Smart cities have often been envisioned as connected urban environments with everything working automatically and seamlessly. The reality is a little less high-tech. Some cities are able to boast widespread WiFi and smart bins but little else.
Glasgow aims to buck this trend with smart city projects funded by Innovate UK designed to demonstrate the applicability of open data and the Internet of Things (IoT) in urban environments.
Dr Colin Birchenall, lead architect of the Glasgow future cities demonstrator at Glasgow City Council, explained that the demonstrator project focuses on four main areas of urban infrastructure: health, energy, transport and public safety.
"We were asked to demonstrate the value of smart city technology at scale and in use, and we just had two years to do that," he explained.
Let there be connected lights
The first project Birchenall detailed was Glasgow's smart LED lights deployed in three locations and connected through a mesh network in the city. The goal is to cut down on energy consumption, aid citizen safety and help emergency services.
"We were able to build a machine-to-machine network using that streetlight network. We've deployed sensors into the wireless mesh so the streetlights can react to the street. If a crowd forms outside the railway station the light will get brighter," he said.
The lights can also be controlled remotely in emergencies to provide up to 30 percent more light to aid rescue services.
These connected lights might not seem like the most cutting-edge deployment of IoT devices, but Birchenall explained that the ability to adjust the light they emit automatically and on the fly has resulted in a 70 percent reduction in energy consumption.
Furthermore, the smart elements of the lights can alert the council when bulbs are broken, allowing maintenance workers to keep the lights up and running rather than wait for the public to inform them of a malfunction.
Other features of the lighting system include the ability to monitor street disturbances through noise detection, measure footfall with movement sensors, detect air pollution levels, and offer a limited WiFi service for nearby citizens and city services.
All these systems are controlled by a central operations centre, along with traffic management systems, public space CCTV and police intelligence.
Decisions from this smart centre are made on unfolding situations that require a response or action, and video analytics are carried out to offer another source of intelligence about what is happening.
Enabling energy efficiency
Glasgow's second project was to work with ScottishPower Energy Networks and Siemens to connect the city's energy grid to buildings with smart capabilities in order to manage energy consumption.
"The project we undertook was to integrate digitally the smart grid with the digital management systems within 10 municipal buildings, including the beautiful Mitchell Library," said Birchenall.
"If there is a peak in energy demand in the city, as an alternative to creating more supply by firing up more generators, typically coal, the energy provider can send signals electronically through the smart grid into the smart building, and request that the building reduces its energy consumption."
This undertaking was used as a proof-of-concept to show how smart grids can work with smart buildings rather than in isolation, and Birchenall now wants other buildings to follow suit.
Glasgow's smart city energy features also extend to citizens with the creation of an app that provides the public and businesses with recommendations on how to conserve energy in exchange for permission to use their energy consumption data.
This created a two-way process whereby app users can be more efficient, and city authorities can identify areas of high energy consumption and work on ways to make the city more efficient by using that data.
Apps play a major part in Glasgow's smart city initiative, especially in finding ways to address health, social and transport problems.
Birchenall explained that the smart city project looked at disruptive digital business models, such as taxi firm Uber, to develop an app that allows drivers of Glasgow's social transport fleet, designed to ferry children and adults with support needs and other vulnerable people to care services, to better plan, schedule and manage routes and offer a more responsive and on-demand service.
Glasgow also offers a walking and cycling app designed to encourage more active lifestyles. Crowdsourced data provided by cyclists on routes and destinations allows the council to offer a city route planner that cyclists can use to plot journeys and share with others.
In exchange, the council has permission to use the data to provide city planners with more insight into the local areas that would benefit from investment in cycling infrastructure.
The walking app is not dissimilar, but community groups can use a portal on the app's back-end to add their own attractions to various walking routes across the city, thereby creating a service than can be enriched over time.
Delivering open data
Glasgow has several other initiatives to demonstrate its smart city potential, but the whole project is arguably underpinned by big data, specifically open data.
Birchenall explained that open data differentiates smart cities from merely a network of connected systems and devices.
"We wanted to demonstrate that smart cities, despite what vendors might tell you, are not just about the IoT," he said.
"The most important aspect to cities are their citizens, so there are a number of projects we undertook to demonstrate how we could transform our engagement with citizens, and actually use them to gather information with their consent."
The project adopted an 'open by default' principle whereby all data harvested from the smart city systems is made available to the public unless it is sensitive information or poses a risk to privacy. This is in contrast to some councils that tend to be more protective about the data they collect.
"If you look at the data sets across a city much of the data isn't sensitive at all, so we don't need to apply the same rules and controls that we did for sensitive data," said Birchenall.
"By adopting an open by default principle, we can begin to unleash the power of data by making that non-sensitive data accessible."
The council created an initiative called Open Glasgow designed to provide open data and offer open APIs to allow businesses to plug applications into the publically available data.
A data catalogue enables organisations to publish raw data, such as statistics, geographic information, demographics and traffic information, to a single area where it is made available for reuse.
Alongside this is a set of maps populated with open data sets that provides an insight into the services and status of a community, such as the support groups nearby or the sustainability of the area.
People can use the maps to select the information they wish to see, thereby offering a form of self-service information access for Glasgow's citizens.
The most significant element of Glasgow's open data mission is probably the city dashboard, an open digital dashboard that provides information about the city gleaned from open data sets and tailored to a user's needs whether they are tourists or residents.
The data can be anything from navigation information to location details and local weather forecasts.
"The aim of this was to make data, particularly real-time data, visual, engaging and fun," added Birchenall.
Supporting all this open data is no mean task, according to Birchenall. "Cities can barely deal with all the information that's available let alone with this new wave of information that's coming, and one of the key challenges is that data is held in silos," he said.
This problem is overcome by pushing the data from Glasgow's smart city systems into Microsoft's Azure cloud platform.
Birchenall explained that Azure has the flexibility to scale with data demands, and adds analytics on top of the data as well as offering access to cloud-based Hadoop frameworks and Microsoft's machine learning capabilities.
Using a cloud that provides a platform for numerous applications and data handling gives Glasgow a system that can work with future expansive IoT deployments and scale up as the smart city develops.
"The aim of the digital platform we built is to provide secure access to information. It allows businesses and organisations to inject data into the platform," Birchenall added, detailing how the platform enables easy data ingestion from business systems and IoT networks through APIs, rather than requiring organisations to manually add it to data sets.
The system enables the council to combine data sets, for example to compare how data from traffic sensors relates to footfall in the city centre.
"We can begin to combine data sets, and that gives us new insight into how the city works," said Birchenall. He went on to explain that by merging data sets, the city has created the Glasgow business index which shows how busy the city has been throughout the year.
This data is open and can be used by marketers to predict where their activity will have an impact and enable retailers see how their business performance compares with the activity going on in the city centre.
The mixed data sets can also be used by the council to assess how and where it could deliver better services, particularly when it comes to planning urban regeneration that can have an effect that lasts for decades.
"We wanted to explore the power data has for stimulating civic innovation. It allows us to reform our services. It allows us to empower our communities and stimulate innovation. But actually our journey starts now. We are looking at how we can build on this platform and create a city of the future delivering real outcomes," concluded Birchenall.
Glasgow stands as a solid example of how smart cities need a combination of hardware, infrastructure, cloud and software.
But more importantly, the goals of a connected city need to be oriented around the needs of the public and deliver improved services as well as empower people to be more involved in their city's future by accessing the open data on offer.
Other cities and councils will no doubt follow Glasgow and build on the strategies and successes it has achieved so far. Eventually, we could see the cities promised by technologists, futurists and the world of science fiction.
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