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Connected City: London to become the world’s high tech test bed

A trio of new projects announced over the past weeks look certain to make the government’s dream of London as 'the technology centre for Europe' come true. However, the future of the UK capital as a research ground for cutting edge technology hinges on something which not every Londoner is enamoured with – giving up data.

No less than three multi-million pound projects were announced in the past month, drawing on the academic, engineering, business and technological expertise which the capital possesses in spades. Last week we highlighted the latest TSB investment, a Future Cities Catapult and £25m Demonstrator Competition, in which London’s prowess is sure to feature prominently. In early May, plans were announced for London’s Greenwich peninsula to become the test bed for Urban OS, an operating system designed to power the smart cities of the future, and, later that month, on an even bigger scale, Intel announced plans for a Collaborative Research Institute (ICRI), for Sustainable Connected Cities, to be based in London. 

Heavily skewed to academic research, ICRI will investigate how technology can be put to good use, helping to tackle social, economic and environmental challenges. Intel is collaborating with two of the most respected technology universities in the world, Imperial College and UCL, which both happen to be based in the capital. 

Microscosm

But it was not only for this reason that London was chosen as the location for a research centre, over Berlin or Madrid.  London boasts the largest GDP for any city in Europe, has a population that speaks 300 languages and spans 200 ethnic communities -  it’s the world in a microcosm, which makes it the perfect research arena, according to Intel's chief technology officer Justin Rattner.

Mr Rattner told the BBC that the Lab’s work would be citizen-led and was likely to include crowdsourcing data. Anthropologists will work alongside computer scientists and human computer interaction (HCI) experts to make sure that the social needs of the population are taken into account.

The main focus for ICRI researchers will be on intelligent systems, networks of sensors, which can provide real time access to data on trends for traffic, pollution, air quality and water supply. 

In Norway, a similar system monitors traffic congestion. The data is shared, and used to develop smarter transport timetables and alerts. If London Councils were able to make use of similar data, they could begin to re-route traffic or provide warnings on mobile apps.

“The Institute could enable us to make all kinds of intelligent systems a reality in cities,” Edward Astle, Pro Rector Enterprise at Imperial College London told The Telegraph. “One example of how our research could work in practice is where there is a major leak from a water supply, flooding the roads. We could introduce a network of sensors that would detect the leak, divert the flow of water to prevent more damage and wirelessly transmit information to transport authorities so that traffic could be diverted, preventing congestion and general city-wide disruption.”.

Data

With a combination the of Intel's world class engineers and scientists, some of the greatest scientific minds in British academia , industry, government and the public, the possibilities for ICRI are extremely exciting. However for successful implementation, public involvement and data are key.

The ICRI needs to collate information about London's millions of inhabitants to find out how people want to live in their city and the key question is not how will it do this or how much will be spent to install sensors and devices to collect this data. The devices are, on the whole, already in place. The question is whether people will be willing to allow the ICRI access to their data from smartphones, smart meters, digital TV’s and other connected devices to better the living conditions in their city.

In March 2011, when a massive tsunami hit Japan’s nuclear reactors in Fukashima, the best, most detailed, information about the spread of radiation came not from government sources, but from web-connected Geiger counters in people's homes.

Using a web development platform from Pachube (now known as Cosm), developers were able to create applications to aggregate data, along with location and wind speed/direction. This data went into producing a map with the location of the highest levels of radiation and where it could spread.

Internet of Things

This example of the power of machine-to-machine (M2M) communication, is only an indication of what will be possible in the smart cities of the future. The technology allows electronic devices to communicate with one another via SIM cards which connect to wireless sensors, resulting in an internet of things for management, monitoring and services.

The drive for an internet of things is gathering pace: the latest chip manufacturers such as Intel and ARM have been investing in M2M processors, and telcom companies have also signing up: Telefonica UK signed a deal with software developer Jasper Wireless to deploy an M2M management platform last month, and Deutsche Telekom launched the first online marketplace for M2M technologies. The TSB’s competition for IoT convergence is also reaching fruition, with the ten successful companies showcasing their efforts in London next week.  The internet of things will even soon have its own search engine as computer scientists at the University of Glasgow recently announced plans located in the physical world to provide answers to search queries.

However data remains the key. Anyone who’s used the internet in the past weeks cannot have failed to notice information about the European directive on the use of cookies, which has highlighted the issue of data privacy. This brings home the task ahead of projects such as the ICRI – that the majority of Londoners "opt in" to a data collection strategy.

Interoperability

According to Maurizio Pilu, the TSB’s Lead Digital Technologist, developers need to provide incentives for organisations and individuals to unlock data by demonstrating how it can be used to create new applications and services.

The feared catastrophe - of the public opting out of cookies, en masse, has failed to materialise and the rise of social networks such as Facebook and Twitter has shown that the market is willing to tolerate a certain amount of personal data release in exchange for valuable services.

“Opening up data might conjure images of everything being free, but it's really about moving one step further and showing there are benefits,” says Mr Pilu. 

Transparency is crucial and that means making M2M systems open and interoperable and based on open standards, instead of companies building proprietary systems that lock in data.

A recent Economist Intelligence Unit report, sponsored by SAP, quotes the mobile phone pioneer, Martin Cooper:  successful technologies, he says,  typically have two great attributes: they are invisible to the customer, and they solve a fundamental human need. As an enabling technology, M2M already excels at being invisible to the ultimate end users; but its continued success will lie in its ability to help improve people’s lives.

Just as the mobile operators only realised their full potential when they became interoperable, so M2M will arguably only become ubiquitous when the system becomes more open, and provides a platform for others to build on while ensuring data security and preserving people's right to privacy. 

With most of the world's population living in cities and thousands more moving to urban areas every day, sustainability is no longer a luxury but an absolute necessity. By 2050, most of the nine billion people in the world will live in urban spaces. Such population density could be a major challenge unless systems are in place to manage the way a city operates. Investing in forward-thinking research, super-fast connectivity and strategy to encourage data privacy and interoperability makes a lot of sense.

Related articles:

London 2012 to test "smart city" operating system

Fixing city streets with crowdsourcing technology

Tackling smart meter privacy

Join the new Future Cities Special Interest Group

 
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