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Connected anything: From street lights to human brains

There’s more to smart city initiatives than smart parking and lighting. BT Enterprise’s Phil Brunkard looks at the variety of things that are getting connected, from brains to mousetraps, and what we stand to gain as a society.

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Being connected and connecting almost anything are key themes in any discussion around digital transformation – from the ambition for close to 100 per cent fibre coverage across the UK to the potential for human brains to be linked to computers through specialised implants.

Brain implants that can wirelessly interface with computers are already in development with Elon Musk’s start-up Neuralink. Intertwining computers and the human brain by placing a digital layer just above the cortex could effectively blur the boundary between artificial and human intelligence as artificial general intelligence research advances. Should we be worried or excited?

Whilst a future vision of BT providing telepathic communication services may seem like science fiction, in the near term neural lace could realistically be used to treat brain conditions like epilepsy or Parkinson’s disease. It’s encouraging to see this type of research focusing on major health issues.


Connected environments


Elsewhere, connectivity is making huge steps in creating smart cities, thanks to investment in the Internet of Things (IoT). Indeed, a vast array of smart technologies which connect ‘things’ are already being trialled across the UK.


A research project in Milton Keynes, for example, has helped support sustainable growth within the city and was able to reduce carbon emissions by optimising parking spaces through traffic monitoring and a car parking application.


Similarly, the CityVerve project in Manchester is currently applying IoT technologies to monitor air quality at multiple locations; to encourage more physical activity outdoors via the network of sensors in the city’s parks; and to reduce car use and encourage cycling.

 

Patients with respiratory problems are monitored using wearable sensors and sensors inside their homes, providing clinicians with information to identify the links between air quality, health and well-being and chronic respiratory conditions. Focus is given to encouraging patients to manage their respiratory conditions in a variety of ways – improving their use of medications, encouraging physical activity such as walking, and getting more involved in making decisions that affect them.


Even the humble street light is becoming connected: smart lamp posts are now being used not simply for lighting but for monitoring traffic and measuring air pollution.

 

Mouse traps are also getting an upgrade, with a sensor-enabled version in development that will alert users when vermin have been caught.


It’s not as silly as it might sound. When connected with other devices (such as carbon monoxide detectors, damp sensors and boiler status devices), it can significantly reduce the need for maintenance staff to undertake unnecessary routine inspections, whilst improving the well-being of building users.


Creating connections


All these smart devices and smart applications lead to ever-increasing levels of connectivity. There is no one-network-fits-all, as different smart devices will need distinct levels of connectivity depending on their requirements and how they are used within applications.

Of course, life in a smart world also revolves around data. Smart devices, sensors and applications will all generate massive quantities of data, while further big data volumes are provided by people, businesses and many other sources.

 

So how do you deal with the challenge of how to use this data in meaningful ways? Crucially, you need a data hub to bring this data together with a standard means for information exchange. Data is securely stored, catalogued and exposed in a common and consistent way. The information exchange enables information discovery, sharing and analysis possible across a multitude of diverse and complex external data sources and formats.


Although it seems simple enough, it can be hard to know where to begin. It’s important to ask, what are the critical use cases that will deliver benefit to our citizens? And from there, work out how to move beyond initial research and proof of concept activities to a viable platform delivering beneficial services. With that in mind, what are the right technology options – connectivity, data sets and applications?

Organisations can now obtain a smart city kit allowing them to test core use cases around air pollution, traffic flow and parking using a data hub. Local authorities can then make the data available to their health partners to analyse this with other data sets such as medical records to determine the correlation between chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and other respiratory problems such as asthma with pollution and traffic congestion.


Whilst public service organisations might not be developing projects with brain implants, they can look to address the impact of conditions like COPD.

There’s more to smart city initiatives than smart parking and lighting – the opportunity should be focused on people’s well-being which can also ease the pressures on our ailing national health service. With COPD affecting over one million of the population that would seem a good place to start smart, wouldn’t it?

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