Thursday, 18 May 2017 17:11

Can smart cities leverage value from environmental data?

By Robin Ormerod and Ray Shaw

The starting point for improving environmental quality is monitoring, but traditional methods focus on the simple display of real-time data and usually only at a few locations, according to the head of an Australian environmental consulting services company.

"Often, the information displayed lacks context, and it is in a difficult for decision makers to use when managing environmental quality," Robin Ormerod, managing director of EnviroSuite, told iTWire.

Ormerod said, “While much of the smart city focus tends to be on features such as high-speed networks, intelligent control systems and efficient transportation options, there are opportunities to go even further.

"Increasingly, smart city projects are also including objectives to improve the health of its citizens, based on systems that monitor and manage environmental factors such as air and water quality.”

Ormerod spoke at length about how to leverage the huge amounts of sensor data being generated. EnviroSuite also supplies environmental monitoring software by the same name. 

Envrosuite Robin Omerod

Environmental focus

"The starting point for improving environmental quality is monitoring. However, traditional methods focus on the simple display of real-time data and usually only at a few locations. Often, the information displayed lacks context, and it is in a difficult for decision makers to use when managing environmental quality," he said.

"One alternative approach being explored is the deployment of large sensor networks across a city. Designed to be low cost, low maintenance and unobtrusive, they can collect data 24 hours a day and feed it via a city-wide wireless network into a central store for analysis.

"Collected data can range from the air quality on city streets to the water quality and levels in streams and rivers. Other sensors can measure wind conditions, temperatures and ambient noise levels. Most importantly, when combined in a clever way, these different sources can be used to predict problem areas, or provide early warnings of potential environmental problems, so that these issues can be avoided with efficient action.

"For example, if air quality is poor (or predicted to be poor), traffic levels could be dynamically managed to improve air quality. This is much more efficient than the strict bans on vehicles that have been imposed in some cities. Citizens could also be sent automated notifications advising them of the best course of action to improve air quality, with targeted messages to different types of vehicles that contribute most to the issue.

"Central systems could also be configured to alert factory operators and other businesses of the changing atmospheric conditions and issue requests that they modify operations for a set period. As these alerts can be issued proactively, operators can make temporary changes without causing significant disruption to their facilities. In areas of poor air quality, businesses can avoid permanent, strict environmental licence conditions that would restrict operations all year round.

"Meanwhile, data collected by water quality sensors (or predicted by high-accuracy rainfall forecast) can alert the city to changing conditions. For example, runoff after heavy rain might cause localised flooding, issues for swimmers or water treatment plants. Alerts could be issued to citizens or treatment plant operators, with follow-up notices as soon as the sensors determine that conditions have improved."

Long-term monitoring

"As well as providing real-time insights and alerts, environmental monitoring systems in a smart city can also provide longer-term perspectives on how conditions are changing. High-resolution maps of heat, air quality and water quality could be used by city planners to optimise the quality of life of citizens as the city grows and develops. Armed with detailed, longer-term data, city planners will be able to make decisions for future developments with a clear understanding of the likely implications for the environment."

Cost-effective deployment

"Implementation of a city-wide environmental monitoring system does not have to be a complex or particularly expensive undertaking. The systems required for analysis can be housed in the cloud-based data centres and run on standard, low-cost hardware, which is orders of magnitude lower in price than the hardware of similar accuracy of 5-10 years ago.

"The sensors themselves can be located on existing infrastructure such as light poles, bus shelters, building exteriors and water pipes. Once in place, they require little or no maintenance and most can be powered by solar cells. The data they produce can be fed back for analysis via an existing network or 3G/4G networks.

"Forecasts that integrate real-time monitoring with high-resolution models of air quality have become much easier to deploy for cities as the costs of cloud-based data storage and processing power needed for fine scale, high-resolution forecasts have decreased exponentially over the last few years."

Generating value from environmental solutions

"With recent developments in hardware, cloud computing and intelligent software to manage and interpret the outputs, the technology is now available to drive the improvements desired. However, up until now, many pilot studies in this area focus on monitoring data and real-time display of sensor information only.

"The most value will be created when monitoring, modelling and forecasting of environmental information is integrated, interpreted and communicated in real-time in a form that decision makers can use. When that happens, smart city solutions will be able to efficiently drive significant improvements in the quality of life for the cities that they manage."


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