Laying the foundations for the UK's first programmable city

In the first of our Citizen Journalist contributions, David Crookes has been speaking with some of the key technical brains behind the operation to turn Manchester into a smart “programmable city.”

Ever since BBC Micros became commonplace in schools during the 1980s, we’ve become rather familiar with the concept of programming computers. The skill has brought many benefits to society, allowing us to be productive, more social and creative.

Today, however, that is seen as merely the beginning. For while children continue to learn coding on machines such as the Raspberry Pi, some of the biggest brains in tech are considering an even bigger picture. They’re looking at programming entire cities in a drive to make our environments ‘smart’.

Technology is moving on apace and the 21st century is bringing with it a host of challenges both financial and environmental. As such, there’s a burning desire to harness the vast amount of data being generated within our buildings and out on the streets in order to make life in a city more efficient and fun.

“We’re looking to collect data on transport, health, air quality, the weather, schools, voluntary groups, citizens and much, much more,” explains Pete Rai, a principal engineer in Cisco’s Chief Technology and Architecture Office. “We want to use all of that information to not only save costs but to make life easier, happier and healthier.”

Engaging with developers

Mr Rai is a key figure within CityVerve, the smart city project run in Manchester that is at the forefront of this potential revolution. The project aims to harness the Internet of Things – making bus stops ‘talkative’, for example, and putting sensors in parks to encourage greater physical activity.

But just as importantly, it wants to bring together lots of data and throw it out to programmers to make use of. “We want to collect data and put it into the hands of people with ideas,” says Mr Rai. “We know that a lot of the best ideas don’t come from companies but from individuals, and we’re keen to see what they will do with it.”

It’s through this that the programmable city will really come to fruition. Mr Rai is looking at the value of gathering all of the data in one place, allowing developers to visit and license the information before making use of it within their own apps.

As long as they use the data responsibly, there will be no restrictions on what they come up with. “It’s going to be open to people under a very broad license so if people take the data, have a great idea, make an app and become very rich, then that’s fine,” he says. “We want to see innovation and, to achieve that, people have to feel free to be creative.”

As an example, he talks of a potential use within health. “If we made available the instances of people with respiratory conditions alongside data about air quality, traffic, roadworks, medical events and so on, there’s a possibility of creating an interconnected system which can help in the future,” he says.

A complicated procedure

But he also acknowledges that the journey is going to be a long one. There are issues of privacy, especially surrounding health data, and there is also a problem with information not being up to a high-enough standard. For a programmable city to become a true reality, he argues, the data driving the apps has to be of the very best quality.

“Currently, it’s difficult to get consistency because, in a lot of cases, the people collecting the data don’t have a particular interest in releasing it,” he says. “Different people also have different agendas and data is scattered around the place.”

Mr Rai also points to an issue with data being presented in different formats. “We need to harmonise the data so that it is useful,” he adds. “If you have a geographical reference, for instance, then it needs to be the same as the other datasets and if you have an asset that you’re speaking to, one database has to be the same as another.”

High quality data

In that sense, Siemens is having an easier time of it. The global engineering company is using two Manchester buildings – St James on Oxford Road and Citylabs on Nelson Street – to examine the role of building management systems within a programmable city. Since it’s able to control most of the information being sent back and forth, it knows the quality of its data is high.

“A traditional building management system controls the air conditions, the heating, the cooling, the boilers and so on,” explains Thomas O’Reilly, the company’s CityVerve project lead. “Fire safety and energy efficiency measures can also be programmed in. But what we’re looking at is starting a communication with the electrical grid.”

The aim is to introduce new technology which lets the building management system know the stress levels of the grid. At times of high-stress, the building could turn off non-essential items for a period of time, reducing its electrical demand. This, in turn, means the electrical network doesn’t have to turn on additional polluting plants which push nasty carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

“This would create a building that is more environmentally friendly while reducing costs, giving the building operator a financial incentive to participate,” Mr O’Reilly continues. What’s more, it has worked out a way of being able to communicate with existing building management systems. It’s also looking to extend the technology to lithium-ion batteries.

“We could utilise the technology as part of the street landscape and go on to have controls of lithium-ion batteries within electric-powered vehicles,” he says. “It could chart the times that are suitable for charging and even push the batteries’ excess load to the grid.”

Leading from the front

While such technologies continue to find their feet, one thing is certain: Manchester is leading the pack. “Most cities are not really thinking about themselves as programmable cities,” says Mr Rai. “They’re just dumping spreadsheets without too much documentation so there are all of these datasets about school performance tables, air quality and road traffic accidents that are in different formats.”

“Manchester, though, is very mature with an advanced digital strategy. It’s even ahead of London. The main thing is bringing structure and order, which isn’t easy because you have organisations such as Transport for Greater Manchester which is not part of the Department for Transport, and the NHS in Manchester which is not a function of the council but of the Department of Health.”

“But,” says Rai, “where there are problems, there are opportunities. And the highest risks bring the highest potential rewards.”

September 29, 2017 in Citizen Journalism

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