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Are smart cities watching our every move?

Is your city spying on you? TechWatch editor Emily McDaid reports from the latest 4IRC debate, which focused on smart cities and surveillance.

Below, we’ve recapped the smart cities event held on 12 June at Belfast’s Oh Yeah Music Centre.

Host Eimear Maguire said: “Is your city helping you be an active citizen, or is it just watching your every move?

“Some statistics about Belfast: there will be 70,000 more residents and 50,000 more people working in the city by 2030.

“Citizen data should encourage movement for everyone in that city. However, it’s getting harder for people to move through a city as the population grows.

“How is data being collected; how is it being used?”

Speaker: Deirdre Ferguson, senior consultant, Smart Belfast, Belfast City Council

We lead a range of urban innovation projects.

Some statistics about the Belfast Agenda:

  • There will be 66,000 new residents by 2035
  • We aim for a 33pc reduction in the life expectancy gap between the most and least deprived neighbourhoods in Belfast by 2035
  • We want to see that 100pc of young people leaving school have a destination that fulfils their potential
  • 46,000 more jobs by 2035

You can review the initiative at

We want to harness tech, innovation and data for the benefit of our citizens, and to deliver on the major ambitions that we have in the Belfast agenda. That’s what we’re talking about when we talk about Belfast as a smart city. A smart city isn’t really about having technology at the core … it’s about the citizen.

Modern digital infrastructure – to promote a city where people have the right skills to create value from the technologies that not only exist already, but emerging ones. We’re trying to apply this to city problems:

  • Child poverty on the increase
  • High number of young people leaving school without qualifications
  • Belfast is top of the UK cities for traffic congestion
  • Air quality, impacts on health
  • Health problems, growing ageing population
  • We still have 100 peace walls dividing the city

We’re supporting urban innovation through:

  • City Wi-Fi
  • Full fibre bid (we just won a new bid)
  • We’ve applied to be a 5G testbed (DCMS bid submitted today – we’ll know in July)
  • Drone technologies
  • Immersive technologies
  • We’re in the Rockefeller 100 Resilient Cities, drawing in millions of pounds of investment from the Rockefeller network
  • City deal: We’re making a major bid in conjunction with five other local authorities and will hopefully bring £1bn to make changes in digital infrastructure, innovation, tourism and skills. We’re working very hard to get that bid together
  • Last-mile delivery: Working with Dublin City Council about the delivery of parcels

Smart is about people; technology comes second. It’s about putting people at the heart of everything we do.

Smart city or surveillance city? We very much address this from technology up.

What makes a city smart? How do we get the technology in, connect everything together and make sense out of it? We just haven’t made the most of this in a city scale or a regional scale.

We take data from sensors and use it to govern an environment. It brings up a lot of questions about who owns that data.

There are four different types of data we can monitor: video, sensor, activity, physiological.

Video shows exactly how you’re in the environment. We can look at how a person interacts with someone else, how doors open, who sits on a seat, how many people enter a room or leave a room.

Fine data that we can gather, and analysis of the data, can show things about behaviour. For instance, monitoring someone’s heart rate. If it shoots up dramatically, if we knew that person just ran up the steps three times – by seeing it on a video, it wouldn’t trigger any alarm.

Data, for me, is the most valuable commodity that we have. The more high-quality data we can avail of, the better analysis we can do.

Rapid prototyping – if we’re thinking about a smart city, the first thing my comment would be is, we don’t really have a smart city, from a tech point of view. We spend too much time talking about the problem and not enough time spent delivering solutions. We need to be more agile – rapid prototyping is necessary.

Until we get the solutions rolled out on a larger scale, we might not understand the positive or negative impact they might have.

Smart or surveillance? It depends on what a person is comfortable with. Higher-resolution video means better data.

We’re building a network where people and things go to talk.

Within the IoT, in the next 24 hours, 8.6m devices will connect. And €1.9bn will be spent in transactions by people and devices.

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