SciBar: Towards Slightly Less Dumb Cities: Big Data, the Internet of Things and Urban Monitoring

Written by Lucy Eland, Edited by Adam Curry

What is a ‘smart city’, and can we make our cities less dumb?

These were questions posed by Phil James, the director of the Newcastle Urban Observatory, at SciBar on the 20th March. He gave a passionate talk about how we can collect and use data to make more educated decisions on running our cities.

The power of the ‘internet of things’ (the interconnection of computing devices embedded in everyday objects) can be harnessed to provide us with data on how cities are operating. Monitoring equipment and sensors, linked up wirelessly to the internet, can provide accurate measurements of many variables, ranging from air pollution to pedestrian numbers on a street. The Urban Observatory to date has collected a Newcastle data set with an astonishing one billion observations. Every minute, 4000 new observations are recorded from 3600 data streams, measuring 64 different variables (such as airborne particulate matter, wind speed and vehicle numbers).

So, how can we be sure we’re measuring the ‘right’ variables, and how can we use this data to improve our cities? The main example Phil talked about was air pollution. The EU and DEFRA standards mean that nitrogen dioxide (NO2) is the main gas requiring monitoring and reduction. Unfortunately, there’s much more to air pollution than that, with other gases and environmental factors ─ including wind and sunlight ─ having a drastic impact on readings. Sensors must be calibrated and monitored regularly and even with careful observations, anomalies in the data can be hard to spot.

As for whether we are measuring the correct variables, Phil suggested additional factors that may improve monitoring, such as particulate matter (the sum of solid and liquid particles in the air that may be hazardous). Tests have shown particulate matter could have worse health effects than NO2 and so our current focus may indeed be on the wrong problem. Phil highlighted that a more holistic, and sustainable approach to dealing with air pollution would be beneficial, particularly in light of scientific evidence.

This led Phil to suggest using Newcastle city as a ‘lab’, to gather evidence for decision making on things like infrastructure and congestion, amongst others. Hopefully an extensive data set could provide possible solutions to environmental, economic and social problems. An additional factor is the need to gather evidence to confirm whether the intended outcome of a project has been achieved. Surprisingly, this is not routine, especially not on a city-wide scale. Such a complex data collection project is challenging and can have subsequent drawbacks, for example solving an air pollution problem in one area may just move it to a neighbouring location.

All of the data collected by Newcastle’s Urban Observatory is freely available on the web, allowing open use by scientists, planners and communities. The ultimate hope for this data is that it can be accurately used to make more informed city-based decisions. You can see Phil James’ work at www.urbanobservatory.ac.uk and www.sensemystreet.uk 

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