Technology in action: a city of the future
Microsoft looks at the technology that can build the city of the future
With a population of approximately 600,000 people, Glasgow is Scotland’s largest city and the commercial capital of the country. It is the UK’s second largest retail centre and one of Europe’s top 20 financial centres. The city council works with many public and private partners to raise the profile of the city and make it an attractive place to live, work and visit.
A winning idea
In January 2013, Glasgow city council won a competition hosted by the Technology Strategy Board for its idea to create a platform that would capture big data generated by city activity, and make it available to everyone. The goal was to create an ecosystem where people are much better informed about their city and inherently more involved in its decisions and direction.
The council was awarded £24m in funding to create a UK reference site, demonstrating smart city technology at scale.
Big data + big city = big challenge
“We want to demonstrate what happens when all non-sensitive and non-personal information across the city is ‘open by default’ and freely shared and distributed across the city,” says Colin Birchenall, lead architect for the project. “We soon realised that we needed more than just an online data catalogue – it’s a big data challenge. To make this possible we needed a powerful cloud-based storage, search and delivery solution to act as the backbone, and we chose Microsoft Azure because of its functionality, analytics and scalability.”
Developing an ecosystem to drive future innovation
The objective was not just what’s possible now, but scaling many years into the future as more and more information becomes available. It was therefore important to choose the right solution and the right partners. “We want to create an ecosystem of future city innovation in the city,” says Birchenall. “Microsoft was a really good partner for us, as they understood and shared this vision and are helping to put in place a foundation on which we can develop that ecosystem. Importantly, they weren’t trying to sell us a complete end-to-end solution.”
Harnessing the internet of things
The emergence of sensors in everyday items offers new insights into city life. “Intelligent street lighting will help us to detect and record air quality, noise pollution and footfall all over the city,” explains Birchenall.
It’s not just the council or big business who will benefit. Anyone who has a vested interest will be able to understand the services people may need. “Even a one-man taxi business could change his pick up points to serve more customers and generate more income,” says Birchenall.
Building momentum for the idea of sharing data
Getting the first few people to sign up to contribute their data was not an easy task and a critical mass was required to show the value that could be achieved. “It was a bit of a bartering process to begin with,” explains Birchenall. “We would show what information we could make available and discuss how much more powerful if would be when combined with other sources. Once people began to see the value they would get themselves, they became more willing.”
The key turning point in the onboarding process came when the team used the PowerMap plugin for Microsoft Office Excel to visualise population flow through the city. “When you show people the visualisations, they have lots of ideas and they become stakeholders,” says Birchenall. “Now the problem is managing demand. Everyone wants to be involved!”
Understanding what’s really happening in the community
Access to this new and precise data will influence the future development of Glasgow’s communities. “When planners meet with local leaders to discuss developments, they will understand the requirement better than ever before and will be able to make better decisions. In a time when budgets are tight, it is important to make every penny count and the aim is to do more with less,” explains Birchenall.
Informing everyday activities
Making it easy for people to access information is key and Birchenall envisages the emergence of many apps to fulfil this requirement. Birchenall says: “There are already several locally-developed, third-party apps in place, such as the crowdsourcing of traffic information and popular cycle routes which indicate the presence of cycle racks and unfriendly inclines. Using these types of apps will become part of everyday life.”
Building a blueprint for other cities to follow
The goal is that Glasgow will be a pioneering city that others will follow. The work that Birchenall and his team are undertaking includes packaging up their processes, their solutions and their learnings, to help other cities.
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