Local councils are increasingly turning to digital technology, big data and the Internet of Things (IoT) to make their services and cities more effective while at the same time cutting costs.
Devon County Council, for example, is collecting and analysing big data in an effort to reduce traffic congestion and harmful air pollution in the city.
The Engaged Smart Transport project has been set up by the council in partnership with a consortium comprising tech companies and the University of Exeter that is led by IT services provider NTT Data.
Councillor Andrew Leadbetter, Devon County Council's cabinet minister, told V3 that the Engaged Smart Transport project was driven by the council's desire to ge more value from all the data it collects.
"It's very early days, but from a council point of view what we are finding is that with all our spending cuts we have an enormous amount of information that comes in to us but we have nobody to actually crunch it," he said.
"Councils accumulate an awful amount of data but we're not necessarily experts on what to do with it, so this is where we really need somebody like NTT who really know what they are talking about to help us out."
Set up with backing from government body Innovate UK, the project aims to find ways in which IoT networks and the data flowing from them can be used to solve Exeter's traffic-related problems.
"We're looking to learn what is causing this congestion and come out with intelligent solutions to it, be that better information to people or re-signalisation of traffic lights or junction changes," said the Leadbetter.
One of the aims, he said, is to send traffic and parking data to residents' smartphones to help them to decide on their route or whether to drive at all.
Devouring digital data
From a technical perspective, NTT will oversee the project and look to develop systems on top of the services, research and data offered by others in the consortium.
Black Swan has provided the data and analytics systems to collect and crunch the large amounts of data flowing from various sources, while environmental and industrial measurement company Vaisala has provided sensors to provide the council with data on local weather and road conditions.
Imtech Traffic & Infra has provided intelligent transport systems to improve how traffic is managed across the city, while Exeter University will research ways to encourage people to incorporate these smart technologies into their everyday lives.
Ben Morris, project manager at NTT Data, told V3 that the project is effectively using as Exeter as a test bed to find out how the systems and services developed during its two-year life span can be put to use by other councils.
"[We] will then really be able to shine a spotlight on what the problem areas are so we can focus the limited resources we have on actual solutions to actual problems rather than create problems that we think exist and solve them," he said.
"The thing that we can do with all the data that's coming in, and all of the consortium partners that we are working with, is to actually produce tools and insights that would be helpful for other councils and traffic authorities across the country."
With councils such as Peterborough moving services and infrastructure away from legacy systems and onto new digital platforms, there is a growing recognition in many parts of the public sector of the role new technology can play in boosting efficiency.
Exeter's Leadbetter said the move to adopt new technologies is not merely innovation for innovation's sake: "It's not just nice to do. I think it is more vital than that because being held up in traffic is a real barrier to economic growth; you don't want your workers stuck in traffic.
"At the end of the day it's about outcomes, about how me make Exeter a better place for people to live and drive around, and make the standard of their life a bit better," he added.
With Innovate UK funding more smart city projects, notably an IoT- and app-fuelled showcase setup in the city of Glasgow, it is likely more councils will follow the examples set by their tech-savvy brethren and smart cites will become increasing part of the UK's urban fabric.
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