Glasgow aims to be first ‘smart city’

Thinking Cities
By Thinking Cities June 4, 2014 16:19

Glasgow aims to be first ‘smart city’

Violence is perhaps an unexpected focus for a discussion about digital technology and urban design.

But the subject comes up often in the context of the Glasgow Future Cities project – a push by one of the UK’s most deprived cities, with the country’s lowest life expectancy, to become one of the first “smart” cities in the world.

From using big data to forecast outbreaks of crime, to street lights that measure footfall and aim to stop brawls, the local council is rolling out experimental programmes. These include mapping 400 patches of empty land with a view to installing solar panels and providing cyclists with an app to help inform its decisions about where to create bike lanes.

As Apple, Google and Samsung battle for control of the “smart home”, Glasgow hopes to show how technology can make urban infrastructure more “intelligent” and responsive to citizens’ needs.

It beat 29 other UK cities last year to win the £24m Future Cities grant from the Technology Strategy Board, the UK government’s innovation fund.

“What Glasgow is doing puts it towards the top of the world’s smart cities,” says Alfonso Velosa, an analyst at research group Gartner. “It’s a test bed for technologies that can be [used] by others.”

Half the Future Cities budget has been spent on a high-tech “operations centre” – a screen-filled city control room, collectively monitored by the police, traffic authorities and emergency services. Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, also a tech-focused city, has a similar set-up.

Glasgow’s control centre shows footage from traffic cameras and 400 CCTVs, which have been upgraded to high-resolution digital cameras with Future Cities funds. New software will allow faces to be created on the basis of witness statements and photographs and matched with CCTV images, removing the requirement for police to scan hours of film.

The centre will also connect to new “intelligent street lights” to be installed in the city centre, which can dim when no one is around but flood an area with light and alert police if they detect trouble.

The focus on law and order raises the question of whether the project in Glasgow is too concentrated on surveillance and infrastructure.

“It is about whether that surveillance provides the opportunity to make citizens’ life better – there’s lots of other things you can do with the technology,” says Richard Miller, who oversees Future Cities for the technology strategy board.

Some of the grant money has been applied for research on “predictive crime”. The aim is to use so-called genetic algorithms, which learn and evolve, to associate data sets and predict the place and time that types of crime will occur.

Richard Bellingham, who is leading the research at the University of Strathclyde’s Institute for Future Cities, has found that men are more likely to commit domestic violence on a night when the city’s Celtic football club has played. “The aim is to move beyond historical correlation and towards prediction,” he says.

Perhaps the most wide-ranging element of the Glasgow project relates to “open data”: the publication of information about everything from meeting places for Scouts to rates of alcoholism in different areas of the city.

It is hoped this will save the council a seven-figure annual sum by reducing Freedom of Information requests. Michael McLaughlan, the project’s director, also says the initiative has “a significant democratic benefit”. It challenges the old orthodoxy that power is controlled by too few people, he adds; “opening up the data makes it a much more balanced argument”.

The operations centre will be integrated with a new “city technology platform” to be built by Microsoft. This is a database that will store and analyse the information gathered and make much of it available to citizens via apps, maps and widgets.

Mr McLaughlan says one of the most interesting parts of bringing all this information together is the possibility for early intervention.

“The hope is that by finding unexpected relationships between early indicators of social problems, such as health and education statistics, the neighbourhoods at risk can be identified and helped before they become an issue,” he says.

A big question is what will happen after the funding dries up and whether other organisations, public or private, will take on responsibility for the projects.

Two senior Future Cities employees say the council has not been able to focus on this question with so much to prepare for before the Commonwealth Games.

“The focus of the Future Cities team has been on delivery to a very tight timescale,” Mr McLaughlan says. “But we have been working closely with colleagues charged with the responsibility for legacy and providing information as appropriate.”


Thinking Cities
By Thinking Cities June 4, 2014 16:19