Sensing Urban Change

Cities turn to the Internet of Things (IoT).


  • London and Dublin are deploying networked sensors as part of an effort to make themselves more livable and better prepared for the future

  • These cities are some of the first places to test how to efficiently deploy IoT systems city-wide

  • Smart cities projects point the way for understanding sensor applications and the power of IoT, and more



Four days a week, Duncan Wilson rides his white Ducati 899 motorcycle through 8 miles of bumper-to-bonnet London traffic to his office at Imperial College. As he passes Hyde Park, a sensor mounted on a utility box just inside Victoria Gate detects levels of nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides, and particulate matter. It’s one of nearly 80 such devices recently deployed throughout London to help the city identify its most polluted areas, or black spots, and better grasp how to combat smog.

“If we think about the black spots, they’re all based around major intersections and traffic routes,” says Wilson, an Intel research director leading the project, called Sensing London. “We’re monitoring parks to make the case for preserving this green space.”

Sensing London, a collaboration between the Intel Collaborative Research Institute for Sustainable Connected Cities, Imperial College, University College, the Future Cities Catapult, and members of London city council, is one of many efforts around the globe using the Internet of Things to deal with issues like climate change and stretched resources. These projects range from grassroots efforts to huge undertakings between government, corporate, academic, and civic groups.

In Barcelona, sensors in waste bins alert trash collection services when they’re full. At the Port of San Diego, engineers have deployed sensors in an HVAC system to help reduce energy use and prepare for tightening state regulations.

The common thread among smart-city projects is the principle that data—and insights from data—can lead to better ideas, decisions, and results.

In one month, we had a program set up.

Duncan Wilson, Intel research director

London Air

London, which sprawls across 607 square miles, has nearly 2.5 million cars and trucks on its roads. More than 30 percent of these vehicles are fueled by diesel, which releases far more nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter than vehicles running on unleaded gasoline. These pollutants, some of which were recently measured at higher levels in London than in Beijing, were linked to 9,500 premature deaths in London in 2010.

Monitoring London’s air in its entirety is, for the time being, impossible. So Sensing London decided to focus on three strategic locations in addition to Hyde Park: Tower Bridge, where cars idle for several minutes three times a day, as the bridge is raised for ships to pass; Elephant and Castle, where researchers are studying a nitrogen oxides-absorbing paint; and the Northern borough of Enfield, which is sandwiched between two old and overwhelmed highways.

For the Enfield portion, “In one month, we had a program The sensors capture data that an on-site system-on-a-chip gateway processes in real time. The gateway then sends the data to the cloud, which provides flexible and scalable processing infrastructure for applications that transform numbers into meaningful, actionable information.

It’s not without complications, however. The placement of the sensor and its casing, temperature, humidity, and wind are among many things that can lead to inaccurate data.

To help compensate, the ICRI team calibrated its sensors with London’s three high-fidelity air quality stations. Algorithms added to those gateways helped align the numbers.

“We’ve been learning a lot about the performance of electrochemical sensors themselves, and we’ve been updating the algorithms used to process the data,” Wilson says. “While one approach to IoT is to send data right to the cloud, we’re also investigating at-the-edge processing, where we send the transformed data to the cloud.”

The advantage of cutting the noise from the captured data, Wilson says, is that the cloud doesn’t get filled with meaningless data. It’s filtered out before it leaves the gateway processor.

Dublin Flooding

Almost 300 miles northwest of London, Intel last April signed an agreement with the Dublin City Council to create a citywide network of gateway sensors and get a similar IoT collaboration across industry, academia, and government up and running.

“We initially spent a lot of time internally with operational staff, asking, ‘what are the priority areas that we could look at?’” recalls Jamie Cudden, Dublin City Council’s Smart Cities coordinator. “We came down to the issue of flooding.”

The warm North Atlantic Current has always kept Ireland temperate. One Victorian-era poet described the rain there as “warm as an Irish welcome, and soft as an Irish smile.”

Climate change means the Irish air now holds approximately 4 percent more water than it did in 1890. This has contributed to “monster rains” that wreak havoc across Eastern Ireland.

“Pluvial flooding can turn streets into rivers,” according to Dr. David Prendergast, Intel anthropologist, and project lead for the Dublin IoT Demonstrator. It can also “cause the overtopping of rivers, the overtaxing of drain systems, and the flooding of basement flats.”

Between December 2012 and January 2013 alone, flooding cost Dublin 61 million euros, or $85 million, in damage, according to the country’s Directorate for Fire and Emergency Management.

Through its Smart Cities Program, Dublin is working to batten down the hatches.

“We found that a lot of [city] engineers were already very proactive in innovating—finding and trialing new solutions, in terms of rain and river level-monitoring sensors,” Cudden says. Yet these efforts were siloed. “The guys managing the rivers and the guys managing the drains,” he says, had very limited means of collaborating.

Over the next year, Intel will help Dublin build an IoT system that gathers rain, river, and drain data from as many sensors as possible.

Dr. Prendergast says that in strategic locations around the city, Intel will deploy rain gauges and weather stations, as well as experimental sensors such as river-monitoring buoys and low-power ultrasonic water level sensors, to measure tidal surges or provide real-time information about rivers and streams that are sensitive to monster rains.

Experts ranging from engineers to data managers are partnering with local colleges and businesses to build sensing equipment, synthesize gathered data, and ultimately develop and implement flood-monitoring plans.

“All these data streams are no good, unless you can respond effectively,” says Cudden, who envisions a sensor-based system that will alert workers to clear sewer drains, move cars, and notify basement apartment dwellers before a big storm.

The Future of Smart Cities

While large-scale initiatives in Dublin and London are making strides in building an IoT infrastructure, Anthony Townsend, senior research fellow at New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management and author of Smart Cities, sees top-down advancements as just the beginning.

He anticipates urban infrastructure eventually supporting citizen-led projects. He imagines access to government representation, education, and child care services being “rewritten by these smart little devices that are in our pocket and in the walls,” Townsend says.

Why not? As smartphones become ubiquitous, the power of edge processing is in people’s hands.

“It’s getting more complicated, and that’s a good thing. It’s not just all about making the world easier,” he says. “What about more sociable? More fun?”