How can the Internet of Things (IoT) create a better life for those of us who live in the city?
In particular, what role can it play in improving healthcare, making our streets and transport safer or informing and empowering citizens?
The determination to find answers to these questions has been the driving force behind Manchester’s high-profile CityVerve project.
Backed by government funding, CityVerve is a smart city initiative involving local authorities, start-ups, universities and a number of technology partners - including BT. In fact, the project has seen twenty-one different organisations coming together to apply the latest IoT innovations to a number of use cases in the city.
Testbed for the world
But CityVerve has one other primary objective - to become a blueprint for the future. Its use cases will show how a smart city programme can be rolled out across the world.
They’ll demonstrate the benefits that IoT technologies can bring, as well as the challenges of applying them at scale.
According to John Davies, chief researcher, Future Business Technology, BT, there are a number of reasons why the city of Manchester was chosen for this particular initiative.
“Because Manchester enjoys significant and increasing devolution from Westminster, it has more control over education, health and transport policy than other cities.”
“This give it greater flexibility when it comes to applying IoT technologies and using the data it generates to inform decision-making,” he explains.
“What’s more, the city’s geography and demographic is large enough to make it a true testbed for other urban areas too.”
Adds John: “And with everyone working together and pooling expertise, CityVerve is pioneering a way of thinking that’s never been applied to a smart city project before.”
Doing more with data
At the heart of this large-scale collaborative project is the need to do more with data. And that job comes down to BT.
It’s a role that involves working with around 200 separate data feed provided by different organisations and partners throughout Manchester. It includes everything from parking data and automatic traffic counts to Met Office weather observations, air quality data and Highways England traffic density data.
However, BT has created a single IoT data hub that sits at the heart of the project and is easily accessible to everyone involved in the project.
The hub does the hard work of presenting information about each data source in a uniform and machine-readable format.
As a result, developers can easily see what’s available and use it as part of their applications. This means barriers to participation are lowered when it comes to creating new services and solutions with CityVerve’s data.
New insights made possible
Explains John Davies: “Because BT’s data hub is built using the Hypercat IoT standard, it is fully interoperable with other data hubs that form part of the CityVerve project. That’s important, because it means different data sources can be combined - between health and transport data, for example.”
“We can now deliver insights that were never previously possible, and, of course, better services for Manchester’s citizens.”
As well as having responsibility for the data hub, BT is also the technical lead on CityVerve’s travel and transport use cases, working with a range of partners to make travel across Greater Manchester greener, faster and easier.
Sensors can have been installed across Manchester - everywhere from bus stops to bikes.
With the data these sensors produce, IoT applications can paint a true picture of how Manchester’s citizens, visitors and commuters travel throughout the city. And this can lead to better decisions, investments and upgrades to roads, transport services and traffic systems.
A good example is the work BT is doing with SeeSense, an innovative cycling company from Northern Ireland that makes intelligent, connected lights for bicycles.
SeeSense had previously scooped top prize in a BT Infinity Lab competition for its work to make cycling and cities safer, smarter and more enjoyable.
BT and SeeSense have been gathering data that can help guide decisions around everything from upgraded cycle routes to accident prevention.
SeeSense’s ICON smart cycle lights were installed on the bikes of 180 cycling volunteers who ride across the city every day.
The cycle lights link up to a smartphone app via Bluetooth and transmit data to the BT CityVerve data hub. “This data collection and sensor communication works in two ways,” explains John Davies.
Insights gathered en route
“Firstly, to make the bike light flash brighter and faster in riskier situations, such as crossing busy junctions or approaching roundabouts, and secondly to feedback data about routes taken and the cycling environment.”
With a number of sensors packed inside, and a connection to their smartphone app, ICON lights know when they’re approaching a dangerous stretch of road or junction, while motion sensors can detect road conditions and bike movement. In the event of an accident, they can send text messages to alert friends or family.
Says John Davies: “The data that SeeSense’s smart lights provide is incredibly useful. On the most basic level, it’s simple to overlay cyclists’ journeys onto route maps, while data on speed, braking and wait times can be added to show where there’s congestion.”
“This could be used to help Manchester City Council make better investment decisions in the city’s cycling infrastructure - upgrading the busiest routes to make sure everyone gets from A to B without a hitch.”
But, where the project really comes into its own, though, is with deeper data insights into areas like road condition. Sensor data on ride smoothness can be used to assess road condition and, in the future, even detect potholes.
And, data on accidents makes it easy to identify collision hotspots. All of this means Manchester’s roads and cycle routes can be repaired and modified in a way that gives the most value for money and potentially even saves lives.
For cyclists, BT’s work with SeeSense smart cycle lights has revealed the use of particular ‘cut- through’ routes that weren’t always obvious to the city’s planners and transport bosses.
Again, this data will prove invaluable when it comes to deciding how and where to invest in Manchester’s future cycling infrastructure.
Collaboration is key
John Davies agrees that by placing collaboration and integration at the heart of CityVerve, the project is proving that great things can happen when the right partners, people and datasets come together.
“Without great connections, the Internet of Things is just ‘things’. Separate objects, ideas and innovations that might well be great in their own right but aren’t fulfilling their full potential. With CityVerve, new connections, collaborations and discoveries are being made at every stage of the project.”
By combining traffic count data with air quality data from the Met Office, for the first time, it’s easy to see a clear correlation between Manchester’s traffic and pollution levels.
Although the link has always been present, the data generated by CityVerve now gives a strong indication of the point when traffic levels start to have serious impact on pollution in the city.
This provides Manchester’s authorities with a clear picture of exactly where to funnel investment that can reduce traffic and ultimately reduce pollution, helping to improve the lives of people who live and work in the area.
Both the connected cycling and traffic count use cases show how IoT can be used to create smart cities that truly improve citizens’ lives.
And Manchester isn’t the only city that’ll benefit. BT is using the learnings from the CityVerve project to develop the new Smart Cities Starter Kit - helping other cities around the UK and beyond take advantage of IoT technologies to gain new insights into how travel, transport, energy, services and buildings are used.