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Smarter city with Internet of Things

2015-11-20

Edith Ngai sees great potential in the new technology.

With more and more devices to the Internet, data can be collected from various sources and tools created for decision-makers, companies and citizens. The ‘Green Internet of Things’ project includes building a testbed for these applications.

‘Our aim is to develop Uppsala as a smart, sustainable city. In the next two years we’ll be installing sensors in the streets to measure air quality and traffic flow,’ says Edith Ngai.

Ngai is a professor of information technology at Uppsala University who heads the project. Funds are provided by the Swedish Governmental Agency for Innovation Systems (VINNOVA). Partnering Uppsala University are KTH Royal Institute of Technology, the Municipality of Uppsala, Ericsson, IBM and a few smaller companies.

The scientists will set up wireless sensors along Uppsala’s main thoroughfares, especially where traffic is heavy.

‘We also want to collect data on human activity and other open data from the city. We want to engage residents and local firms so that they too can collect and share data, and develop their own products and apps.’

Ngai demonstrates an app that some master’s students are developing: a ‘traffic planner’ that gives users real-time data on air quality, weather and traffic. The app contains maps and recommends the best route between two points.

‘You decide for yourself whether to go the shortest or the cleanest way. It’s also possible to coordinate people heading for the same place and arrange joint transport,’ Ngai says.

‘In a city like Uppsala, with its seasonal contrasts, weather is an interesting issue. In winter, for example, studs on winter tyres rip up particles in the asphalt that create pollution. These will be measured by the sensors.'

‘We can do a real-life study, collect masses of data, investigate associations in the data and develop new apps, like this one for traffic planning. There are many options.’

The project conceives of two types of user. One is professional users, such as specialists at various government agencies who want to use data for planning and have long-term goals.

‘Perhaps they want to build a road and wonder whether it’s feasible to erect a footbridge for people to cross over it. What then? Would it cause pollution or affect animal life?’

Ordinary citizens and local companies, who may also benefit from the data collected, are the other type.

‘We’ll keep all the data open so that they can be used to develop new apps. Once our platform is working, firms that develop sensors can install them and test their products.’

The objective is not just a smarter city but a greener one too, Ngai explains.

‘First, the platform must be sustainable. The sensors must be capable of staying put for a long time without needing battery changes, with minimal energy use. But the green aspect also includes our aim of setting up as many environment-friendly sensors as possible to make this a green city, more energy-efficient and offering better quality of life for its inhabitants.’

Given the limited storage capacity of thesmall handheld computers, the researchers are exploring how best to boost it by using the ‘cloud’. They also have supercomputers to assist them. Much depends on interaction between handhelds on the one hand and the cloud on the other.

‘Our data-mining experts can handle huge volumes of data and sift out the most interesting information. That’s one of our big challenges.’

Why is Uppsala a good place for testing this?

‘First and foremost, both the University and local public agencies support us strongly. Then we have the students and researchers. So it’s a perfect opportunity to test ideas and gather knowledge and apps.’

‘Here in Uppsala, environmental degradation causes problems. The municipality monitors both water and air quality. What’s more, the city is expanding, with new housing areas being built and planned here that in turn affect the traffic. We can come up with a lot of data that may potentially be useful,’ Ngai says.

Uppsala has long had a strong research environment for sensors and wireless communication. That was why Edith Ngai came here a few years ago, following her doctorate in Hong Kong and a postdoctoral position at Imperial College London.

Initially she worked on wireless sensor networks, but these days the Internet of Things is what counts.

‘Now that the technology behind smart handhelds has matured, interest in new apps and how to manage the huge quantities of data produced is growing. That’s why our interest has shifted from handhelds to the Internet and the cloud.’