Smart cities have been on the agenda for decades, but only now are smart city pilot studies really hotting up, with the prospect that they will positively boom very soon.
For example, the city of Santander in Spain has many thousands of sensors collecting data on everything from parking space availability to air quality. In Los Angeles, traffic lights automatically adjust their phases to optimise traffic flow, while in Barcelona waste bins are only emptied when sensors detect they are nearly full.
In other places, plants are watered when soil sensors detect that they are dry, and parking and public transport are priced dynamically. So far, however, most of these efforts are isolated, standalone projects. When will, say, 30 or 40 of these services be connected together to create a real smart city with real joined-up services?
"One or two years at the most," said Xavier Diab, IT project manager at m2ocity, a France-based smart metering operator specialising in environmental data and water-meter reading services, which was created as a joint venture by telecoms provider Orange and resource management company Veolia.
Diab continued: "Things are moving very fast now. If you'd asked me the same question six months ago I'd have said three or four years, but already the language is changing. When we talk to clients they don't just want data, they want to know how they can best use the data, and some of them now want the results of the data - data as a service."
The firm's clients include public authorities and institutions as well as commercial companies such as supermarkets and banks. These organisations are starting to talk about predictive maintenance and visualisation of the data, said Diab: "When will we need to upgrade the network? Is this the right sort of meter for these types of pipes? It's just starting now but I think it will really build from here. People want more and with today's tools we are able to do more."
Diab cites the city of Nice, France, as an example of how things are progressing. Here a range of suppliers, including telecoms and utilities companies, providers of water and power meters, and makers of environmental sensors have come together under the direction of integrator IBM. IBM's role as a co-ordinator, stipulating the configuration of the devices and how they will work together, is a start to the provision of joined-up services, he said.
"IBM will have control of all the data from all these sensors and will start to build services on it. There are other smart cities but Nice is very nicely organised."
Asked about the issues of security and privacy, which many observers believe are a sticking point for the IoT in general, Diab explained that for the joined-up metropolitan services in question, which are designed to allocate resources efficiently and to reduce waste, sensitive personal data is not required so securing it is less of an issue than, say, for a smart-home.
Data flowing to and from control systems, for example, to open or close a valve, is encrypted, but meter and sensor data transmitted over low power networks present limited value to a hacker and will generally not be encrypted, he said.
However, some data may be attributable to an individual and that needs to be treated differently.
"The only data we use that is considered personal today is that every meter is geolocalised," he said, adding that no data pertaining to an individual's usage is currently stored as it would then have to be treated as personal data under French law. In future, though, as use-cases develop, data pertaining to addresses and individuals will be encrypted and stored in Hadoop, Diab said.
The company has been using Talend's ESB to integrate data from multiple meters and sensors and later this year it will add Hadoop to its infrastructure to store and interrogate data from many more sources.
This will provide the potential to add "weather data, Wi-Fi data, demographics, open data, government data... We need to unify the data and put on a layer of abstraction in order to be able to address all the data in the same language."
In V3 sister publication Computing's latest research, 22 per cent of respondents said that smart cities are a reality that is happening now, with a further 33 per cent expecting to see them soon.
Learn more about smart cities at Computing's Internet of Things Business Summit 2016 on 12 May - it's free for qualifying end users
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