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Intel CityWatch: Research makes smarter cities

I managed to catch up with Martin Curley – Director Intel Labs Europe – this week in Barcelona. Curley was overseeing the Intel European Research and Innovation conference, which was also a celebration of a decade of Intel Labs Barcelona.

The last time I saw Martin Curley was back in May at 10 Downing Street, when Intel announced its Collaborative Research Institute for Sustainable Connected Cities (opens in new tab), based in London, so I was keen to find out how Intel’s most recent research centre was shaping up.

(opens in new tab)Curley assured me that the London lab is making good progress, and has already fleshed out a research agenda for creating a digital nervous system for the city. However, given the sheer scale of London as an urban Petri dish, Intel has been using Dublin as a testing bed, rolling out its CityWatch programme.

CityWatch, as its name suggests, is a programme whereby a massive quantity of data pertaining to a city is captured, more or less constantly, via innumerable sensor devices. Intel has already developed ambient sensors, which form the base level of the data capture. These devices are placed around the city and will record everything from temperature to air quality to humidity, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

But it would be simply impractical and financially prohibitive to rely on ambient sensors blanketing the whole of a city the size of London, so that’s where the citizens come in. Clearly there’s no better way to gather information about a city than via its inhabitants, but there are two ways to gather that information – actively or passively.

Passive data collection will involve sensors built into devices that we carry around with us, such as our mobile phones or laptops. Curley mentioned that we’ll be seeing Ultrabooks in 2013 that will be equipped with sensors designed to collect data for projects such as CityWatch. Of course there’s nothing wrong with that at all, as long as we, the end users, have the power to deactivate those sensors if we chose.

Assuming we’re happy to help Intel, the British Government and both UCL and ICL analyse London and help build a smarter, more efficient city, we’ll leave those sensors active and let our devices collect data wherever we go.

And then there’s active data collection, where we proactively supply data about the city around us and how we interact with it - that’s where Intel’s CityWatch app comes in. The CityWatch app will run on your tablet or smartphone, making use of all the sensors inside it, but it will also allow you to report things that are happening. Are road works slowing traffic? Is there a burst water main flooding a road on your way to the office? Has a tree fallen on the line, leaving your train stationary?

Gathering the data is only half of the battle though, it then needs to be collated and analysed, and Intel will be leveraging all its supercomputing might to do just that. In fact, Curley said that we should see initial research results in a couple of quarters – so, presumably mid-2013.

Turning London into a smarter, better connected and more efficient city isn’t going to happen overnight, but the more research that comes out of Intel’s London lab, the better the chances of implementing change. And, with the backing of London’s top tech-based universities and the UK government, it’s a chance to see real triple helix research in action. In fact, when you throw in the input from the general public, or end users, CityWatch could be the poster child for quadruple helix research.

Riyad has been entrenched in technology publishing for more years than he cares to remember, having staffed and edited some of the largest and most successful IT magazines in the UK. In 2003 he joined forces with Hugh Chappell to create They built TR into the UK’s market leading technology publication before selling the title to IPC Media / Time Warner in 2007. As Editorial Director at Net Communities, Riyad will be helping to develop the publishing portfolio, making IT Pro Portal the best publication it can be.