How the Internet of things is already making cities smarter

S FILTERING.gifIn our last blog post, we spoke to Geoffrey Zbinden, corporate director of M2M technologies at Orange Business. We discussed how the ability to connect sensors to central systems could revolutionise municipal services. As Geoffrey explains in the second and final part of the interview, this is not mere science fiction. Forward-thinking municipalities are already engaged in the use of machine-to-machine (M2M) communication to improve everything from environmental quality to traffic movements.
How can M2M technology help to improve the quality of the environment?
Cagnes-sur-Mer on the Cote d'Azur started developing environmental data collection capabilities in the summer of 2007.  It placed sensors in the area to measure air and water quality, along with noise levels, the UV index, and even leaks in the municipal water system. Collected every 10 minutes, this information is collated by a central server to present city controllers and residents with a web-based picture of a living, breathing city. The ability for sensors to talk automatically to a central point supports a variety of applications, including high pollution alerts, information on travellers' sun exposure, public service information on bathing water quality, resource management of irrigation, and energy savings in lighting.
Can it have practical immediate applications, such as finding a parking spot and getting me there more quickly?
Le Havre and Calais have used M2M systems to develop intelligent parking applications. The meters use mobile communications to communicate meter time information back to headquarters. Software there can then collate parking times and cash receipts, while providing trend data that can help planners to maximise the flow of vehicles. Collecting data from parking meters also reduces maintenance costs and improves response times by pinpointing exactly which meters need repairing, as problems arise. Unfortunately for some residents, it also maximises parking fine revenues! Le Havre has enjoyed such success with its M2M-based parking system that it is exploring the use of sensors to monitor urban lighting.
These are not the only cities using M2M systems to help manage traffic. Since 2006, Stockholm has reduced peak-time vehicular traffic in its city center by 20%, and has dropped carbon emissions by 15%, using a camera system that reads vehicle number plates. The cameras send the plate data back to a central server, which then interprets them, uses them to find the driver's details, and then sends them a monthly bill. The Stockholm pricing model depends on the hours of the day. Motorists are therefore strongly encouraged to use public transport during peak commuting hours.
Can it save me money?
In Moulins in the Allier, an EC-funded project has been using sensors to monitor water consumption and heating use in 80 public housing units. Occupants can see what they are using on a daily basis via a web site that collates and presents the data centrally. Access to this information has enabled them to alter their behaviour accordingly, and reduce water consumption by almost a third in some cases.
What happens next?
As the idea of M2M communcations catches on, we can expect to see more of these visionary projects emerging. And as they do, the data from the sensors used will become increasingly useful. Metcalfe's Law, coined by Ethernet inventor Robert Metcalfe, says that the value of a telecommunications network is proportional to the square of the number of connected users of the system. In other words, the more nodes in a network, the more quickly its value increases. That has proven to be true of the Internet now, when it contains mostly computers. Imagine how much more powerful it will become as millions of sensors begin delivering their data to an increasingly ubiquitous Internet of things. 
Stewart Baines
Stewart Baines

I've been writing about technology for nearly 20 years, including editing industry magazines Connect and Communications International. In 2002 I co-founded Futurity Media with Anthony Plewes. My focus in Futurity Media is in emerging technologies, social media and future gazing. As a graduate of philosophy & science, I have studied futurology & foresight to the post-grad level.