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Connecting cities in the cloud

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While smart cities have held a great deal of promise for many years, they are only beginning to come to fruition now, writes Giulio Soro, smart city solutions architect at Amazon Web Services.
This is due to the fact that we now have the network connectivity and the backend storage and compute infrastructure to unleash their full potential. This bodes well for municipalities and governments and is equally good news for citizens, whose working and day to day lives alike are made easier by connected cities.
Not only are certain aspects of smart cities already a reality, but collaborative cities, in which independent developers and citizens work together creating apps, and sharing information, could hold the key to more successful and efficient cities in the future.

The cloud is critical
Essential to enabling both smart cities and collaborative cities is a robust cloud backend. Put plainly, utilising the cloud makes implementing a smart city possible. This is particularly important as cities would likely generate petabytes of data in a month.
All this information needs to be securely stored and the scalability of a cloud solution mitigates having to constantly upgrade storage capacity to cater for the continuous influx of data. Just as important is cloud analytics, which can analyze a myriad of datasets, in near real-time, on a city’s environment in order to enhance living conditions for its citizens.
A prime example of this can be found in the City of Chicago, which is one of the first to implement sensors throughout the city that permanently measure air quality, light intensity, sound volume, heat, precipitation, wind and traffic. The data from these sensors stream into the cloud where it is analyzed to find ways to improve the life of its citizens. Collected datasets from Chicago’s ‘Array of Things’ are then made publically available on the cloud for researchers, developers and entrepreneurs to find innovative ways to analyse the data.
For those municipalities aiming to explore smart city implementation, a typical Internet of Things (IoT) enabled smart city scenario entails deploying numerous connected sensors and probes throughout the area to gather information. The problem with this approach is that it can require substantial investment in dedicated sensors. Instead, governments should be encouraged to consider using other alternatives, which can be leveraged to bring any city to life.

Parking made sensible
One such alternative would be to leverage existing sensors cities may already have at their disposal. An example of how this could work is smart parking, in which people can use a mobile app to view available parking spots nearby when navigating a city. However, the same result could also be achieved by using existing video cameras within a city.
As indicated by startup Park Smart it is entirely possible for a city to garner parking information based on analysis of video camera footage, and use this to determine whether there are parking spots that are occupied. Those bays are then displayed on a map, with occupied spots highlighted in red, and available spaces shown in blue. Users can access this information via a mobile app, enabling them to determine at any given time where in the city there is parking availability.

Information from everywhere
Another way to leverage existing infrastructure is by attaching a low cost, low power sensor to a bus or streetlight, for example, effectively turning it into an information gathering device in its own right. For example, in a large city like London, sensor equipped buses could gather data as they traverse the city on information such as traffic movement, CO2 levels, temperature and sound.
With cloud analytics, this information can then be extrapolated and analysed to determine where traffic jams or accidents may be present or where pollution levels are rising to unsafe levels and citizens can be kept informed via a mobile app.  People often talk about cities being living, breathing entities and this would effectively like giving a city a real-time MRI scan.
South Africa’s vibrant taxi industry, which transports in excess of 15-million commuters a day, could be used in a similar fashion, gathering information about traffic flows, and other data, during particular times during the day and specific days during a week.

Innovation outsourced
Attaching sensors is not the only way to use the cloud to foster a smarter, collaborative city, it can also be achieved by publishing open datasets. Returning to our example of Chicago, the city publishes an Excel spreadsheet with the date, description and GPS coordinates of streets that are scheduled to be cleaned.
In Chicago, cars parked on the street in question would be towed and their owners fined. With this in mind, independent developers use the dataset to create an app that allowed users to view when a specific street will be cleaned and receive an email alert should they live or work in the area.
One of the major advantages of sharing datasets is that it empowers individual developers or small businesses to design their own apps, which can either be sold for a small fee, or earn their creators revenue by supporting it with advertising. This then fuels an app ecosystem, which fosters continuous innovation. Already we are seeing examples of this outsourcing of innovation taking root.
As a case in point, Peterborough City Council in the UK. The city council has installed weather stations in schools across the city. The sensors are simultaneously used to monitor meteorological and climate activity. The data sourced from these installations can be used at all levels of education and across subjects, from science to technology to social behavior studies augmenting the curriculum in local schools and making learning near realtime.
The council also found that by open sourcing the data from these weather stations, and enabling developers to leverage it, helped address their shortage of dedicated developers they had in-house. Sharing datasets in this manner also holds interesting potential. For example, by sharing datasets for weather stations and hospital admittances, a city could determine whether a temperature drop below a certain point correlated with increased hospital admissions during a particular time of year, and take precautionary measures.

Cloud advantages
A true smart city is a collaborative one which not only has sensors that are accumulating data, but also features engaged citizens who are aiding in the collection of data in order to add to a system that benefits others.
Clearly, smart cities and cloud technology are a natural fit; while the former is ever changing, and adapting to its citizen’s needs, the cloud is able to quickly adapt to the evolving needs of its users.
Governments and municipalities should not only think of smart cities in terms of deploying probes and sensors in order to capture information. Rather, they should pay attention to how existing infrastructure can be retooled to aid in gathering data.
Cities should also consider citizens not just as collectors of information but creators of applications themselves using open datasets. Then the information provided can be analysed using secure cloud technologies such as Amazon Web Services. This not only benefits a city, it also fulfills the promise that smart cities bring, enabling citizens to enjoy higher standards of living