Building smart places in South London

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A partnership of local authorities is making strong progress in harnessing the internet of things on an Azure data platform, writes Tim Kidd, head of UK public sector at Hitachi Solutions

It is a few years since people began to talk about the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and we are now seeing a steady unfurling of its potential with the increasing use of cyber systems embedded into the built environment.

This is not just about technology, but the data that create value for places and communities in improving the quality of people’s lives. It is about operational efficiency, better outcomes for the public, and supporting environmental sustainability.

An impressive example is emerging in work by the South London Partnership (SLP), consisting of Richmond upon Thames, Kingston upon Thames, Merton, Sutton and Croydon Councils.

With Sutton taking the lead, it is running a three-and-a-half-year programme of internet of things (IoT) trials with a focus on promoting economic growth in the boroughs, supporting the local response and recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic, and assisting the response to climate change.

It is built on a number of principles: working in the open; a default approach of not storing personal data; designing in security and privacy; sharing information by default; only working on solutions in which the data captured is publicly owned; and only working with partners who sign up to the principles.

Problem and data

Each project begins not with a focus on any technology but with a problem that could possibly be solved by the data. Each one must have a clear objective, involve specific questions that the data could answer, comply with the principle and involve internal champions from the relevant service.

A key element of the programme is the development, working with Microsoft and Hitachi Solutions, on a platform for IoT data based on the Azure cloud. It can integrate with a range of sensors from multiple suppliers – these currently include traffic/pedestrian/cycle movements (Vivacity Labs), indoor activity (IoT Solutions Group), parking (IoT Solutions Group), park footfall (North), air quality (Breathe London and EMSOL), weather data (Azure/StormGlass /Hydromaster), drainage and flooding levels (Aquasition/Environment Agency), as well as fly tipping events (iDefigo).

Deployments began earlier this year, with API integrations with air quality sensors and open data from the Met Office. These have been followed by the creation of the first data visualisations on the platform and the integration of further APIs, taking it to the stage where the trial went into full operation in July – set to run until March 2023.

This has already produced some valuable data visualisations on the relationship between traffic and air quality and the behaviour of cyclists, helping the councils to identify the sources of problems, ease concerns about other suspected source and see where there are opportunities for improvement.

It has also prompted a number of interventions that have made a difference to and even saved people’s lives, notably in sparking a quick response when monitors in vulnerable people’s homes alerted staff to a lack of movement and ensured an ambulance was quickly sent to the scene.

Other data sources have provided SLP with a more accurate view of what is causing air pollution in some areas and contributed to predictions and early warnings of flooding, the latter taking into account factors such as the depth of dips in roads under train bridges and the capacity to gather waste in gullies.

Re-use and wider benefit

The dashboards built on the platform will soon be ready for other councils to use with their own sources of data, with one of the reasons for the programme’s funding being that the information would be made available for wider benefit.

The platform provides a prime example of how a core technology can be used for a number of purposes, and relates to some of the key features of the Local Digital Declaration, aimed at breaking the cycle of buying a specific technology product for a specific purpose. These include using modular building blocks for digital technology, with open standards to provide a structure for the data created; supporting safe, secure and useful ways of sharing information; and redesigning services on user needs above technological and organisational silos.

There is also scope to extend the capabilities with data from other line of business systems, such as those for social care, education, fire and rescue, highways and libraries. It all becomes very powerful when you begin combining and building layers of this data for fresh insights, supporting major priorities such as the integration of health and social care and creation of more sustainable local environments.

Overall, the platform can take in the key data for every element of a smart city – government, health, education, retail, public safety, transport, energy and the built environment – and is part of a trend in which the technology has become more affordable and made it realistic to use on a smaller scale.

This can support the transition to smart places, in which the benefits can be found not just in cities but towns and communities. It has democratised the technology landscape in a way that will really make a positive difference for all.

Learn more about Hitachi Solutions and the South London Partnership project here

You can view the full presentation by Tim Kidd, head of UK Public Sector, Hitachi Solutions, Andrew Parsons, IoT programme manager, South London Partnership, David Grasty, corporate head of digital strategy and portfolio, Sutton Council and Linda Chandler, Smart City Lead, Microsoft at Smart Places & Communities 2022 below:

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