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IoT data provides a foundation for smart city use cases

Smart cities can make residents' lives easier through real-time traffic information and public safety alerts. But governments should be aware of how to effectively manage use cases.

We keep hearing about smart cities, and the immediate questions are: What makes a city smart? How can a city be intelligent?

The key features of a smart city are big data, information collected from many different sources, and its analysis, followed by the data's intelligent use to improve the lives of its residents. This type of data collection requires fast and reliable connectivity from all possible data sources.

It is important to note that a connected city is an IoT network but not necessarily a smart one. Being connected is a prerequisite of being a smart city, but being connected does not imply "smartness," which requires regular data analysis and improvements based on that analysis.

Smart city software components and data sources

Smart city OSes provide open access to a very large amount of data/information about the city in a cloud server. They collect and share data from traffic cameras, road sensors, connected vehicles and connected infrastructure such as roadside units in traffic lights. Smartness is the result of analysis of this big data in real time to manage traffic and offline analysis of mobility patterns and areas of higher density -- as well as spatial and temporal correlation to better understand the city dynamics to address urban planning.

Smart city connectivity is often based on an IoT network that constantly provides information-rich data. The easiest use of this data is just to make it available after light data processing to put it into graphical form.

Some traditional use cases of IoT data include traffic status that includes average speed and bottleneck locations with color coding, or warning residents of expected natural disasters or adverse weather conditions with the instance's severity and predicted locations.

To get this data, smart cities rely on personal mobile devices, computers and smart devices in residents' homes and offices. The infrastructure also has networks of cameras and sensors to collect shared city information. These information nodes consist of sensors, modems, mobile devices and computers. Device software is connected through an IoT network but raises questions around data interoperability and formatting.

This information and warning visualizations was traditionally conveyed with computers or geo-fixed warning systems such as loudspeakers. The current trend is to use mobile devices to offer on-demand, near-real-time information without the need to be near a computer. This capability also allows more personalized use of IoT information in comparison to the traditional mass warnings -- such as road closures, COVID-19 alerts or public safety concerns -- for a geographic area.

Use cases in smart cities

The multitude of sensors in smartphones and 4G/5G network technology means there are a very large number of powerful IoT sensors that automatically cover most areas of a smart city. This information rich data is starting to revolutionize smart city IoT use cases.

These use cases are geared towards improving the individual user experience within a city. Residents can plan optimal and environmentally friendly multi-modal trips, for example, by booking an e-bike or e-scooter ride followed by a coordinated electric bus or shared electric ride between their travel destinations.

During these rides, smartphone sensors may share information between the vehicles and the road users to predict collision risk and warn the driver or mitigate collision risk for a self-driving vehicle for improved safety.

Furthermore, residents could access more mobility choices if they could order a self-driving ride to their exact location. They could also arrange automated good or food delivery for when they are at home.

These use cases are local examples of what is available with IoT connectivity and only the tip of the iceberg of what is possible in a smart city. Governments will see the biggest benefits when the information-rich IoT data is used on larger scale to optimize not just for one individual, but for large events.

For example, local officials could reduce traffic congestion and travel time for a large event or festival for all attendees, but this involves coordinated planning and awareness to minimize network latency and provide real-time information to residents.  

Considerations for smart cities

For IoT deployments in smart cities, smart device installation will increases the cost of infrastructure, bring about durability concerns and require long-term maintenance. Also, governments should address privacy issues, and any collected data should not include personally identifiable information (PII).

Use of smartphone sensors as portable IoT devices can address some of these privacy and cost issues, as residents will be able to restrict PII access, and infrastructure costs and maintenance will be the responsibility of the smartphone user.

An important concern that remains is how to achieve equal access for underserved communities and lower-income neighborhoods where mobile device and internet cost may be a hindrance towards smart city resource access.

Smart cities present excellent opportunities for executive and tech professionals who create or implement IoT devices, but government officials must also address and solve related social challenges.

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