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Sensor Networks and Smart Cities

Urban sensor netsSensor networks, big data, analytics, and urban operation centres are becoming a mainstream solution for smart cities. Sensors can measure, track and locate a wide variety of factors in the urban environment. Data from sensors can be analysed and used to run systems more efficiently and effectively, improving services for citizens while reducing the cost of government operations.

They enable monitoring and optimization of traffic congestion, transit, parking, environmental monitoring, energy saving, waste collection, water systems monitoring and alert, crime and public safety. Large scale sensor networks are deployed in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil’ s second largest city, the city of Santander in Spain, Singapore, London, Seoul, Montreal, and Chicago. Many other smaller cities have launched more limited solutions, aiming to capture benefits from the deployment if digital technology.

Most sensor network urban initiatives are pilot projects, nevertheless they enable identifying a number of shortcoming and risks. For instance, how resilient and secure is sensor-based smart city solutions? How sensors affect privacy? What’ s the business case for sensor based solutions? Can sensors and analytics replace human decision-making?

The quarterly report of Digital Communities “Can we Trust Smart Cities?’ highlight a number of problems related to sensor-based smart city solutions.

Deployment and maintenance costs: The actual cost of a sensor can be quite low, depending on its features and capabilities, but the full cost of an entire sensor-based solution can be very high for cities. Provision of energy, maintenance and need for continuous calibration of sensors increase initial deployment costs.

Accuracy of information: Seoul, South Korea, spent millions of dollars embedding sensors in its main arteries in an attempt to capture real-time traffic data. It didn’ t work. The information was never accurate.

Privacy: Sensors that can listen, watch and identify by reading vehicle license plates and smartphone GPS coordinates also raise privacy issues. In Europe, strict laws require providers to receive permission from users before they can use personal data, such as location, addresses and the like.

Spam: In Montreal, bus and subway riders who use the transit system’ s OPUS smart fare card and have a smartphone, can receive personalized coupons from stores and entertainment venues that are located along the route of their ride. The information arrives in real time, so riders can just hop off the bus and walk into a nearby store or restaurant for discounted coffee, baguette or a meal. But for many users this is a source of spam ads.

Job cuts: One of Santander’ s test-bed projects is about sensors embedded in the city’ s gardens to detect soil humidity and enable more efficient watering of the grass, flowers and plants. But, unemployment in Spain is more than 25 percent and for the country’ s young adults, the rate exceeds 50 percent. Does the city really needs water sensors in the city park when it may be more cost efficient and socially more important to give the person a job to do the same work?

Governance: The worst fear is that a sensor based smart city could be turned against citizens should the politics shift from a benign democratic form of government to one that’ s autocratic.

Cities before going into large scale sensor deployment should look for alternative solutions, such as turning to mobile sensors to help capture valuable data to monitor traffic and the environment. For example, both Santander and Chicago put GPS devices on every city-owned vehicle, turning them into instant traffic monitoring stations. People-driven participatory data collection, more software and less hardware, use of social media and apps may address many of the sensor networks shortcomings.

Source: Digital Communities Magazine

Full report: Can we Trust Smart Cities ?