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Glasgow, an unexpected pioneer in the nascent Smart City arena

ITProPortal was invited earlier this month to report on an innovative venture in Glasgow called Creative Clyde, in reference to the River Clyde that runs through the city. The project, which has been going for the past two years, aims to provide with the necessary ecosystem to foster the growth of startups operating in the creative sector in a Glaswegian way.

Creative Clyde started as a partnership that brought together Scottish Enterprise, Glasgow City Council, Glasgow Chamber of commerce, Creative Scotland, BBC Scotland, the University of Glasgow, Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre and a number of other organisations operating in the creative industry.

But what makes Glasgow a fertile land for all things digital? After all, Scotland’s largest city is better known for being a European financial hub (one of the top 20 according to a Global Financial Centres Index published by financial website Zyen) and the “second city of the British Empire” in the second half of the 19th century and at the beginning of the last one.

The answer to this question lies at the heart of Glasgow itself, a land of contrast as we found out during our brief visit, something highlighted by the uncannily nice weather that welcomed us to a place usually associated with the words cold (an average of 13 degrees), grey (four hours of sunshine per day on average) and wet (around 100mm of rain per month).

We first sat down with David Coyne, Head of Economic Development, Development and Regeneration Services for Glasgow City Council, who introduced us to the term Digital Glasgow. This was coined as a recognition of the need that Glasgow needed to accelerate its transformation as a connected hub, something that cannot be driven singly by one service or department.

Instead, it gradually emerged organically and has been driven partly by one major sporting event that will take place next year in Glasgow, the 20th Commonwealth Games.

David highlighted four so-called “workstreams” which are, in effect task groups aimed at making the concept of “Digital Glasgow” reality. These include small business, wireless connectivity, benchmarking and best practices and participation and citizen uptake of technology.

The first one focuses on SMEs and innovation incubators and aims at building an implementing an “e-trade tester” by the end of 2013, with the help of the local Chamber of Commerce, one which offers bespoke advice and test e-commerce readiness to start-ups and budding companies.

The second workstream aims to bring wireless connectivity to Glasgow before August 2014 (which is when the Commonwealth games take place), all on a shoe-string budget of £200,000. Free Wi-Fi might seems as a rather straightforward process both for public bodies and the commercial entities willing to implement it. However, given the recent publicity surrounding the announcement by Newham and Havering that they were giving up on free Wi-Fi because of financial reasons, it appears evident that rolling out such a scheme is not as simple as it seems regardless of the current political will.

Providing wireless connectivity to a population of more than 1.2 million spread across nearly 370km^2 (Greater Glasgow Urban Area) will undoubtedly require a fair number of hotspots and will likely prove to be a challenging project.

Closely linked to the above is the third Workstream which carries a £300,000 budget and aims at promoting the use of technology amongst Glasgow citizens, especially amongst economically disadvantaged strata, through training and low cost broadband. It is worth noting that Glasgow didn’t get any money from the Broadband Delivery UK budget, something which our interlocutor said, was a blessing in disguise.

Last is the promotion of benchmarking and best practices which aim to provide with a more robust analysis of local citizen use of technology with a more objective assessment of the ROI of projects in the public eye that have a strong technology DNA..

David also expanded on an internal e-government programme that tackles existing legacy systems and aim to merge around 200 databases within the organization into a single data repository that will allow the council to explore new relationships between existing data sets.

Next on our tight schedule was Michael McLaughlan, Programme Director at Glasgow City Council and the goto person for the Future Cities Demonstrator, an all-encompassing endeavor that aims to make cities safer, smarter and more sustainable. Glasgow recently beat 29 other cities to win £24 million from the Technology Strategy Board, UK’s innovation agency, a feat achieved by a team lead by McLaughlan.

He is no stranger to big projects having been previously project director for Amadeus, the transaction processor for the global travel and tourism industry and a consulting director for services giant Deloitte. McLaughlan said that Future Cities are actually a step ahead of Smartcities; the latter tends to integrate existing legacy systems whereas the former focuses on data, big data and billions of data points.

The project is made up of two parts. The first one is currently taking place and is a national data audit of Glasgow, looking at the 200 or so data sets spread across the various databases in the council. The next step will be to create a city observatory for citizens which will provide them with tools to play with open data through APIs.

The long term goal is to operate an open data platform that will allow Glasgow and possibly other cities to derive long term benefits that cannot necessarily be directly accrued financially.

Four projects have been planned as part of the Future Cities Demonstrator. These include Active travel which are health indicators that will hopefully encourage Glasgow citizens to stop using motorized vehicles and instead exercise. But rather than directly address a grassroot audience, the project aims to provide a different view to decision makers and city planners, which in turn, should make them rethink about travelling arrangements across the city, by tracking down trends and highlighting vital correlations that might have been otherwise lost. Ideally, McLaughlan said, the project will give birth to an active travel map that provides with a real time view of traffic and usage of public transport amenities in the city.

The second project will make use of sensors found in 70,000 lighting pillars in Glasgow which will provide audio and video to a smart operation centre that has been built for the Commonwealth games and which will do post-capture analysis to determine whether for example, anti-social behaviour is taking place. The third project will be a crowdsourced sensor smartphone application that will offer service provisioning and allow retailers for example to analyse footfall and take preemptive steps to improve services to their customers.

We questioned McLaughlan on the obstacles he met when implementing the Future Cities paradigm in Glasgow and he said that the biggest challenges are at the human and cultural levels. “Getting data feeds from various stakeholders is essential to make the project work” he said. Without trust between parties, none of this will be possible. The project is expected to be completed in 2014, possibly in the first half of the year ahead of the Commonwealth games.

At its simplest, the project would be a dashboard, akin to a car’s one, that contains some of the vital metrics about the city including traffic lights, CCTV, air quality, street lightning down to hospital waiting times and journey planner. McLaughlan was also very keen to highlight the partnerships the city is fostering with academics from Strathclyde and Glasgow universities.

He quipped that it will be important to determine what the legacy of the project will be beyond that. The games, he added, will be a major “show and tell” event for Glasgow as far as smart cities are concerned. Revenue generation is going to be a major aspect of that discussion as far as we understood.

There will be an open dialog with commercial partners and the team are currently building some intellectual properties around that system with a view to monetise it. Beyond this, Glasgow wants to share knowledge with other cities at a national and global level to strengthen its status as a pioneer in the area of Smart Cities. Glasgow, he quipped, is “aiming to become the global powerhouse it once was”.

Over the next few weeks, we will publish interviews of some of the Glaswegian startups that have graduated from the Digital Entreprise Glasgow (DEG) startup nursery, a Glasgow City Council Initiative headed by Kaiser Khan. For now, check out our interview with Gareth Price, head of new business strategy at NEC Europe, where we covered Smart Cities as well as the growing focus on Big data, M2M and sensors.

Flickr Picture Credit : Suborbital Pigeon

Desire worked at ITProPortal right at the beginning and was instrumental in turning it into the leading publication we all know and love today. He then moved on to be the Editor of TechRadarPro - a position he still holds - and has recently been reunited with ITProPortal since Future Publishing's acquisition of Net Communities.