Internet of Things, from home to city

Peter Ramsden

By Peter Ramsden, on March 21st, 2017

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For years I had a secret. I didn’t really understand what the term ‘Internet of Things’ actually meant. I knew what the ‘Internet’ was. I even knew what a ‘thing’ was but somehow when put together this term baffled me. So a quick definition, ‘Internet of Things or IoT refers to the Internet working of physical devices, vehicles buildings, and other items—embedded with electronicssoftwaresensors, actuators, and network connectivity that enable these objects to collect and exchange data’.  Perhaps a more useful way is to think of IoT as objects connected to the internet.

I smiled wryly when I heard that someone had taken 11 hours to make tea by connecting their internet linked electric kettle. Despite these connection difficulties, the connected home is likely to be the fastest growth area of IoT for some time with wearable tech the second most popular usage.

Now my house has entered the IoT age. We have Amazon’s Echo dot in the kitchen, and at the last count there were 12 connected devices.  Now we can ask ‘Alexa’ for answers to questions, definitions, and to pair with Bluetooth objects such as speakers and phones. Alexa even gives half decent responses to existential questions – the best being ‘why are you called Alexa?’ to which she replies ‘I am named after the library at Alexandria which housed all ancient knowledge’. Alexa can multi task – telling jokes while timing the cooking, adding to a shopping list and playing the radio. The next step is to link the boiler, radiators and lights.

DogMeanwhile for wearable tech, my heart rate can be monitored by my cycle computer on training rides which are then downloaded to a laptop alongside the ride information (gradient, speed etc). A fitbit would do the same if I was running. Lina the 9 month old puppy has a digital ID chip that enables her passport to be verified. We also use an app on a phone or laptop to link the web cam using the home wifi Cam2pet. Like a baby webcam this enables me to see and talk to her when I am travelling for URBACT. We also use an app called ‘Pawshake’ to find people to look after her when we travel to meetings – most recently in St Denis, Gent , and Mantova. Though she still uses an analogue bark to tell me that she needs a wee or would like a walk.

IoT in the home is likely to be dominated by voice control. This makes a lot of sense in the kitchen where your hands are often full, wet or sticky. But this seemingly simple device took Amazon 1200 people working for 4 years to develop yet retails for a modest 60 Euros. Amazon are clearly expecting a lot of shopping lists. But it helps to explain why hard pressed cities, short of resources, are struggling to keep up.  For citizen users in the city the phone is likely to be the core interface. The amazon echo dot is being adapted for use in cars where voice control is important because you don’t want to be caught using a keyboard or a phone.

In the city, I could see how we might get better traffic flow, or real time information about weather, but I didn’t think it was going to change my daily life or my city.

Sans titre

This is reflected here in Hackney, East London, where puppy Lina seems to have more access to IoT than I as a citizen have in my local Borough. Despite Hackney playing host to the Shoreditch’s ‘Silicon roundabout’ –  reputedly the greatest density of app developers in Europe – there are no visible municipal apps.  Our parking is still basic – you can pay with an app on your phone but it has no information about spaces. Our bins are still unconnected and are emptied on Tuesdays whether full or empty.  The traffic lights go green when there is no queue and you never get that wave of green lights you see in Hollywood films. Streetlights go on at dusk and off at dawn as they always did. Some pilot activity around reducing air pollution and encouraging cycling and electric vehicles is happening at the other end of the Borough but not as yet with much IoT content.

The only noticeable IoT app is in some bus shelters which have real time info on bus arrivals. GPS trackers on the buses pass the information by 4G through a control centre and back to the bus shelter. The same control centre data can be accessed by over 30 public transport apps. As a result my phone is able to access big and open data provided by a city agency in real time and managed by my London Mayor. But in my neighbourhood level, IoT is still zero. The nearest pollution monitoring sensor is over three miles away in another Borough. This reflects the difficulties that even medium sized municipalities face in the digital transition.

Bukchon, Seoul’s IoT pilot neighbourhood

BuckhonIt took a visit to Seoul’s neighbourhood of Bukchon to see the wider potential for IoT in our everyday lives. South Korea regards itself as an IoT powerhouse and also has Songdo a 600 hectare Smart City located near Incheon airport 40km from Seoul. Bukchon is a World Heritage site combining ancient palaces and steep streets of traditional wooden houses. It is the city’s first IoT pilot neighbourhood and is testing a wide range of applications aimed at improving the lives of citizens as well as the tourist visitor experience.  This issue of visitor/local relations has become important as the area has become ten times more popular with tourists in recent years (from 30k to 300k per year) and friction between residents and tourists has grown over issues like noise, littering, parking and gawping.

The IoT trial altogether involves a total of fourteen IoT applications running in parallel in the one neighbourhood. A selection are listed below:

  • Fire monitoring using electrical data and sensors to identify short circuits and potential fire risks in wooden houses.
  • Security – young people, or rather their parents benefit from tracking devices so that they can check on where their children are using a smart phone and automatically sends an alarm when they leave a pre-defined ‘safe zone’. Older people – especially those with memory diseases like Alzheimers can be helped to find their way home or can be found by emergency services.
  • Waste management to prevent overflowing bins and improve efficiency. Sensors in bins inform the truck when the bin is full and large bins also use solar power for compressing waste resulting in 80% efficiency savings
  • Parking is managed through sensors and cameras for each parking spot and an app that shows you where there is available parking. Tourists and locals pay different fees and surge pricing can be applied. Local organisations that have spare parking lots such as churches can raise revenue by sharing their spaces on weekdays
  • Tourist information and advice, geolocated information on phone apps keeps tourists informed about the heritage they are in front of, but also helps them if they are lost and educates them to become more sensitive tourists, for example to avoid gawping at people in the local houses, being too noisy in the street and dropping litter.
  • Building the local economy by providing real time information about which hotels, restaurants and cafes are available and open.

