Piers Dillon-Scott


Smart Cities need smart developers & smart city managers, not just sensors

The key to a smart city lies in its ability to connect sensor data with real services - without this level of service design you cannot have a smart city.

In the closing months of the Second World War London came under heavy bombardment from V2 rockets launched from the continent.

V2s were exceptionally fast, capable of travelling at supersonic speeds, and nearly impossible to shoot out of the sky. Faced with these unstoppable weapons, the British had two choices – they could attempt to take out V2 launch sites (which, of course, were heavily protected), or (somehow) prevent the missiles from hitting their targets.

Finding and destroying the launch sites was one thing, but how do you protect a city from repeated bombardment night-after-night from supersonic weapons? When it came to protecting the city, the safety of millions of Londoners came down to one thing, data. The Nazis had two pieces of data; they knew the the launch sites and the target locations (although the weapons weren’t terribly accurate). The British had only one piece of data, the impact locations.

Given British command of the skies the Nazis could never be certain that their missiles hit their target locations, they could only assume that their mathematics set the rockets on the right trajectory.

Knowing this, the British hit upon a smart idea. After each bombardment the MOD would record each impact and then leak data to double-agents operating in London. But they would alter the leaked data to show that the missiles hit 20-30 kilometres away from the real impact locations. The Nazis, thinking that they missed their targets, then used this data to compensate for their apparent mistakes. With this tactic the British were able to move subsequent V2 rocket attacks away from densely populated areas of London.

Producing, interpreting, and acting upon data has always been vital to cities’ success (just look at how 14th century Venice used data to manage and prevent outbreaks of the bubonic plague), but data is useless unless it is acted upon.

London gives us another example of smart data collection. London’s 2012 Olympic games were, according to the IOC, ‘the greenest on record’. One of the small items that helped London win its green status was the instillation of over 100 recycling bins around the busy St Paul’s Cathedral area of the city.

The bins themselves were slightly larger than the standard refuse bins you might see in a central city location, and were certainly more aesthetically pleasing. Standing just above waist high, and rendered in black with green and chrome details they were as much street art as street furniture.

The reason for their larger size was the digital display ad screens, which were placed on either end of the bins. Like most digital ad spaces, these displayed rotating messages, including public-service messages, to passers by. But unlike most digital ad spaces, about a dozen of these screens were monitoring the activities of those who passed by.

These bins recorded the MAC address of each wireless device (that had WiFi enabled), and was able to use that data to identify users’ behaviour, such as their journey to and from work, and their lunch habits.

According to Quarts, which broke the story, “In the first month after installing the trackers, Renew (the company behind the system) says it picked up over a million unique devices. On July 6, a record day, its bins identified 106,629 people, taking note of their presence 946,016 times, according to the company.”

Using this data the company responsible for the bins could then provide more targeted ads to people who passed by (insert obligatory ‘Minority Report’ reference here).

And these kinds of data collection techniques are becoming more common. Ars Technica, citing an article from BuzzFeed (BuzzFeed does news now), reports that advertising companies are using similar tracking techniques in order to show more targeted ads to users. By placing beacons in public spaces, and in shops, restaurants (including toilets), and other similar spaces companies can generate an accurate and detailed picture of individuals.

They could be able to tell your approximate age (by knowing the shops you visit), sex, sexuality, health, and regular commuting habits.

For their part city authorities are pushing the environmental and civic benefits of smart-city initiatives. In a nondescript Copenhagen suburb, city managers are experimenting with smart-street lights, which brighten as pedestrians and vehicles pass by, and darken when they don’t detect any activity. And since each street light now has its own IP address, city managers can make real-time decisions about how the city should be lit.

In Ireland, Dublin City aims to become Europe’s leading smart city. In 2015 thousands of sensors will be installed throughout the city, and these will record data about pedestrians, traffic, and Dublin’s micro-climate.

Collecting data is one thing, the hard part is using that data to make a meaningful difference to Dubliners’ lives – and for this to happen the city corporation and private companies need to work together (For example, when it’s raining, should Dublin’s traffic light sequence be altered to give pedestrians more time to cross the road? And if so, how should real-time weather data be coordinated with traffic management systems?)

The authority behind Ireland’s 999 answering service is one of the first organisations that’s investigating how it could use smart data to help Dubliners. Ireland’s Commission for Communications Regulation is investigating (PDF) the possibility of using mobile phone masts and Ireland’s proposed new postcode system to automatically identify callers’ locations – this would provide emergency services with more accurate location data for emergency situations, potentially saving lives.

As for other uses for Dublin’s sensors, we’ll have to wait and see how connected the city’s infrastructure truly is.

London, Dublin, Copenhagen, Illinois and Seoul have all launched smart city projects. But smart cities should not be judged by the number of sensors they've installed or the amount of data they've collected, but by the genius of that city’s programmers, and the capacity of city authorities, public services, and companies to make real changes based on that data.

Apart from smart cities, we also learned this week how the future of your credit card may be on your fingertips, why Millennials are so selfish, and how computers understand the human voice.


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Illustration: Patrick Cusack

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