Santander: Test bed for smart cities and open data policies

The Spanish city of Santander is blanketing streets with wireless sensors to track its every move. But the CEO of a sensor manufacturer says success depends on open data and citizen involvement.

Whither the moniker du jour, "smart"? The word has been assigned to new iterations of electrical grids, parking spaces, eyeglasses, guns, thermostats, cars and even an abstraction, "growth." It's really just a handy way to say that communication technology, electrical engineering and mechanical engineering are merging in a manner that puts physical systems into information-centric and energy-centric context. In other words, they are becoming cyber-physical systems.

Against that backdrop, to gain economic and societal currency, the smart city concept must be writ large, across a city and its systems. That appears to be happening in Santander, a small city of little more than 180,000 on Spain's Atlantic coast. With help from its enthusiastic mayor, Iñigo de la Serna, Santander has attracted nearly $12 million, largely from the European Commission, to launch SmartSantander, a wide-ranging smart city experiment that is starting to reduce traffic, throttle energy consumption and boost the civic engagement of its citizens.

To support these ambitions, the city is deploying more than 10,000 sensors to monitor everything from garbage collection to crime to air quality. Libelium, a Spanish startup, has contributed around 1,000 sensor nodes, which monitor available street parking (see sensor embedded in street, in image above), collect air quality data and manage street lighting for better energy efficiency.

Alicia Asin, Libelium CEO

Libelium CEO Alicia Asin says the technology is actually the easy part. The real work comes in garnering citizen support and showing cities how to derive a return on the investment into the wireless sensor network infrastructure that powers smart city applications. Also important is finding ways to leverage the flood of data these networks generate, and make that torrent accessible and usable by city residents.

Parking applications, where sensors monitor each parking spot and drivers are directed to available spaces -- either through digital signs, as in Santander, or via cell phone alerts elsewhere -- offer benefits shared by citizens and municipalities. Drivers gain by reducing their drive time (and annoyance levels) while seeking spots, and cities benefit by using sensors as part of real-time and time-based metering systems that can increase prices to match demand.

Moreover, the data streams that wireless sensor networks generate can and should be used in additional applications that make it transparent and create civic value. Asin points to a phone app in Washington D.C., that uses police department data and mapping software to rate safety based on location and time of day.

But without allowing citizens to access and use data for their own benefit, what difference is there between a smart city and a police state?

Sensors mounted outside a bar could track noise levels, for example, and the city might use the information to enforce public nuisance laws. If accessible to nearby apartment dwellers, the same data could help residents show civic leaders just what is keeping them up at night. Or landlords could use data showing low noise and clean air to promote their apartments or office buildings.

"When citizens work with government, they can use open data to show information in a way that is understandable," Asin says. "Because in cities, it's all about transparency. Open data lets citizens take the reins of the Internet of Things."

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