As it joins the ranks of authorities developing smart city ambitions, Hull City Council is not rushing into detailed plans for a series of solutions.
Instead it is placing a strong initial focus on its infrastructure: the networks and digital capabilities to get the best from the internet of things (IoT) and other technologies. And according to town clerk Ian Anderson it is better placed than many cities to press ahead.
His role gives him oversight of the council’s digital activities along with procurement and legal services, a brief that he says gives him a strong awareness of how they come together and influence smart city initiatives.
“The infrastructure and ability to manage this are key,” he says.
“A lot of the time people are asking ‘What is the use case?’ and trying to build the infrastructure around it; rather than saying ‘Let’s build the infrastructure then look at generating the opportunity for people to develop solutions’. We are fortunate in Hull in that the private sector has largely provided that in a way it hasn’t elsewhere.
“As we get the procurement arrangements established we can give people the potential to develop those solutions.”
Anderson says that one of Hull’s strengths is something that is often seen as a negative. It has long had a single broadband provider in locally based company KCOM and, although there are signs of other companies nudging into the local market, the implications of the monopoly have been examined by communications regulator Ofcom. Anderson points to the company having invested heavily in fibre to the point where 79% of the city now has access and it is expected to reach 100% coverage by next March.
In addition, he says the situation has encouraged the growth of a competitive market for alternatives to fibre, especially in wireless access connectivity. This has been supported by the council’s creation of a digital hub in the city’s old fruit market, which has provided a seedbed for small businesses to develop.
As a result at least one other significant player has emerged in the shape of Connexin, which in 2015 won a concession to use the council’s highways infrastructure to facilitate wireless access, and recently made the news with the move to install a long range wide area network (LoRaWAN) around Hull to support the use of the IoT.
“It has meant we have an unrivalled position in terms of connectivity through LoRaWAN and fibre to premises, which puts us in a strong position to look at use cases,” Anderson says. “These things have come to pass not because the Government has stimulated the market, but as a consequence of the unique situation in Hull; a fibre supplier had a dominant position and the market found a way around that. It happened to support smart city development.
“A number of ingredients have come together – the network, development of fixed wireless access and LoRaWAN, and the community of developers – and been of benefit to us in seeing how the public can take the opportunity.
Data centre plans
He also points to plans to develop some major data centres around the city – the University of Hull and KCOM are building a facility together and the council is planning to build a site in East Riding – the university’s Viper high performance computer with its capacity for heavy duty data crunching, and the C4DI digital incubator.
“There’s a sense of people looking at Hull and saying ‘There’s something happening here’,” he says.
The council’s early smart city projects have been limited in ambition: it has done some work with air quality sensors along the A63 and recently unveiled a smart bin pilot with Connexin. But it has developed a strategy based on the PAS 181 framework and the National Digital Strategy that it plans to take the cabinet in September.
Anderson says the main themes are to continue to encourage the expansion of connectivity across the city and to look at improving public services through the use of a single cross-city platform to join up different information systems, such as those for geographic information, street lighting and sensors.
“The third, on which other cities have been ahead of us, is opening up non-personal data to support new initiatives. We have not done a lot of that to date but have realised it has impeded progress.
“We’re developing it with C4DI and want the public and digital sector to develop ideas on the back of it.”
He says the council will develop an open data platform as part of the plan and has been looking at contracts and talking with suppliers about how it make data available.
“There is an inclusivity issue,” he adds. “We want to ensure these technologies can help access. LoRaWAN has the potential to make some mobile technologies more accessible as it can lower the cost barrier to using them.”
He is careful, however, to acknowledge the limitations of LoRaWAN in only carrying small packets of data; sufficient for purposes such as indicating when a car parking space is unoccupied. This is why it is likely to be an element of a wider package including fibre, fixed wireless access and 5G.
The other area for which the council is scoping the potential of LoRaWAN is health and social care.
“Some suppliers are looking at health and social care products that could run on this technology at a low cost,” Anderson says. “That’s where the big pressure point is and if we can find solutions that reduce costs there it will benefit everyone.”
The council is working with the City Health Care Partnership – a social enterprise that emerged out of the former primary care trust – the Humber Foundation Trust for mental healthcare services and local hospitals to coordinate efforts. He says the ICT leaders of each body are very much involved and that they are looking at how they can connect their networks and sharing connectivity in shared buildings.
“There is that joined up thinking,” he says. “We have the board where we all look at things together and there is a very positive working atmosphere.
“It can feed into anything we try to do with assistive technology and supporting health and social care.”
Much of the thinking is about possibilities rather than anything prescriptive, and Anderson reiterates the thinking that with the infrastructure and framework for collaboration in place, different groups will develop the individual solutions.
He says: “Our focus is let’s get the framework and structures right so it can come forward more easily.”