Thanks to the ever-increasing expansion of the Internet of Things (IoT) – connected devices such as smart phones, smart trains and smart homes – the tantalising idea of the “smart city” is fast becoming a reality.
The “smart city” label refers to the notion of harnessing the power of the IoT to improve the running of our municipal and civic amenities and infrastructure, covering everything from power distribution and transport systems to rubbish collection.
Global mobile and broadband powerhouse Telefonica – known to most of us in Europe as O2 – has invested heavily in the smart city concept, rolling out many initiatives and pilots, particularly in its home country, Spain.
How Telefonica uses Big Data in practice
I talked to Telefonica’s global product manager for smart cities, Sergio Garcia Gomez, about how the company began this journey by identifying six critical “verticals”: transport, parking, tourism, street lighting, environment and refuse collection. All six are areas of civic administration where efficiencies could be delivered, with relative speed, through IoT projects, either using existing infrastructure or new technology that could be deployed easily and quickly.
In waste management, for example, sensors are attached to refuse containers to report, in real time, how close they are to capacity, which allows city officials or contractors to allocate resources for emptying them far more efficiently. The added benefit is that KPIs can be linked more closely to real, bottom-line impact – like how many bins are about to overflow but won’t be cleared within the next few hours. “This is changing the way that services in these cities are being contracted,” Garcia Gomez tells me. “The service provider has 20 KPIs that they have to meet to get their bonus.”
Playing on the abundance of connected devices available these days, different apps can be developed to allow smart city residents to get involved. For example, local residents can tag overflowing refuse containers in their neighbourhood using a simple smartphone app, or let officials know about offensive graffiti.
Parking is becoming more and more of an issue in our congested cities, and this is another area Telefonica is tackling through pilots in a number of cities, including Valencia. In the smart city, parking is monitored using sensors in parking spaces. This gives officials critical, real-time data on the density of parking right across the city. Using this information, city officials can set parking fees that create a more even parking distribution, as well as reduce congestion and pollution.
And in another example described by Garcia Gomez, air quality and pollution levels are monitored. Weather data and information from air quality monitoring stations is used to make better decisions on when to impose motorway speed limits, thereby helping to reduce the level of pollution in a given area.
Air quality and parking data also feed into another Telefonica smart city vertical: transport. Sensors measuring traffic movement report on the intensity of traffic throughout the city, enabling the use of intelligent signage that changes and reacts in real time, and other traffic-easing policies like flexible parking tariffs. The traffic initiative is also being rolled out in the UK, in partnership with Highways England.
The technical details
Telefonica’s smart city platform is based on open source standards, and brings together data from many services in the city, using both private (e.g. sensor) and public (e.g. demographic and population) data.
Ideas and insights you can steal
We’ve been hearing about smart cities for a little while now, but this case study shows us how these schemes are fast becoming a reality, and are already making life in cities better for the people who live in them. Perhaps the key to success in Telefonica’s case is how they have learned to share data across verticals to create additional efficiencies and leverage data in the best way possible.
In the same way, a collaborative and open approach to data collection and analysis is much more likely to pay off across a company, as opposed to a data strategy that’s restricted by siloes.
Bernard Marr is a bestselling author, keynote speaker, and advisor to companies and governments. He has worked with and advised many of the world's best-known organisations. LinkedIn has recently ranked Bernard as one of the top 10 Business Influencers in the world (in fact, No 5 - just behind Bill Gates and Richard Branson). He writes on the topics of intelligent business performance for various publications including Forbes, HuffPost, and LinkedIn Pulse. His blogs and SlideShare presentation have millions of readers.