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NEC: M2M, sensors and data analysis are at the core of Smart Cities

ITProPortal sat down with Gareth Price, Head of New Business Strategy at NEC Europe, at Mobile World Congress last week in Barcelona, to discuss about the plans the Japanese technology giant has in store for Europe and expand on what makes smart cities.

Gareth, can you please introduce our readers to NEC’s vision of smart cities?

I will tell you how we got there. Two or three years ago, we stopped being just an infrastructure provider and we started doing cloud [computing] and in the first wave, it was all about the Web 2.0 companies like Google [….] and Salesforce and if you were technical that was fine. If you were a small company or a carrier, then you were locked out of the business. So what NEC did was to invent carrier cloud and then we allowed the carriers to get the middle of the IT value tier and provide cloud and IT services to SMEs. But what that was doing is help the backoffice workers and what we started last year was M2M (machine-to-machine) and that’s helping the frontend workers like nurses, delivery guys, cold chain suppliers etc.

Now you take all the core technologies we have here and put this at the centre of a city, once you get the density of sensors and services up, allowing them to talk to each other, you end up with a smart city, which we call at NEC, the digitized city. We don’t see this as being one template as all cities are different from each other. Sometimes, we’re lucky to work in greenfield sites (a project that lacks any constraints imposed by prior work) like in Brazil (for the 2016 Olympics and 2014 FIFA World Cup) where they are building new stadiums and new accommodation and where we can get in and do state-of-the-art cool stuff. At other times, it is all about optimizing what already exists or dealing with existing problems like noise pollution or energy balancing. In one city, we’re working with energy companies and putting batteries to flatten out peaks and troughs so that you can store some energy in the network.

We have done things in education, traffic control and an express route in Japan with nearly 1,000 sensors sending data (about air quality, sound, speed of vehicles) every 30 seconds. We are also working on a project in Europe, on a “smart city control centre”, where we are taking our M2M data platform, Connexive, and making it talk to an already existing sensor network. We take the data into Connexive and do a number of things with it. Firstly, the data is stored, then you can share it. In terms of people in your business process, you can share it and you can analyse it, do big data processing on it and sell that data.

Tell us more about NEC's Connexive

It’s a cloud M2M data service that we offer to carriers we work closely with. That can be white labelled and we’re running our own one which is live in Asia with a beta service running in Europe and we’ve got some SI (System Integrator) partners testing it. It is not commercially opened yet. [For data generated by a commodity item like a car and processes surrounding it], we have real companies interested in data [generated by it]: Insurance companies that do pay as you drive insurance, road-toll companies, manufacturers etc.

That can be easily be four boxes inside a car and that data generated by all four is siloed at the moment, each with its own platform. Sharing the platform should be the way forward but nobody is willing to do that. They have their own platform and own vertical and the obvious question is “why should I change”. What we do is allow companies that are interested in having access to data to do so. Some stakeholders (like the future owner of a car) are willing to pay to get access to data about the vehicle, whereas others, like car recovery firms won’t. We’re essentially enabling different layers of monetization. M2M however is way more than just data and [referring to the car example], smart cities may come up with car-pooling schemes and incentivize users to subscribe to them. We are flexible enough to offer simple solutions [that go from being a simple conduit for data].

For some customers, we will hold the data safely for them given that they are quite small. Going up the line, we can do the integration. If you look at the example of a kiosk, vending machine or bike-renting service, there will be several companies involved and you can either do the integration at your end (in your data centre) which is usually very expensive or you can leave us to do it. You do one integration in the cloud and you leave your other partners to do their bit. Changing partners, for one, is easier as we control the way data is transmitted (depending on the requirements). Ultimately, our solution enables cities to monetise [the enormous amount of] data.

What do you come up with in order to convince cities to adopt your solutions?

There are three propositions. The first one is to tackle problems that cities often encounter; air quality, power consumption, distribution of traffic warden etc. Smart cities started with M2M services and when you add all of them, you get a [so-called] smart city. I’m not saying that there’s no exception to the rule but that is reality. Starting with problems is 90 per cent [of propositions]. Working with one department at the time is crucial; to anyone who tries to integrate a dozen departments in one go, I wish them good luck.

As for cost-cutting/money saving, unless you start to dig deeper and work closely with the mayor or the city, the cost information is not going to be obvious as people will not easily disclose this type of information. In addition, the focus must be on efficiency or increased productivity rather than just money; Doing more with less in order to save some money for other things. Then there’s the fact that there are cities that already have a lot of data. Our proposal in this case would be to approach them and say that we can help them monetise that data and drive some business or optimization. The third proposition is that in some countries, cities can even get EU funds to morph into a prestigious showcase, model city, possibly tied with a university.

Where does NEC see itself compared to the likes of Amazon?

NEC is more “middleware”, providing with the tools to do the analytics. For example, we have a SaaS marketplace for SMB where the latter can pick up the services they want to use. They can be charged by transaction, per query, per MB of data. Amazon is another layer in the schema and provide with the resources (computer, network, storage) that underpins the technology. We might work with them. For example, we could put an instance on their infrastructure and some of our partners could choose to run their analytics engine using AWS but they are down at the infrastructure level, hardware and OS. NEC provides with these core analytical technologies (like the Connexive data warehouse) and other entities (like governments) provide with the applications that perform the useful tasks.

Any pertinent example you can provide us with?

There’s a retail chain in South Korea that’s apparently bigger than a well-known Chaebol and has installed an array of cameras in its stores. Using advanced face recognition, it manages to know the gender, an age bracket and how engaged customers are, whether, for example, you stopped and had a quick look at something on the shelf and combines it with other variables like time of the day, then sells that refined data to third parties. They can profile who goes where in the store and rearrange their layout based on that. The data is anonymised obviously and there’s no privacy issue per se. In Hong Kong, we’ve pushed things even further and have managed to do face recognition in the car itself, matching the face to the number plates.

What’s your primary focus in the UK?

NEC is particularly trusted in the UK for providing really reliable network connectivity. When you make a phone call, the phone talks to a base station and the data needs to go from the base station to the core network and then routed to its final destination. That journey from the base station to the core, the backhaul, is not exciting but NEC is the world leader in that. Another thing we’re focusing on is SDN (Software Defined Network) and what we are doing is giving customers, a huge, radically changing way to cost the network with radically different flexibility. In many data centres, it takes five minutes to provision the servers and five days to provision the network because the network [infrastructure] has to be reconfigured and redesigned. We’re able to take virtualisation technology and apply it to telecoms and IT networks. We can bring in new core components without the network being actively involved. Data centres can go down without the customer even knowing because we’re able to seamlessly and invisibly move the traffic and services from a data centre to another.

Désiré Athow

Désiré has been musing and writing about technology during a career spanning four decades. He dabbled in website building and web hosting when DHTML and frames were en vogue and started writing about the impact of technology on society just before the start of the Y2K hysteria at the turn of the last millennium. Following an eight-year stint at where he discovered the joys of global tech-fests, Désiré now heads up TechRadar Pro. Previously he was a freelance technology journalist at Incisive Media, Breakthrough Publishing and Vnunet, and Business Magazine. He also launched and hosted the first Tech Radio Show on Radio Plus.