Buckhon2Seoul is using the pilot to address some of the thornier issues that beset the digital transition. For example, how to develop common standards and integrate different systems, how to avoid common pitfalls such as having a turnkey system, and how to manage privacy concerns (for example on health, movements etc). But note that even the most sensitive apps are already available through smart phone technology. You can already monitor where your kids are 24/7 using smart phones though the Bukchon has additional base stations and wifi is available free throughout the area. It did not require a city based IoT pilot to provide this service, though involving the local school can undoubtedly increase uptake. These IoT services for personal use raise issues around privacy, data and security. It is one thing to be able to see where your child is in the neighbourhood, but imagine if a hacker can also access the same data.  Seoul is working on these issues as part of the pilot and involving citizens in the process.

European Cities and IoT

European cities are at very varied levels of IoT development. There has been an explosion of activity through Horizon 2020 and its ‘Lighthouse’ projects.  Many of the ‘usual suspects’ are leading in this field. Eindhoven, already known as the poster city for triple helix had an FP7 project called Citypulse which monitors noise levels and social media messages in public spaces and the street light levels respond, if a disturbance gets more serious police and other interventions can be coordinated

Barcelona and Dublin are known for their smart bins.

Smart city case study: Barcelona

Barcelona has a 500km fibre-optic network, which acts as a backbone for a host of connected services as well as providing citizens with city-wide wi-fi.

The city’s lighting works to reduce energy costs. They have converted 1100 lamp posts to LEDs achieving 30% cost savings. Sensors in the lights can determine when people are passing beneath and light up or dim according to footfall. The same lampposts form part of the wi-fi network and are equipped with air-quality sensors. There are 19,500 smart meters in targeted areas of the city, which monitor and optimise energy consumption. Smart bins monitor waste levels and optimise collection routes.

In transport, Barcelona has plenty of electric cars and bike-sharing schemes, while digital bus-stops don’t just give waiting passengers updates on when buses will arrive but also provide charging stations, free wi-fi and information about the best apps to download to learn more about the city.

Drivers can take advantage of an app – ApparkB – that can identify empty parking spaces and allow users to pay for the spot online.

Even the irrigation systems in Barcelona’s parks are hooked into the network. Sensors monitor rain and humidity, allowing park workers to decide how much water is needed in each area, which has led to a 25% cut in the city’s water bill.

Barcelona has made its city operating system – Sentilo – which controls all the sensors open-source and available to other cities.

Other Spanish cities are also leading the way. Santander has 12,000 sensors recording real time information is offering itself as a testbed for companies to experiment with IoT.

Manchester, lead partner of URBACT Smart Impact has won funding from Horizon 2020 and national sources for City verve an IoT demonstrator that includes several of the features of the Seoul demonstrator though at an earlier stage of implementation

  • CityVerve will set up a ‘biometric sensor network’ which will help improve responses to patients’ conditions and improve how local healthcare services work.
  • Community wellness – a network of sensors positioned in parks, along commuter and school routes will track the progress of individuals and teams competing against each other for physical activity and fun.
  • Talkative bus stops – CityVerve will convert ‘flag and pole’ bus stops into safe places with location-based services, sensors/beacons, mobile apps and intelligent digital signage. People will check-in to their bus stop and let bus operators know they are waiting for their service.
  • Smart lighting – , in addition to connected street lighting, aims to address congestion by making alternative forms of transport safer.
  • Bike sharing – The Manchester Corridor through-route will soon become bus and bike only. Internet of Things enabled bikes in a crowd-sourced and maintained, secure bike sharing service. It will also include ‘e-cargo’ bikes to make ‘last-mile’ deliveries on the Corridor.
  • Smart air-quality monitoring – Street furniture, lamp posts and street cabinets on the Manchester Corridor will be used to monitor air quality at different heights and locations. Information will be passed to those with health conditions and made generally available to support walking options.

Glasgow has intelligent streetlights which come on when a pedestrian passes. Berlin has developed smart parking. But like me in Hackney (population 200 000) there are precious few example from Europe’s small and medium sized cities. There is also a North/South and East/West divide with most of the good practices coming from North West Europe and this is reinforced by successes in bids for Horizon 2020.

As part of the EU Urban Agenda the partnership on Digital Transition has started.  This will involve Oulu in Finland and Sofia in Bulgaria as lead cities. The first meeting was held in Oulu on 16 and 17 February and there will be a further URBACT report on progress in this partnership. Oulu itself is already a leader in IoT and is particularly interested in ehealth applications. During the visit we were shown a living lab focusing on testing new health applications. The cutest was a Segway based ipad about 1m50 tall (it reminded me of a standing version of R2D2) that can zoom around between beds and enable a remote doctor to talk with her patients.  In a sparse region near the Arctic circle this could radically improve patient communication and care.

Meanwhile in analogue Hackney, I’m looking forward to the day when my municipality brings some useful IoT functionality to my neighbourhood.


Some other articles on the internet of things:


Image 1: Peter's dog
Image 1: Smart home and wearables outpace Smart city in IoT applications worldwide.
Image 2: Members of Mayor Park Wonsoons Social Innovation advisory board visiting Bukchon
Image 3: Parking camera sensor next to sensor bin in Bukchon

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