Smart cities and the IoT - not just a load of rubbish

This is a guest post by David Socha, utilities practice leader, Teradata

What really makes a city smart?  Because from my perspective, Smart Parking, Smart Homes, Smart Lighting and the like are really just the next steps on a journey that began by replacing the cry of “gardyloo*with city plumbing.

In fact many of the things happening in today’s Smart Cities could more honestly be labelled as “progress”. 

What will really make a city become smart is the integration and analysis of data from these otherwise disparate initiatives and all the others like them.  Once that happens, a new intelligence will enable the city to deliver new services to its citizens – from genuinely integrated public, private and personal transport systems to energy profiles that incorporate our homes, workplaces, vehicles and more. 

But … how does that work, exactly?  Surely it consists of more than attaching sensors to everything?  Yes, of course it does. 

And to understand how all this integration and analytics will bring Smart City citizens some actual benefits, you will have to let me get technical –  just briefly though, I promise.  We need to examine three types of data that we’re going to encounter in our Smart City. Here they are:

1.       Traditional, unexciting, structured data from enterprise systems.  Information like weather forecasts from the Meteorological Office; census analyses from Government and, say, public transport performance statistics.

2.      Slightly cooler “big data” from all sorts of social media (and other sources too).  This can be valuable for sentiment analysis; for personalising services and offers and for all manner of business-to-customer or perhaps city-to-customer relationships.

3.      New and exciting Machine-to-Machine (M2M) data.  Now we’re talking!  This is the stuff the Internet of Things (IoT) is made of, isn’t it?  This is the future!  Well, yes and no. 

We can lift the lid on the oft-used example of the smart waste bin to guide us through how we journey from sensors to real benefits for citizens.  The first nugget you’ll hear in a typical Case of The Smart Waste Bin story is pretty simple.  If a bin has a sensor that knows it’s nearly full, it can call and request someone comes to empty it.  Is that “Smart”?  As I said before, yes and no.  Rubbish might be collected more often, but costs will rocket.  Lorries could be going back to the same street to empty smart bins that transmit their “I’m full!” message just a few hours apart.  Not so smart now, is it? 

Of course we can fix this.  Sensors close to one another could communicate and check if any other bins close-by are nearly full too.  Companies like Smartbin offer both sensors and a route optimisation solution for the teams that have to collect the rubbish.  So here we are, already integrating M2M data and boring old structured data.  Now our citizens will enjoy cleaner streets without having to pay extra for the privilege.  This is merely the beginning.  Additional analytics on the data we have in this example alone, can lead to better planning decisions. For example on where more or fewer bins are required, or how staff and vehicles can be more efficiently deployed.

So let’s mix in more data and see what else we can do.  What if we also added Wi-Fi to the bins, as is happening in New York?  Suddenly, citizens will be connecting directly with a “smart solar-powered, connected technology platform that is literally sitting in the streets of New York”.  This new service not only delivers a ‘connected city’ for its citizens – it also offers a chance to learn more about the people our Smart City is serving.  By applying some sentiment analysis, we can even work out just what they think about the new Smart Bin services we’re providing. 

We’ve come a long way from that initial installation of a sensor that occasionally shouts out “I’m nearly full”.  And that’s the point.  This is just one example of how the Internet of Things will actually deliver benefits to people living in Smart Cities. 

It’s not just about sensors.  It’s not just about M2M.  Just as important is the integration of many different types of data – the cool stuff and the boring. It’s about analysing the data in its entirety to reveal the relationships, dependencies and connections. And it’s about taking informed, positive actions based on the new information available. Now that’s what I call Smart.

*An Edinburgh phrase, first recorded in 1662.  You can take the boy out of Edinburgh…