Internet of Things for Smart Cities: How Beacons are Leading the Way
Last Updated:  May 10, 2018
By 2050, 66% of the global population will be urbanized, with 6.4 billion people living in urban centers; a sharp increase from the 3.9 billion people who inhabit cities today. Such increasing rates of urbanization threaten to aggravate the economic, environmental and social impacts on an already stressed infrastructure. For instance, the economic cost of congestion in and around urban areas in the US is projected to reach $186 billion annually by 2030. This is a huge number and has pushed experts to predict that year 2016 will see more cities being “smartified” – either by upgrading the existing the ones with intelligent infrastructure or by building them right from scratch.
How the Internet of Things makes cities smarter
The pulse of a smart city lies in the integration and analysis of data from otherwise potentially disparate initiatives such as weather forecasts, demographics, public transport performance statistics and machine-to-machine data. This is where the Internet of Things comes into picture. Of recent, there has been a huge buzz around how government leaders and organizations all over can leverage IoT to address real urban challenges such as waste management, traffic congestion etc., by reimagining the role that technology and connectivity plays in the cities of today.
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Image source: wired.com
This is exactly what Mobility-as-a-service initiative by Finland’s capital, Helsinki, revolves around. It integrates all forms of shared and public transport in a single payment network and is aimed at rendering private car ownership obsolete going ahead. As a part of this initiative the Helsinki Regional Transport Authority rolled out an innovative mini-bus service called Kutsuplus. It allows users to simply buy a “mobility” ticket to their destination via a text message or via the app, and the service will then plan the ideal route from the starting point, by combining public transport, on-demand services and private vehicles.
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Another great example of how IoT can help cities transform urban spaces is Bigbelly’s solar-powered, Wi-Fi-enabled, garbage bins. These come with a solar panel that provides the energy required to operate the compactor, which allows the bins to collect five times more trash before needing to be emptied. For example, when the Nottingham council installed these garbage bins in the city center, they went from emptying the bins six times a day to being able to do it every other day. These Bigbelly garbage bins also helped the city reduce the amount of litter blowing down the street by sending a message when it needs emptying. Thus these bins come in particularly useful at remote locations that make emptying the bins more of an effort.
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What role do beacons play in the implementation of smart cities?
For a city to be truly smart, it is highly critical for it to employ infrastructure that is designed to create hyper-location and automated services. And this is where beacons come into the picture. Cities could deploy a mesh of beacons, all on a private network, to collect and send data back to a centralised hub. And the best part about using beacons is that compared to other smart city technologies, they could be a lower cost solution. Adding on to that, use of bluetooth as a control mechanism also makes it possible for cities to remotely control different equipments further improving efficiencies. This is particularly advantageous, given the fact that IoT with respect to smart cities doesn’t rely on a single technology, but rather a collection of multiple technologies, including cellular, Wi-Fi and bluetooth.
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One such smart city project is Amsterdam’s iBeacon Living Lab. It is a large, public and open IoT testing ground that provides the infrastructure to generate actionable open data with large scale public iBeacon and LoRaWAN enabled sense network installations and developer friendly platforms. The goal of this Living Lab is to help push the development of a rapidly growing IoT economy across all public and private verticals.
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Image Source: nederlandsmedianieuws.nl
For example, many companies, both in software and in the creative sector, find it difficult to develop smart city applications due of the lack of good testing environments. The iBeacon Mile solves this by acting as a living lab where all interested parties (citizens, companies and universities) could test and develop applications. One company that used this is JC Deceaux, a multinational advertising firm that manages digital signage at the city’s bus and tram shelters. They placed beacons at the shelters around Central Station and along the iBeacon mile so as to allow advertisers to target their audience and send messages per shelter.
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Lesser-known ways in which beacons can be leveraged in smart cities
It goes without saying that beacons are popularly known for their capabilities to push location-based advertising material such as discount coupons and offers to users. However, of recent we have seen smart cities leverage beacons to address other real world urban challenges such as traffic congestion, public safety, wayfindng etc. Here are a few:
1. Ensure public safety, particularly at remote areas
Image source: cboronline.com
By activating a beacon network of more than 1000 beacons around the city, Columbus recently went on to become the first iBeacon City in the U.S. In addition to its commercial, academic and non-profit applications, the beacon network offers a public safety feature, especially for users along the Chattahoochee Riverwalk. As a part of its Safe City program, a total of 37 beacons have been mounted aloft along the Riverwalk to make it easy for city police to zero-down on the location of any user who happens to call 911 from the remote areas of Riverwalk. Users who have downloaded the app will receive the nearest beacon number which in turn allow them to report suspicious or non-emergency activity by dialing 911 from the app itself.
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2. Provide for contextual advertising in cities where commercial advertising is banned
Image Source: guardian.com
In cities like Sao Paolo, where commercial advertising is banned, beacons offer brands a critical advantage with respect to consumer engagement. Firms can just deploy beacons across the city and leverage them to display contextually relevant messages, offers or deals to users at the respective locations. Another advantage that beacons hold here is that, compared to other technologies, they are far easier to use and have huge benefits in terms of measuring attribution.
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3. Allow visually challenged individuals to explore cities
Image Source: rlsb.org.uk
London’s Underground network can be quite confusing for even the most seasoned travellers at rush hours. Given the extent to which the place is usually packed with hordes of dissatisfied commuters, one can only imagine how difficult it must be for the visually challenged to make way their way around. This is what Wayfindr, a smartphone app developed by the Royal London Society for Blind People (RLSB’s) Youth Forum and Ustwo, a digital product studio is set out to change.
[Tweet “How the Wayfindr app leverages beacons to help blind people navigate London’s Tube”]
The app leverages beacons to trace a user’s location in the subway and accordingly offer him/her audio-based directions and advice. Each time a beacon’s signal is picked up by a smartphone, the app uses bone conduction headphones that rest on the blind person’s cheeks, to give him/her turn-by-turn directions on where to head and what obstacles to avoid. At the same time, these headphones do not prevent wearers from hearing the sounds around them, thus allowing them to gather more information about the surrounding environment. After having run a successful trial at Pimlico station in early 2015, the app recently ran a trial at London’s Euston Tube station.
Are there any other interesting smart city related beacon use cases that we missed out on? Let us know in the comments below.
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