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Blog: So, what is an Urban Internet of Things?

Dr. Terry Norman has worked with us on our IoTUK project. Here, he blogs about his idea of IoT reaching maturity when it moves beyond a collection of M2M interventions.

Describing an Urban Internet of Things as a system where everyday objects or things with embedded sensors use telecommunications channels to connect to a city Intranet or the Internet is a common misstep. Commentators might add that the sensors communicate information about the thing which can be acted upon by a central control, often illustrating this with a smart parking or waste management system. This description of an Urban Internet of Things more accurately describes Machine to Machine (we shall discuss what we mean by Machine to Machine or M2M shortly). However, under the right circumstances, such an M2M system might be considered an enabler of an Urban Internet of Things. Understanding the difference between M2M and Urban IoT will lead us to understand what it is that characterises an Urban Internet of Things.

In the following, we first describe a simple Smart Parking service which uses an M2M system and then show how this may be one of a multitude of similar M2M services. We then discuss how these separate M2M services might be drawn together using data analytics to form an Urban Internet of Things. In this way, we not only distinguish between a collection of M2M services and an Urban Internet of Things but also give our definition of an Urban Internet of Things.

In a simple M2M system, Figure 1, a device, usually a sensor and radio transceiver in a single unit, is attached to the asset to measure some quantity of interest. This measurement then passes through a communications network, which may be wireless or fixed, to an application. The application provides the enterprise with a tool to monitor and control the asset based on the measured information. Service enablement frees developers from needing to know the structure of the low-level data. The overall objective of an M2M system like this is to optimise the business process.

Figure 1: A simple M2M system

Figure 1: A simple M2M system

Smart Parking is a practical example of an M2M system. Figure 2 shows a typical Smart Parking set up. A sensor and radio transceiver is embedded in the parking space. Whether or not the space is occupied is measured by the sensor and this measurement is passed to an application running on a motorist’s mobile phone. Using the application, the driver can then find the nearest unused parking bay. Improved parking bay management, accurate record of parking space usage and reduced time to find an empty space are the immediate benefits.

Figure 2: A practical M2M Smart Parking system

Figure 2: A practical M2M Smart Parking system

In an urban Internet of Things, such an M2M application can be seen as one strand within a collection of similar M2M systems, see Figure 3. Here we see ‘spaces’ and a ‘transport’ application (highlighted in red) to indicate an M2M Smart Parking flow of information within an Urban Internet of Things. Other sensors associated with people (electronic ticketing), vehicles (RFID payment tags), buildings (integrity monitoring sensors) etc., extend into the city similarly gathering data and feeding this back into the common data store. Context may be added to the data by accessing external databases, like social media, mapping, and positioning, etc. An Urban Internet of Things comes into its own when, using the sensor and context data a suite of applications is then able draw insights about the way in which the city is used, the behaviour, activities and habits of its citizens and consumption of resources.
If properly managed this rich source of insight can be used to monitor and control the use of services and resources, to enrich, enlighten and augment the quality of life of citizens and to plan, design and manage sustainable cities.

Figure 3: An Urban Internet of Things

Figure 3: An Urban Internet of Things

One of the great opportunities which Urban IoT offers is sustainable city population growth without compromising upon the quality of the services enjoyed by the citizens – a crucial benefit, given that population density within cities is growing unabated.
In summary, an Urban Internet of Things is far more than a collection of M2M systems and services. The hardware infrastructure of an Urban Internet of Things is, however, made up of multiple, interconnected M2M systems. Indeed, interconnection between disparate M2M systems and data extraction are two of the defining characteristics of an Urban IoT. Appreciating that the science and techniques of data analytics can be applied to the data collection to draw inferences completes the picture, giving a complete understanding of Urban IoT and differentiating between M2M and IoT.

When historians look back at the evolution of the digital era, they will say, ‘When web browsers became able to retrieve and display information stored in an interconnected network of servers [1], the Internet, the World Wide Web came of age.’ In the same way, they might argue that Machine to Machine communications became the Internet of Things when individual M2M services were interconnected and data analytics became able to draw inferences from the data provided from this collective of data sources.

[1] A Server: …a computer program or a machine capable of accepting requests from clients and responding to them. Their purpose may be to share data or hardware and software resources among clients.

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