowing. As Jenny Nelson, Head of Digital, Newcastle City Council, said where people perceive a benefit they will engage with the technology. They must be doing something right as there are already 8000 sensor measurements a minute being made there.