Belfast’s Low Power Wide Area Network: how to use it?

Led by: Mark McCann: smart technology team, Belfast council.

Background: There was a competition for a low power wide area network outside London, which has a LP WAN already.

A consortium led by Ulster University won the competition and will pay for a LP WAN that can be used by universities and companies for research. Councils have provided pots of money to address challenges in the city that an LP WAN might address.

NB: A low power network can be used for small amounts of data, intermittently. So, 4G connects all the time; but this uses up power very quickly. Low power networks allow, for example, sensors to transmit small amounts of data at set times, so they retain their power much longer.


Care and feeding of the LP-WAN

Questions: What could the network be used for in the city? And what could the data that is generated from such projects be used for, taking account of privacy issues, and other datasets that might be put alongside it.

An example (from a session participant): Dublin wanted to know about pollution at a very granular level. They decided to deploy sensors to pick up on that, so they could make changes, to the bus lanes or whatever.

Ideas (Mark McCann): There are three use cases we have in mind. One is transport: if we could deploy sensors on bicycles, or pedestrians, then we could find out where people go. Another is tourism: we know people come to Belfast and they leave, but we don’t know much about where they go.

And the other idea is logistics: lorries, and the supply chain for retail. Belfast has a sea-port that is a hub for the rest of the country, so we could deploy sensors to find out where things are going. But we would like to run a citizen challenge, to open up the data to people to run projects.

Getting practical

Practical issues (participants): An issue in one area that tried this was that the companies refused to take the sensors; so that is an issue. Planning permission can be a problem: even though the council is behind this, it may need planning permission.
Another city that wanted to do this wanted to put sensors on street lights, but then discovered it didn’t own the lights anymore, so it had to put up poles. Also, you have to be able to maintain and calibrate sensors. What do you do with low quality data?

Privacy: With data that involves people, there is also a real issue with privacy: with the general data protection act coming in, you have to be aware of the basis for collecting information, and to think about how you are going to be able to release it. There is IoT information on the IOC website.

Dealing with results (participants). Cities like Cambridge that have run bike projects have found that tensions can arise when the data reveals how bikes are used. Are they used by visitors or residents? That can change the contracting basis on which facilities are provided, so you need to be ready for challenge on that.

Similarly, traffic and pollution sensors often reveal problems around areas like schools, as people drop children off. How are you going to handle that?

Getting the right projects (participants): You need to get companies, but also arts groups and populations involved. Sometimes, cities do data and IoT projects, and it seems great, but nobody actually uses it. Sensors are very, very cheap. You can go to communities to find out what they want.

Changing policy: Cities that have put sensors on libraries have found that people go in for the day, and that’s because they are looking for community – they don’t want to borrow a book. So you have to be ready for projects like this to change things.

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