Local Government: Smart Cities vs Dark Cities and the Internet of Things

smartcityIn Dark City, Kiefer Sutherland plays a man that wakes at night to discover that the entire metropolis is being controlled, manipulated, and altered by a shadowy group of individuals while the citizens sleep in their beds. The Internet of Things presents a threat and opportunity to local government and over the next two years it will be interesting to see whether Smart, or Dark, Cities rise.

This blog is based on a presentation to the Association of Local Government Information Managers

The Internet of Things, or IoT, is the massive proliferation of sensors and devices that attach to the Internet. Wireless weather stations in your backyard, to monitored smoke alarms, pollution sensors in the city, rain gauges, automatic water systems, pedestrian, car, & traffic counters, speed cameras, cameras, bird call recorders, personal health monitors, embedded building sensors, artificially intelligent traffic systems, and hundreds of other applications.

Each of these sensors collects data and then stores it in a computer system somewhere, these days it’s “all in the Cloud”. The information can then be accessed via smartphone applications or an Internet browser. Garter predicts that by 2020 there will be twenty-six billion sensors on the Internet.

For local council the investment in Smart Cities powered by the Internet of Things can unlock huge benefits for its residents. For example, take Blossom. A smart water management system that can save 30% of a city’s water consumption.

Blossom is a wireless device that connects to the internet and your garden hose. It has inbuilt timers you can access through your computer or smartphone that allow you to schedule when to water. Blossom also knows where your vegetables and plants are, and what they are. It knows that carrots need more water than apples. You tell Blossom where things are and it intelligently knows when to water. Blossom also connects via the Internet to weather stations and the metservice. It knows if rain is coming across the city or is forecast and will alter its schedules to suit. If it can see rain coming, it waits.

Here’s another example.

In the U.S. universities are working on an artificially intelligent traffic management system for cities. Cameras and sensors at every traffic light watch cars entering and exiting intersections in real time. The artificial intelligence can monitor every car on the road in the city in real time and adjust lights to get the smoothest flows. It can also pick out erratic cars, those driving to slow or to fast, because they are the cars that cause traffic jams. It can track those cars and alter they overall network to cater for them.

For local government, who are just getting their heads around Cloud Computing, this is a new technology fast arriving. It demands new skills, more investment in Information Technology, and entirely new ways of thinking. It also demands that local government make data open, which I will come back to, and this goes against the often dinosaur like thinking of certain IT departments. And, coming ready or not, local government has a choice to participate or not, citizen built smart cities are starting to appear all over the planet.

Large corporations have picked up on this trend and are moving rapidly to monetize it. They do this by convincing cities to buy their sensors and then promise to deliver information back as a service. The reality is that they are taking publicly owned data and then selling it back to us in drips at great expensive. Likewise, local government that locks up data and refuses to make it available to the public.

This is Dark City.

An example of this is occurring in Wellington. In order to reduce peak traffic flows a hackathon late last year tackled transport. One of the ideas was an application that showed you where your bus was, think Uber for the bus. The idea being that if people could see where there bus was in real-time then they would be able to know exactly when to leave to hit the bus stop at the time.

New Zealand Bus flatly refused to give that real-time data to the public. They felt it had commercial value and with the Greater Wellington Regional Council were trying to construct a model where they could sell that data back to us by transaction.

Then came Moovit, and their model was bust. Which was heartening. The community said, if you won’t give us the data, we’ll just take it.

Regardless, that is a good example of Dark City.

Smart City! Another good example. The Wellington Mayor, Celia Wade-Brown, and Transport Portfolio manager Andy Foster have agreement from the Council that parking sensor data will be made publicly available at no cost.

Wellington is trialing parking sensors that show when a car park is occupied, or not. Studies have shown that up to 45% of inner-city traffic congestion is people driving around looking for a park. Now, that service will include some premium services no doubt, such as surge pricing, but making the data open allows for software developers to build applications that show people where free parks are. This can save the city a great deal of cash.

One of the places that is starting to build that Smart City, from a citizen perspective, is hackathons. I strongly encourage local government to attend as a participant to see the ideas and networks that are being built. Wellington City Council has attended two in the last six months and the input they have brought has been absolutely invaluable. We have had Councillors attend as participants and I think they walk away with a different view of the world.

We need to work toward Smart Cities, with citizen sourced data and expertise, not lock ourselves into big corporation Dark Cities. For those who can’t bring themselves to be part of that movement, then politiely, they need to move out of the way and let the rest of us getting on with building better cities.

ALGIM Presentation March 2015

One comment

  1. Interesting about Moovit, although I couldn’t immediately see how in that case real-time bus and train data is collected. More generally I imagine increasing pressure on commercial and public entities of all sorts to ‘light up’ on the IoT, as it were, by publishing potentially useful data, or else remain invisible or ‘dark’. Of course this will really put the spotlight on inefficiencies, also providing incentive to cure those. E.g. real-time data on hospital A&E queuing!

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