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The city with 20,000 smart servants

Samantha Tomaszczyk
January 2, 2014

Telefonica is taking mobile connectivity to a new level by automating the streets of Santander. Samantha Tomaszczyk reports on a new connectivity technology

Imagine a city where the roads are free of potholes, public bins are emptied before they become full, bus schedules are built around “your” timetable, and you never go searching for a parking space again.

For the 180,000 residents of Santander, a small coastal city in the north of Spain close to the French border, each day the above becomes less of a fantasy and more of a reality.

Santander, which is perhaps best known as the founding city of the Bank of Santander (1857) has more than 12,000 sensors placed strategically around (and under) the city, including on roads, buses, street lights – you name it.

Each sensor provides feedback – enabling problems to be fixed as and when they happen, but also coordinates services based on demand.

Telefonica, which is supporting the project, and the city’s Mayor, Iñigo de la Serna, believe Santander will soon be recognised as Europe’s “Smartest City” – and the blueprint for the rest of the world.

“We are in the process of building a better Santander,” Mayor La Serna told Mobile News.

“We have the potential to completely change the way we act and the way the city is run.”

Guinea pig
In 2010, Santander was selected from several European cities by the European Commission (EC) as a testbed for these computing technologies. According to Telefonica, this is largely because the  municipality (local government) was incredibly supportive of the initiative, pledging €0.5 million towards it.

As “the chosen one”, Santander received €6 million from the EC in September 2010, to which Telefonica and several smaller SMEs added €2.76 million, bringing the total budget for the 36-month project to €8.76 million.

According to the consortium (which apart from Telefonica and the municipality includes the University of Cantabria) the project was considered “good value” as the cost of rolling out equipment that would transform Santander into a Smart City is equal to the cost of building roads.

For Telefonica I+D CEO Carlos Domingo, the project’s value goes beyond Santander.

“Something is wrong when the EU invests in technology but the world’s top technology companies come from outside the region. Europe has already missed a wave of innovation in technology, so we thought about how we can regain leadership.

“Telefonica leads an EU project which develops software to use the data collected by smart cities. This is a big opportunity for Europe to create an ecosystem to lead in technology again,” he said.

Mayor La Serna added: “This is a golden opportunity to show our commitment to innovation. It will bring new businesses and possibilities to the city.”

The equipment consists mainly of sensors, repeaters and gateways. Sensors, buried in asphalt, sit under cars or in street lamps, repeaters pick up signals they send and pass them to gateways where data from all the sensors is collated and sent to be analysed by the municipality (which owns it) or used by app developers to provide services.

Seeing is believing
To  experience this for myself,   I embarked on a walking tour of Santander with the University of Cantabria’s professor of communications engineering, Luis Munoz, to hear more about how it all works.

My tour of the quaint city began downtown, the most populated area of the city. It is also the location of the business district, and where most of the city’s smart sensors can be found.

Most are connected to optical fibre owned by the municipality, but around 25 per cent run on Telefonica’s 3G infrastructure due to the absence of fibre in certain areas. According to the operator, this has not caused any network interference or congestion as the sensors only send 5MB of data per day (which is stored in the cloud).

The number of smart devices (sensors, repeaters and gateways) in the city has grown fairly rapidly since the project began in 2010. In April 2011, there were 350, in September 2011 2,000, in December 2012 5,000 and in October this year the total reached 20,000.

According to Telefonica head of transformation and innovation projects Guillermo Bataller, mobile sensors (those found on the top of buses and bikes) are “10 times” more useful when it comes to collecting information than fixed sensors. Despite this, only a fraction (about 10 per cent) of the 20,000 installed are mobile.

Traffic management
There are now two types of sensors found in the asphalt downtown (see picture). Those installed at the start of the trial are larger and have a poor battery life, while new sensors installed the week before the tour (October 2013) have battery life of 10 years. Other lessons have also been learnt which has reduced the cost of building and rolling out each sensor from €265 in 2010 to €125 in 2013.

They are “thermo-magnetic” sensors, which means they can tell if a car is parked near them as well as directly above. Information on free parking spaces is plotted on a map of Santander which users can access via an app, allowing them to drive straight there. The number of free parking spaces available is also displayed on street signs.

