How Big Data Will Enable Truly Smart Cities

17th March, 2016 by

Imagine a world where civic life is transformed by a perfect storm of converging technologies – most notably ubiquitous high-speed cloud and smartphones – a slew of Internet-connected sensors, controllers and other devices (the Internet of Things), plus intelligent tools for aggregating and analyzing the huge volumes of big data that these devices will generate, often in real time. This is the idea behind smart cities.

Properly integrated and managed, these technologies are set to revolutionise transport, public services, health care, education, policing, energy efficiency, air quality, waste management and much more besides, leading to dramatic improvements in the environment, quality of life and economic vibrancy of our increasingly densely populated cities.

For example, data from roadside cameras and sensors, connected cars and individuals’ smartphones will give an up-to-the-minute picture of traffic flows across a city. Intelligent systems can then be employed to analyze all that data on the fly, and route vehicles around congestion by displaying diversion messages on connected road signs, remotely controlling traffic lights and suggesting alternative routes via drivers’  in-car navigation systems. 

The vision has got plenty of people excited. Civic authorities and central governments see it as a way of vastly improving efficiencies while alleviating many of their most pressing challenges. Big industry players, meanwhile, see smart cities as a major key to future economic growth. 

Is It Possible To Build A Smart City?

Building the infrastructure for a smart city is beyond the ability and budget of any single organization, least of all cash-strapped councils. What’s made it possible is the evolution of the cloud as a scalable, on-demand platform for storing, manipulating and analyzing swathes of big data, then serving the insights generated back to people via useful applications and services.  As Ian Jones, smart city supremo at Leeds City Council, told the IoT Tech Expo in London last month, councils see their task as providing the necessary cloud platforms in partnership with trusted providers, opening up as much data as possible in standard, machine-readable formats, and encouraging others to do the same. In addition, much of the data will need to come from external sources such as people’s smartphones, private businesses that have deployed their own sensors, smart energy meters owned by utility companies, data from other public-sector bodies, to name a few examples.

Similarly, while some applications will be developed by councils themselves, many will emerge from third parties – social enterprises, commercial businesses, community groups and individuals – using publicly-accessible big data and cloud platforms to develop services and applications that might, say, meet the needs of specific communities or groups. Leeds is demonstrating this already with the Leeds Data Mill, a cloud-based platform where anyone can use open smart city data to develop novel applications and services. It has already led to apps that highlight accident black-spots, analyse how libraries are being used, improve public property management, and much more.

Jones says the council has tried to open up as much data as possible, including industry data from utility companies, but he believes more needs to be done to encourage individuals and organizations to share their data for the benefit of all. A key part of this, though, is to convince people and organizations that their data won’t be compromised and that sharing it will provide tangible benefits for citizens and businesses alike.

What Does This Mean For The Future?

This means if smart cities are to develop as hoped, there will be no room for technology failure. It will take only one major breach of sensitive data to irrevocably dent public confidence in sharing their information, one traffic system failure to result in economically and environmentally damaging gridlock, and so on. Councils and others involved in building the infrastructure for smart cities must therefore be sure to select their technology partners with extreme care. And any provider that hopes to support smart cities effectively must be able to offer solid guarantees of data security, reliability, speed and performance.

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