In the heart of the city
Written by: Philip Mason | Published:

Philip Mason hears from Bristol is Open MD Julie Snell about the project’s current shift of focus from 'technology' to ‘use case’, and the challenges presented to IoT-based projects by GDPR

Established as a joint venture between the University of Bristol and Bristol City Council, Bristol is Open is one of the most high-profile UK test beds focusing on the roll-out of smart city technology.

The project facilitates a variety of different initiatives, operating via the deployment of small sensors to create a multi-faceted wireless network stretching across the city. The purpose of these, according to its website, is to supply “information about many aspects of city life, including energy, air quality and traffic flows”.

The information gleaned from this system can subsequently be used in the development of a range of applications, in part via an ‘open’ portal through which the anonymised data can be made available to anyone who wishes to put it to use. Partners in the project range from the most bijou of tech start-ups, such as the locally based Zeetta Networks, to the likes of BT, which recently collaborated on massive MIMO trials for 5G wireless.

The managing director of Bristol is Open is Julie Snell, who was recently invited into the role following a distinguished career in digital comms, a key moment of which was writing the business strategy for what became BT’s public WiFi network. She subsequently became chair of the Wireless Broadband Alliance, a collaborative effort involving some of the biggest players in the market and which now informs how she approaches her work in Bristol.

“The members of the alliance quickly realised that, at the time, no one company or city was ever going to roll out enough public Wi-Fi to make the case stack up,” she says. “Therefore we had to work out how we were going to roam, which meant we had to work together.

Ultimately, you have to run things in terms of identifying the business value, which is exactly how I now approach Bristol is Open.”

She illustrates this by referring to a formative experience at BT, when the company’s retail team were attempting to monetise the first Wi-Fi chip. “It’s not enough to have the technology, you have to ask how it’s going to make a difference to people’s lives,” she says.

“Looking specifically at Openzone, the first scenario that presented itself was the amount of sales people who had to trudge back to their desks from all over the country to upload orders. We made travel hotspots, so that at different points in their day they could connect without the need for an Ethernet link. That strategy was absolutely bang on, and we started targeting service stations, airports and, ultimately, coffee shops.”

Extraordinarily prescient decision

Bristol is Open has been made possible due to the city being in the unusual position of owning its own ducting. This is thanks to the extraordinarily prescient decision on the part of the council to purchase said infrastructure when TV company Rediffusion stopped trading at the end of the 1980s. This ducting has subsequently been flooded with fibre ring – following a £5.3m grant from the UK government – enabling the current simultaneous provision of Wi-Fi, massive MIMO, LTE 2, 3 and 4, as well as a street lamp mesh network.

According to Snell, so far this infrastructure has been used primarily for examination of the technology itself, as with the aforementioned 5G tests, carried out by University of Bristol engineers at the beginning of 2017. The ambition now, however, is to look very practically at how it can be used to improve people’s lives, something which again harks back to her time at BT and the Wireless Broadband Alliance.

“We’ve reached the three-year point where essentially we’re now testing according to a variety of end-to-end use-cases, taking the R&D platform and using it for social good,” she says. “We start with a clear intention, looking at quality of someone’s life in a particular area and how it can be improved through the use of the technology and data.”

An example of this given by Snell is work currently being carried out in the realm of health and wellbeing, looking specifically at how the social care system can be more proactive when it comes to looking after vulnerable people. Speaking of this in relation to the elderly population in particular, she says: “There’s been a massive increase in people over 85, most of whom live on their own in isolation. One of the exercises we’re looking at is to monitor the health of those people, deploying unobtrusive sensors around where they live to build up a sense of their normal routine.

“The objective fundamentally is to spot anomalies in their behaviour, after which their neighbour could potentially get a text message or a phone call asking them to drop by and say hello. These homes often have no broadband access, so the questions we’re asking now are whether we can use low-powered, LoRaWAN/Sigfox-type networks to get the data into the community nursing system.”

She continues: “If we can make this work, it could also potentially keep people away from an ICU bed before they become poorly, saving thousands of pounds a day. The funding model will be obviously different according to the area of work – for instance, the highways department monitoring the condition of the roads – but the principle is the same.”

Visionary mayors

There are few areas of digital communications technology with more potential to improve the lives of users than those related to the Internet of Things, particularly when deployed in the context of a ‘smart’ or ‘safe’ city. The other side of that of course is the level of frustration that goes along with the apparent reticence with which these solutions are being rolled out around the country as part of a unified, coherent system.

So what’s different in Bristol from the majority of cities around the UK? What needs to change when it comes to the attitude of other local authorities?

“For us, it simply comes down to our relationship with Bristol City Council,” says Snell. “Our last mayor was incredibly forward-looking, and so is his successor Marvin Rees, who continues to involve me in their whole strategy. We obviously also have their ducting, as well as taking advantage of the original funding which came from the government.

“Regarding other local authorities, I would say that the interest is definitely growing, and at this point we’ve hosted people from all over the world. The point is to help those running the city understand that by empowering people with information, you can establish processes that will help them to exponentially change the balance sheet and thereby improve people’s lives. It’s a classic carrot-and-stick scenario.”

Bristol is Open is in the process of moving from its pilot phase, something which will be marked by an increased level of engagement with the community to ascertain what it wants from the technology. This will also see, according to Snell, the network expanding out to take in less affluent areas of the city, rather than just the centre, which is where the core part of the test bed is currently located.

As positive as this obviously is, the level of data collection that will go along with it will likely create its own difficulties. Speaking of this, Snell says a core challenge for all smart city projects will be the management of information in an ethical and legal way, particularly with metrics increasingly being pulled from personal devices.

“Our aspiration is that everything we do is open, which puts us in an interesting position when it comes to something like GDPR. Just like everyone else, we need people’s permission to make the data available for use, but how do you do that when you’re talking about IoT sensors operating on every vehicle, or visual data being harvested from CCTV cameras?”

She continues: “Again, that’s a matter of reconciling the technology piece with the real world. We try and make sure all departments are involved, joining up business cases at the very beginning. Once we’ve done that, it’ll be available to every other city as a way to understand what the implications of this are. Local governments are becoming very reluctant to become data-holders, something which in the current climate is completely understandable.”

Thanks to a unique confluence of circumstances and political will, Bristol is Open has become a trailblazer for the development and use of digital comms technology in the UK. The good news is that things are likely to get even more interesting from here on in.

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