Telefonica claims this will reduce emissions in the city by ”up to” 30 per cent, as according to research this is the proportion of traffic in the city composed of people looking for parking spaces.
The information will also, in time, be used in a “big data” way, so that the municipality can decide where to place parking spaces in future.

However, Telefonica also admitted that the most-used aspect of the app simply allows people to set a timer for when their parking ticket expires. This is something that doesn’t require the sensors or any other ”smart city” technology to work and would work just as well as a stand-alone app.

Waste management
Professor Munoz then walked me to a set of bins (see photo) which “in future” would be fitted with sensors which would send out signals to the repeaters which would then be passed to the waste management company so they would know when they are full and need collecting.

The sensors will not be fitted until February or March as the municipality had to open a tender for waste management. This has now been awarded and places an obligation on the private company (which Professor Munoz refused to identify) to install all bins, starting with those for “non-organic” rubbish such as glass, with sensors.

The waste management company will be expected to alter its rubbish collection schedule according to the rate at which bins in each area fill. This is predicted to reduce emissions linked to collection by 25 per cent.

Professor Munoz explained that even the repeaters (see photo) are fitted with sensors: for temperature and for light intensity. The temperature of the city is displayed around the city on boards attached to the sides of buildings. Information on light intensity is used to regulate the brightness of street lamps.

But Smart Santander is not all about sensors. Data is also collected from citizens using their smartphone cameras to report “incidents” in the city, such as potholes.

Over 6,000 Santanderians have downloaded the app since it launched last year, and it has had a significant impact on how the city is run, according to Mayor La Serna.
New incidents are now typically solved in four to six days, compared to two or three weeks before the app was launched.

“This has the potential to completely change the way we act and the way the city is run,” La Serna said.

“Apart from attracting investment from businesses, we wanted to promote an open government, and give citizens an opportunity to report directly to the municipality.

Future benefits
According to both Mayor La Serna and Professor Munoz, the collected data will in future be used to inform town planning decisions.

Apart from rescheduling buses and waste collections according to real-time information, the sensors have also been adapted to measure noise pollution. The university has created a map identifying areas with the greatest levels of noise pollution, which means that in future houses in these areas could be built with thicker walls.

The data will also be open to third parties to create apps such as how many of the rentable bikes dotted around the city are available and where.

The data is already being used by a third party (again Professor Munoz declined to say who) to measure wind speeds and the potential energy that can be produced from it.

Mayor la Serna and Professor Munoz claim that no citizens have brought up concerns about data privacy, despite the fact that it is given to third parties. All the data is anonymised, although it does show which operating system app users phones run on.

Munoz said: “There is a plethora of ways in which we can exploit the data. We an introduce more innovative ‘multi-modal’ transportation which means citizens using several different forms of transport – bikes, cars, buses – will be able to plan their journey with incredible accuracy.

“In the not to distant future, the noisiest areas of the city will be built with more robust material. The data we are gathering will also be part of a wider project which allows any third party to access it.”

Final impressions

Several aspects of Telefonica and Santander’s vision for a ‘Smart City’ impressed me. The fact that emissions have been reduced by 30 per cent thanks to the use of sensors and a parking application should inspire other cities to do the same.

The predicted 25 per cent reduction in emissions that will come from rescheduling waste collection to pick up only bins that are full should also encourage governments to invest in Smart City technology.

In addition, the slashing of government response times to issues such as potholes is something that would greatly be welcomed in any city – and it would be easy to justify on a political level as well as economic.

However, I couldn’t help but note the low take up of apps – in total both the SmartSantanderRA and Citizen Participation apps have seen only 22,000 downloads out of a population of 180,000.
It is also worth mentioning that disruption caused by the sensors being buried in asphalt – although minimal, with streets only shut down for 24 hours – would still make local governments in cities with much larger populations than Santander think twice.

Having said this, Europe can no longer afford to put the short-term needs of citizens ahead of the longer-term needs of the region.

As Telefonica’s Domingo said, Europe is still behind technologically. Perhaps this time, we can at least try to keep pace with Asian countries such as Singapore, which next year is due to complete its transformation into a Smart City.

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