People and systems join in interconnected city

Contactless cards, machine-to-machine communication and the “internet of things” are just the start of future city connectivity, as Joe Peach reports


A popular car insurance comparison website recently conducted research using a smartphone application to monitor people driving 250 miles without music, then the same distance with music.

The resulting data could potentially have offered valuable insight into the impact of music on driver behaviour. Instead, it was turned into a tweet-friendly report announcing Hey Mama, the 2004 single by hip hop group The Black Eyed Peas, as the most dangerous song to drive to.

“Music that is noisy, upbeat and increases your heart rate is a deadly mix,” says Dr Simon Moore of London Metropolitan University. “In addition, a fast tempo can cause people subconsciously to speed up to match the beat of a song.” Fans of The Black Eyed Peas be warned.

This research is typical of developments occurring in cities across the globe, where technology is being used to understand better the connection between people and urban systems. From GPS-enabled school buses sharing locations with smartphone-owning parents, to sensors that monitor and report on building condition, cities and their systems are becoming increasingly connected with a promise of urban intelligence and sustainability like never before.

Cities and their systems are becoming increasingly connected with a promise of urban intelligence and sustainability like never before

This network of connections is known as an “internet of things” (IoT) or machine-to-machine (M2M) communication, where objects are linked through ability to transmit and receive data. And who benefits from these connections? We do.

The value of interconnectivity is well-documented. A smart water meter trial in Dubuque, Iowa, offered households detailed information about water usage, feeding back into city databases. The trial resulted in a 6.6 per cent reduction in the average water bill, with leakages reported eight times as frequently.

London’s contactless Oyster smartcard, as well as reducing the need to queue for public-transport tickets, has been so successful that everything from fewer carbon emissions to increased ridership have been attributed to it. Transport users benefit from ease of use, but Transport for London (TfL) benefits by mining huge amounts of data generated by the cards to identify problems with the system.

The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority in Philadelphia is going one step further. Currently the only major US city still accepting tokens as transit fares, by late-2013 its payment system will undergo a significant upgrade, becoming one of the most advanced in the world by accepting its own contactless smartcard, contactless debit and credit cards, and smart devices equipped with near-field communication (NFC).

NFC allows two-way communication using radio waves by bringing devices into close proximity. Mainstream use to date has been limited to media-sharing and contactless payment, though John Baekelmans, senior director of Cisco’s Smart+Connected Communities programme, envisions a future where “technology like NFC replaces the badge readers we use every day, from public transport to payments”. He says: “Tools we use to interact with urban systems could all move into the phone.”

NFC could also act as the key to your front door or digital identification. “So much is possible, but it’s early days,” says Mr Baekelmans. “It’s at least a couple of years before we see next-generation capabilities.”

Wireless communication between objects and city management systems is likely to become increasingly common. Starting in 2015, every new car sold in the EU will contain an integrated communications system which automatically contacts emergency services with information, including the vehicle’s location, if it senses an accident has taken place.

The IoT and M2M market is expected to become the fastest-growing segment of the IT sector in the next three to five years. Marketsandmarkets recently predicted its value would increase to $290 billion in 2017, up from $44 billion in 2011. This growth is reflective of the emergence of what is essentially a new market, but with human-generated data as its foundation, privacy and security concerns are a hot topic.

Dubuque learnt from mistakes made when New York City undertook its smart water meter trial. Appearing at a press conference, announcing installation of hundreds of thousands of digital water meters, a New York City council member displayed his water consumption data, revealing a spike in usage one afternoon. Speculation ensued among the audience about the cause, with some possibilities more embarrassing than others. Keen to avoid similar issues (or worse), Dubuque anonymised data by using IDs in place of addresses, with management access restricted to viewing data in aggregate.

Location data doesn’t always need to be hidden and can encourage citizen engagement if integrated successfully. SeeClickFix is an application for reporting neighbourhood issues, such as graffiti or potholes, directing citizen feedback to government departments. Action is encouraged by initiating reports in the public domain rather than a private inbox.

Data from non-intrusive online interactions like this can easily be controlled using service privacy options, but security in a cloud environment, where data is more likely to be private, is more complex.

Cloud computing is when computer resources connect over a network with data stored remotely. Advantages include affordability and removal of the need to own hardware, though potential disadvantages include data loss, or data getting into the wrong hands after hacking or user error. Private organisations have recognised this risk and compete on strength of security, but Mr Baekelmans suggests legislation would be a good idea.

Though risk can be minimised, as connections between citizens and urban systems become more integrated, an element of risk will remain. Some may decide it isn’t worth it, going off the grid as much as they can. Others may never even have been invited to the party – if everything needed to engage with the city is in a smartphone, what happens to those who can’t afford smartphones?

However, for the interconnected city to achieve its promise of an intelligent and sustainable urban environment, it simply needs enough people to be prepared to take the data plunge. As Steve Turner of New Economy, the economic development body for Greater Manchester, explains: “We need smart citizens to create smart cities. However, first they need to hand over their data so those managing our cities can create smarter infrastructure.”