With the population of world cities increasing at an exponential rate, we need to find clever ways of improving the quality of life for the people living in these quickly expanding urban environments. We need innovative ways to manage, monitor and react to different aspects of city life, from managing waste and pollution, to traffic, healthcare, and so on. Not to mention enabling emerging technologies like autonomous cars and 5G connectivity.
With the advent of big data and connected devices comes the opportunity for cities to manage themselves in smarter ways, to become more 'programmable'. The Internet of Things provides the potential for monitoring everything from traffic flow, weather, noise pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, to individual people's actions in their homes to help the elderly or infirm lead more independent lives.
However, we're still at the early stages of smart city development. How do we work out how to weave together these new ways to collect and analyse data for city management? How do we know it is really benefitting the people whose data is being used, and how do we ensure that the data remains secure and anonymised?
To this end, Bristol Is Open – a city-wide high-speed private network testbed for smart city solutions – was created as a joint venture between Bristol City Council and the University of Bristol. Companies and organisations can plug their data into the network, which is fuelled by an Intel® Xeon® -equipped Blue Crystal II supercomputer, to test the viability of smart city ideas. But it can also be used to look at the multiple issues related to using big data, such as traceability, provenance, contextual data access, privacy and security.
"The vision behind Bristol is Open was to see how we could make the city smarter and quicker than any other," says Julie Snell, Managing Director of Bristol is Open. "We can offer a test network that's run on gigabit fibre. It’s got everything from Wi-Fi to 2G, 3G, 4G, massive MIMO (multiple-in multiple-out), LTE and even some 5G. We also have 1,500 Wi-Fi meshed network lamp posts, allowing us to bounce signals around the city without us needing constant fibre connections."
This mesh network, or 'canopy of Internet of Things connections', enables Bristol to do things in a very different way. As Julie Snell tells us: "the low frequency of these connected networks will penetrate buildings in a way that mobile signals don't. It allows us to get a lot of connectivity to sensors without necessarily having to force individuals to have broadband connectivity in their buildings." This reduces the barriers to people in less accessible areas, or those who can't afford to add the connectivity needed themselves, meaning more people should be able to experience the benefits of smart city initiatives.
Through some clever thinking, Bristol Is Open was able to cut costs when creating its optic fibre network.
"We all know that the most difficult and expensive part of putting any kind of fibre network out there is actually digging up the ground," says Snell. "Well, many years ago a television company in Bristol called Rediffusion unfortunately ceased to exist, and someone had the imagination to buy the ducting that ran around the underground of the city. Bristol then applied to the Department of Culture and Industry and received funding of £5.3 million to flood that ducting with optical fibre, and off that fibre we have built a numerous connectivity wireless network for experimentation."
There are four connected nodes to the gigabit network dotted across the city. As well as one at the University of Bristol, which houses the high-performance computing power, there's one at cinema and digital creativity centre Watershed, one at tech business incubator Engine Shed and one at interactive science centre We The Curious.
The vision behind Bristol is Open was to see how we could make the city smarter and quicker than any other.
Visualising the data in real time is a big part of understanding smart city projects, and the network is also directly connected to a 'data dome' at We The Curious. This is a 180-degree digital 4K projection environment, capable of visualising many different types of content from complicated calculations like Met Office weather patterns, to 3D product design and interactive games. There are also plans for people to be able to access and control this hemispherical data-viewing experience via a voice-activated AI interface; a demo of how this would work has already been held at the dome.
Although Bristol is Open is currently a closed big data network, Julie Snell thinks the future of smart cities will need to include cloud computing: "We're at that early stage at the moment… keeping within our private network. But there is no way we will manage that capacity as the city becomes smarter and smarter – in the future, it will have to be cloud."
Julie Snell is particularly proud to be involved with a European project called REPLICATE: "It involves three cities, Bristol, Florence and San Sebastian, and our objectives are to use citizen sensing to improve the quality of lives and show how the process can be replicated in other cities. It’s about energy monitoring, it's about citizen engagement, it's about ICT infrastructure and in a particular part of the project it's also about improving air quality."
The ultimate aim for Bristol is Open is to show successful methods to improve the living and working environments for Bristol's citizens, whilst making the city less expensive to run. However, Julie Snell hopes this testbed will set an example to other cities and wants to share what Bristol has learnt. Her advice for city leaders is to "look at your infrastructure and understand where there is ducting or other infrastructure like lampposts you can utilise to do this in your city.
"The other thing we do very well in Bristol is collaborative behaviour. We need to break down the [data] silos. I think history has shown that all government bodies around the world have become siloed, so I think their suppliers have become siloed to address those silos. We need to break those down.
"I want cities to share. No one city, no one manufacturer, is going to make a smart city in itself – we have to work collaboratively."