The real Sim City: How over 15,000 sensors made Santander smart

By Francisco Jariego, Director of Industrial IoT, Telefónica

More than half of the world’s population lives in cities and this proportion is increasing day by day.

As urban environments are becoming more densely populated and more complex, cities face challenges in a number of different areas: congested transport infrastructure, air quality and pollution, energy efficiency and climate change.

Governments around the world are now racing to transform their towns into “smart cities” – urbanised areas connected by sensors, smartphones, computers and a variety of other digital technologies designed to make them more sustainable, more efficient and better places to live. In the UK, we can see steps being taken in this direction, with councils such as Westminster in London currently rolling out smart parking sensors across its whole road network. These sensors will feed information on vacant parking bays back to an app in order to provide real-time data to drivers, thus reducing both congestion and carbon emissions.

It’s easy to see how this kind of solution, if expanded to a macro level, has the potential to make cities across the world greener and more efficient.

Telefónica was the programme lead for 'Smart Santander' one of the largest smart city experiments in the world. The project has been developed in line with the European Union’s Future Internet initiative, which involves the creation of facilities to support experimentally driven research in the field of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT).

Transforming Santander into a smart city was no easy feat. Around 180,000 people live in the city and with its beaches, leisure facilities and history, Santander is as much a tourist destination as it is a modern European city. However, using the grant from the EU, a consortium of 25 partners from across Europe and Australia led by Telefónica has been able to turn Santander into a living experimental laboratory.

The project team installed more than 15,000 sensors around the city, around an area of approximately 35 kmsq, or 13.4 square miles. The work commenced in September 2010 and the installation was completed in October 2013, carried out over 4 different phases. The project has recently been expanded to include sensors on buses in the surrounding region, vastly increasing the scope of the scheme to an area of nearly 5,300 kmsq, or 2,030 square miles.

Each phase involved different types of sensors depending on the final services being envisaged. A large proportion were hidden inside white boxes and attached to street infrastructure such as street lamps, buildings and utility poles, while others were buried into the actual pavement. Not all of the sensors were static; some were placed on the city’s public transport network, including buses, taxis and police cars. By downloading an app to their smartphones, even the residents of Santander could become moving sensors in their own right.

These sensors measure a variety of variables, from light and pressure to humidity and temperature. Vehicles broadcast their positions in real time while other sensors measure air quality levels, for example. The sensor infrastructure deployed across the streets of Santander is wirelessly connected through the backbone network to the Telefónica M2M service platform. This technology enables the network of sensors to transmit data back to the project hub as often as every two minutes.

Once there, Telefónica’s Smart Business Control platform extracts intelligence, allowing the enormous amounts of data to be analysed and observed in real-time by the Council employees. If required, additional service capabilities can also be incorporated using the components developed by the FI-WARE project, also funded by the European Comission, to meet any potential ICT requirement a city council may have.

There are many similarities between ‘Smart Santander’ and role playing video games like Sim City. The City Council is able to see, at any time, a snapshot of the entire network of sensors. The system facilitates a range of new services, from air quality measurement, remote dimming of street lamps on empty streets to optimised park watering. A smart garbage collection programme has also been implemented, collecting waste only when bins are at full capacity. Municipal officials have a real-time view of key city metrics, enabling them to make better decisions and engage in more cost-effective planning. Resources can be planned and allocated faster and more efficiently, while cost-savings can be realised more effectively.

For citizens, their city has been transformed from a largely static town into a dynamic, responsive urban area. The project has peeled back the layers and, for the first time, allowed residents to truly interact with their municipal environment. They are empowered to make choices based on real-time data, allowing them to save money, time and effort.

What next? We want to get to the point where not just every city is smart, but anyone can install connected sensors and monitor the readings remotely through a website or app and be able to put in place rules to trigger automatic actions.

By giving individual consumers ‘smart city’ technology in their homes, gardens, or workplaces, akin to running their very own ‘Sim City’, the challenges of urban environments can be overcome by involving everyone in the transformation of not only our cities, but our lifestyles.

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30 Mar 2014, 5:27 p.m.

I downloaded the Smart Santander app PulsoDelaCiudad. This shows the potential, but the actual amount of citizen-interaction seems quite low to me. Outdated posts, only a handful of users? In my opinion the key success factor is in the actual use for inhabitants. What about that aspect of this experiment? (Or am I checking the wrong app?)