Smart and (un)sexy tech

Big data and the Internet of Things are helping to build the cities of the future but, as our run-down of 10 data developments shows, it’s not all as glamorous as it sounds.
Published —
23.07.17
Writer —

WE’VE heard plenty about driverless cars but tech and data are gradually transforming our cities in many less flashy but nevertheless fascinating ways.

Hundreds of local government buyers packed a recent Smart to Future Cities conference in London to hear how technology could change citizens’ lives for the better.

Here are 10 less-than-glamorous examples:

Elderly home care

Artificial intelligence can help people live happier for longer in their own homes, according to Microsoft’s Tim Gregson.

He pointed to AI that can monitor a person’s routine and identify potentially worrying signs, such as them not having opened the blinds or made a cuppa at the usual time. “A bot could ask how you are feeling through a voice device every day and if you’re not feeling well then that could throw up an alarm,” says Gregson, the firm’s chief technology officer for UK government.

Generic image depicting an elderly woman holding a cup of coffee

“Some people might say that every day, so it’s about learning and understanding when there are anomalies,” he added.

Safer emergency calls

When an Amsterdam firefighter was stabbed while tackling a blaze in the flat of a disturbed man, only to be told by paramedics that they always treated the address with caution, it prompted city chiefs to rethink their data strategy. Unable to share sensitive mental health data, they created a series of automated messages between control rooms and fire crews that flag up concerns using colour-coding without giving specifics. Colours correspond to categories such as a dangerous individual, hazardous substance or dependent person. The city’s open and big data project manager Ron Van Der Lans says: “We are sharing almost no data but this is the data we can share when privacy and security are at stake,” he says.

Flexible bus routes

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Passengers in rural Essex could benefit from smarter bus route planning, according to cabinet member for digital innovation Stephen Canning. “We’re experimenting with on-demand transport apps that allow people to request different routes each week,” he says, suggesting that it could allow residents to shape routes. For example, if a large group of local residents from one locality attended a craft group once a month, a bus that does not ordinarily call by would stop to collect them on the relevant day and time.

Stopping street brawls

Every town has one – the street where rowdies spill out of bars at closing time, with the inevitable brawls that follow. But in the Dutch city of Eindhoven, police have a new weapon at their disposal in the form of lamp posts. Andreas Knobloch, of Philips Lighting, says: “Police have access to street lighting controls so they can ‘dim up’ if there’s a large-scale fight.” Alternatively, if there’s a small flare-up, they can “dim down” to soften the mood.

Getting bins emptied

You’ve probably heard of bins that tell control rooms when they need emptying. But in Moscow they’ve gone one step further. Telecoms operators have installed 140,000 CCTV cameras across the Russian capital, and city officials use footage from them to check that subcontractors are doing their jobs properly. “If we have a contract that says waste should be removed by eight o’clock every morning, and we don’t see the truck on CCTV, then a penalty comes to the subcontractor,” says Eldar Tuzmukhamedov, of Moscow Smart City Lab.

Local democracy

Moscow is also using apps to empower citizens to dictate how the city develops, through regular e-votes. City authorities are bound by the result of votes, which can be targeted to district or even street level, according to Tuzmukhamedov. Active Citizen uses a blockchain network, aimed at proving the transparency of the process by allowing anyone to download the control node software and be a controller. Citizens can vote on all sorts of issues, from whether to participate in housing relocation programmes to the kind of outdoor fitness classes that should be provided free. Voters recently approved the restoration of the city’s Bolshevik Confectionery buildings, but rejected extended speed limits.

Better mobile coverage

Barcelona regularly appears at the head of smart city rankings and the government of Catalonia wants to spread the benefits across the region through its SmartCAT project. Among its initiatives is an app aimed at improving mobile phone coverage in rural areas. Downloaded by more than 10,000 citizens, it provides a real-time map of coverage and indicates when signals disappear into blackspots. “Before we had only mobile operators’ data to rely on. Now this helps drive competition between them to provide the best coverage,” says SmartCAT director Daniel Marco Parraga.

Remote monitoring of assets

Companies such as US air conditioning provider Johnson Controls are monitoring units centrally to predict when things are about to go wrong, according to Alex Montgomery, who leads on the Internet of Things & Advanced Analytics for Microsoft. “They can pre-empt problems and send someone to look at units before they actually break down,” he adds.

Repairing lifts

Excitable news reporters have told us that Microsoft’s HoloLens augmented reality headsets can transport you to Mars from the comfort of your own living room. But Montgomery says they have more mundane uses. Elevator repairmen from Thyssen Krupp have been using them to view a lift’s service history, access training manuals or even dial in an expert if they get stuck. “The superviser can see what the engineer sees and say ‘cut the red wire – no, not that one’,” he adds.

Stopping domestic abuse

Data doesn’t have to come from high-tech sources to prove valuable to social services departments. However, Simon Pitkeathly, small business champion in London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s office, says it takes intelligence – artificial or otherwise – to flag up a potential problem. He points to an example in the north London borough of Camden: “They can work out whether someone is suffering domestic abuse not because of social services intervention but because they got data from the maintenance teams and worked out a customer’s door had been kicked in three times.”

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