New project transforms Antwerp into massive digital laboratory
A new, large-scale project is wiring up much of Antwerp so that researchers, companies and policymakers can test digital products and services in real-life conditions
Getting smart in the city
The project is called the City of Things, a reference to the Internet of Things, the idea that everyday objects can be made to communicate across digital networks. For instance, cars will be able to communicate with each other and with traffic management systems about the congestion they are experiencing. Public waste bins will be smart enough to phone home when they need emptying, and smart pill cases will warn an elderly person’s caregiver when they have forgotten to take their medicine.
The idea behind the City of Things is to offer Antwerp as a testing ground for these kinds of ideas, whether they come from academic researchers, start-up companies or more established businesses. “We want to explore, together with the city, how you can use this data generated by smart objects to improve the city, and how we can open it up to start-ups and citizens,” says Davor Meersman, strategic leader of the City of Things project.
The smart objects he is talking about might be machines, like cars, or sensors distributed around town recording things like air quality and temperature. But they can also be people, thanks to the smartphones in almost everyone’s pockets. The way people move through the city, and the information they supply about what they’re doing, can also become part of the system.
Meersman is part of iMinds, the digital research centre that brings together digitally minded academics from the universities of Antwerp, Brussels, Ghent, Hasselt and Leuven. Some 20 of its people are currently working directly on the City of Things project.
Experts from Antwerp University are working on the hardware necessary to get the project up and running, while researchers from Ghent University are overseeing data handling. The Free University of Brussels (VUB) is covering public participation in the project and also looking at business models for the internet of things.
We’re trying to be as flexible as possible so we can include the newest technologies and enable experimentation
The first priority has been to establish the networks that allow objects to communicate. Rather than pick one standard, such as wi-fi, Bluetooth or the networks used by smartphones, the researchers decided to combine all of these protocols (and more) in a single Internet of Things gateway connected to the city’s fibre optic network.
Getting these different systems to work side by side, without interfering with each other or tripping each other up, was not easy. For a while, the project held its breath.
“But now we have installed our very first gateway, it is operational, and we have validated the architecture,” says Bart Braem, technology lead for the project. “Now we are certain we can move ahead.” The goal is to deploy 100 of these gateways, allowing information to pass in and out of the system anywhere in the city.
The gateways will also evolve as new standards become available and ideas change about which protocol is the best for smart city applications such as these. “It might not even have been invented yet,” says Braem. “And in that respect we’re trying to be as flexible as possible and to make sure we can include the newest technologies and enable experimentation.”
Meanwhile, the City of Things is also installing its own LoRa network, a kind that can cover a wide area but demands very little energy from the devices that connect with it. As such, it is ideal for picking up signals from small sensors, able to run off a simple battery for months or even years.
“I always compare it to a cellular network,” says Braem. “It allows us to have a better coverage of the city for all kinds of things at these very low-power consumption rates.” The LoRa network will eventually cover an area of 80 square kilometres.
People are another important element of the City of Things, turning it into a “living lab” by agreeing to participate in tests of new digital products and services. One source of these people is the telephone company Mobile Vikings, which is a partner in the City of Things project. It encourages its users to volunteer as guinea pigs to try out new apps or participate in projects, such as agreeing to have their locations tracked as they cross the city.
Even though such people are involved on a voluntary basis, close attention is payed to privacy in the project. A team of experts from the universities of Ghent, Brussels and Leuven have prepared a privacy impact assessment, and their recommendations have been passed on to the engineers so that privacy protection is designed into the system.
“I really wanted to get that right,” says Meersman. “All the information will be anonymous. It will be impossible to infer who somebody is based on, for example, putting different data sources together.” Similarly, if someone who participates in the living lab wants to stop, they can either bank their data for future use, or take it away. “It’s going to be a very transparent and user-friendly approach to privacy.”
Companies interested in testing their ideas in the City of Things will start to get involved from this summer. The project is open to suggestions, but it also has EU funding to spend on commissioning companies, and in particular start-ups, to address strategic priorities related to mobility and the city’s port.
This is part of a wider EU initiative called Select for Cities, which involves Antwerp, Copenhagen and Helsinki. Over the next three years, the cities have a total of €5.6 million to spend.
Policymakers, but also researchers and companies, can use this data to make decisions
Meanwhile, some early test cases are shaping up. The first comes from Rombit, a local start-up that won the Apps for Antwerp competition in 2015 with A*Sign, which wants to improve temporary parking restrictions in the city.
At present, if someone wants the parking suspended in front of their house to accommodate a moving van, for example, they are given a pair of metal signboards to mark off the space. These often disappear in the course of their service, sometimes reappearing later in less formal attempts to manipulate parking. This costs the city money, and confuses the public.
Rombit’s idea is to computerise the whole system and make it possible to book parking suspensions online and to check where they are in force. The signboards themselves will be equipped with screens to show the period that the parking is restricted and a location device to ensure that it is in the right place. This device will also help track down wandering signs.
The City of Things will help test the system in several ways. Participants in the living lab will give their feedback on the website and apps, while prototype signs can be tested using digital networks that are already deployed in the city for water metering. If it works as planned, Rombit hopes to offer the system to other Belgian cities as well.
Drones to the rescue
Another project that is just getting under way involves equipping Bpost delivery vehicles with sensors to measure air quality in real time as they pass through the city. This is being developed with Brussels start-up Communithings.
“The idea would be to deploy that on a larger scale so that you would have vehicles driving around the city measuring air quality on a continual basis,” Meersman explains. “Then policy-makers, researchers and companies can use this data to make decisions, to develop new products, to suggest improvements and so on.”
Meanwhile, in the port there is a plan to design drones – light, unmanned flying machines – that can offer assistance during emergencies. “Let’s say there is an explosion in a chemical installation,” Meersman says. “The drone can fly there and with its camera start informing the emergency services that are on their way.”
Each drone will also have one of the City of Things gateways on board. “Through the gateway, it can pick up signals from sensors on the ground regarding the type of gas cloud emanating from the site.” This project, which is already under way, is being developed by Rombit and telecoms company Mobistar.
Photo courtesy City of Antwerp
completed research projects
2013 research budget in millions of euros