The digitization process of the different activities of the Public Administrations is allowing, among other things, to control through intelligent infrastructures those elements that keep a city in operation. For several years there have been solutions to control the water and drainage system, electrical consumption can be controlled, traffic lights can be controlled centrally, access to restricted areas for certain types of vehicles can be controlled… Wherever there is electricity supply, it is feasible to monitor an element. In some cases, using certain IoT (Internet of Things) technologies, it is not even necessary that electrical power supply, although, in that case, the connectivity capacity may be very limited in time and volume of information.
In March 2020, many municipal officials were not able to control the systems they were responsible for, due to lack of connectivity. At the beginning of 2021, once the initial disconnection resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic had been overcome, connectivity has become a basic need and the concept of Smart City has gone from being a well-intentioned wish to being an essential objective for the city.
Not all cities are equally prepared, but even the most advanced ones are going to face two great challenges:
- How to integrate all your information sources in a single container
- How to connect with items that are not plugged in
The first challenge is simple to pose but difficult to solve: a city requires a system capable of integrating multiple elements that have been connected in an uncoordinated way over time and requires that the new elements that are added to the system help to homogenize the system.
The current state of the management platforms of the Public Administrations is the result of an uneven evolution in the areas so varied that a City Council must address. The tenders of different areas of a municipality are rarely coordinated to homogenize the connectivity requirements of the elements they acquire; the suppliers of these elements are companies focused on different sectors, with very different solutions. The technologies used for the connection are suitable for every need, but are incompatible with each other. Just have to see the differences between a traffic control system and the garbage control system or the water control system.
Achieving a certain standardization requires experts in communication protocols, data protocols, and cloud systems. As long as these types of profiles do not participate in defining the requirements of a system in a municipality, efficient digitization will be impossible. A common option in many tenders is to leave the specifications open to give the opportunity to present novel solutions but, in most cases, the specifications are left open because it is unknown how to specify. The need for personnel trained in digitization processes is urgent in Public Administrations since each decision taken now will affect the system for many years and each adaptation necessary in the future will require an extra cost.
By contrast, today the use of Open Data in the public sphere is internalized. An effort is made to publish more information and that information should be published in a structured manner. The problem is that generating information in Open Data from heterogeneous systems implies a great effort to structure the information. From standardization entities, such as AENOR in Spain, great work is being done in this attempt to homogenize with standards such as UNE 178301 for Open data, UNE 37120 for sustainable development in cities, UNE 178303 for asset management. of the city or the UNE 178104 of integral management systems. Again, the important thing is to have people in the Administrations trained to be able to apply these rules on a day-to-day basis.
The second challenge discussed above involves connecting the disconnected. A city can have millions of disconnected assets: park benches, streetlights (which could be connected but rarely are), traffic signs, protection elements, the condition of the sidewalks, the condition of the asphalt, the state of the trees in a park … Connecting all these elements would be impossible and not very useful, but checking them automatically is possible.
Until today all these elements are controlled in a manual way through an inventory. In many cases it is difficult to find an inventory that is true to life. Furthermore, as the different elements are managed by different areas of the municipality, it is most likely that each area has its own control system. Street lamps, for example, are usually controlled by whoever manages the electricity supply, while traffic signals are managed by whoever is in charge of mobility and park benches by whoever manages street furniture.
Focusing on the elements that affect mobility, most cities have one or more people hired to check that everything is correct. Being responsible for this check implies memorizing the inventory and being able to detect incidents in elements such as traffic signals, protections, disconnected traffic lights … The dimensions of this work are better understood with a figure: in a city like Bilbao (41.6 km2 of surface) there are 12,000 road signs.
The reality is that in traffic signs (as in many other elements in a city) there is the effect of the “elephant in the room”. “Elephant in the room” is an expression that refers to an obvious truth that is ignored or goes unnoticed. Thousands of vehicles and thousands of citizens will pass in front of a broken, covered or graffiti sign throughout the day but, unless it is something very annoying or dangerous, nobody will report. In fact, before it is detected by the person hired for it or by a specially responsible citizen, vehicles that work for the municipality itself (cleaning vehicles, garbage collection trucks, buses …) will have passed by that will not have detected it.
Despite the fact that many municipalities have launched mobile applications to report municipal incidents, rare is the application that achieves a download rate greater than 1% of the population or a habitual use of more than 0.2%. These applications serve as a channel for citizen complaints, but not for city control.
Artificial Intelligence is the ideal solution for detecting this type of incident. A city cannot hire more people to control basic elements but it needs those basic elements to be controlled. Artificial Vision allows the control of these assets with an efficiency much higher than that of a human, but maintaining its perspective. In the case of traffic signals and other protective elements on the streets, the perspective of the vehicle or the pedestrian is important. It would not make sense to analyze whether traffic signs look good from a drone or from a surveillance camera, because the only thing that matters is whether they look good from vehicles. For this reason, Computer Vision on board vehicles is a great incident detector.
Today it is possible to equip a fleet of municipal vehicles with a Computer Vision system that automatically supervises multiple elements: traffic signals, protections, disconnected traffic lights or other elements that make up the city. What is the reason why it does not apply? Unawareness? Aversion to Artificial Intelligence? Need to modify the procedures established in the administration itself?
The advantages of using Computer Vision are obvious: the cost is low and the efficiency is much higher. Is your city on the way to being a real Smart City?