video surveillance

Cities need smarter video surveillance

About one third of the population living in OECD countries feels unsafe walking alone at night. Public safety is a growing area of concern in many cities around the world.

Of course, the level of concern varies between regions and countries, sometimes even between cities within the same country. Japan, Singapore, Australia, Scandinavia, Switzerland, and Canada normally rank high in city safety indexes, while Latin America, Africa and the Middle East have a relatively high number of less safe cities.

A wide range of security technologies is available for cities to support law enforcement and some of them – such as analogue video surveillance systems – have been around for decades. According to Berg Insight, the global market for city surveillance equipment reached € 9.9 billion in 2020 and should grow with a CAGR of 19.7 percent to reach 24.2 billion in 2025, including both hardware and software systems.

China, the US and the UK have led the adoption of fixed video surveillance systems, with China alone having more than 200 million cameras installed. The newest generations of these devices can be integrated in urban IoT infrastructures to be managed and controlled along with other smart, connected devices. Advancements in video analytics and the injection of Artificial Intelligence have furthermore enhanced surveillance operations.

A promising technological evolution is about mobile and audio surveillance. Body-worn and in-vehicle cameras for law enforcement agencies are emerging as valuable complements to existing video surveillance infrastructure. Wearable devices allow law enforcement personnel to capture video and audio materials to improve live operations, at the same time documenting possible police misconduct for public accountability purposes. The use of body-worn cameras is growing significantly, with the US and the UK again leading the adoption together with China, Australia, France, and Germany.

New IoT applications include gunshot detection sensors. This is not a brand new technology (military applications are mature), but their use for wide-area surveillance in urban environments is fairly recent. Gunshot detection systems are now being piloted in a number of cities – primarily in North America – and industry analysts expect them to become attractive in regions where crime rates remain worrisome.

While cities need smarter ways to ensure public safety, video surveillance is not exempt from criticism. Applications that require facial recognition, even when used for surveillance purposes only, are often viewed as a violation of personal privacy and sometimes opposed by citizens.

In Barcelona, Spain, the city council developed a camera-based solution to action crowd control measures and help tackle Covid-19, but it was forced to anonymize images to protect the privacy of people in public spaces. Back in 2019, several US cities including San Francisco and Oakland banned facial recognition technology and a strong civil rights activist movement is currently pushing for a strict regulation of digital surveillance in several states.

While the privacy dilemma will need to be solved, it is clear that video surveillance technologies offer great benefits to cities and people. In the near future, we will most probably see a more effective use of these systems and a smoother integration with other urban applications for traffic monitoring, fire detection, emergency response, and more.


Cryptocurrencies grab the spotlight in US cities debates

The news comes from Florida: The City of Miami voted in favor of accepting the gift contributions generated by the MiamiCoin program, currently valued at 4.3 million dollars. The decision “represents a major milestone in Miami’s quest to become a crypto innovation hub. Funds that will directly impact the lives of all our residents”, wrote Miami Mayor Francis Suarez.

Where does this money come from? Basically, the city is earning nearly 5 million dollars from people creating its cryptocurrency. Backed by the independent crypto developer CityCoins, MiamiCoin was launched last August and allows users to mine coins to make money while supporting the city, as 30 percent of the yield is collected in a wallet reserved for the local government. At current rates, the equivalent of about 2,500 dollars is transferred into the city's cryptocurrency wallet every 10 minutes, with an average of 35 miners competing to create MiamiCoin within the same period of time.

The Major explained the city is not yet going to spend the funds and a significant due diligence will be completed before confirming any investment. Among the uses that have been proposed for the funds there are programs to mitigate climate change, new initiatives for underprivileged communities, and crypto education and incentives for tech entrepreneurs.

An additional benefit of MiamiCoin is the possibility to enable decentralized applications, to be created by local stakeholders for the good of the community. Over a hundred developers are currently working on new applications using MiamiCoin’s open-source protocol for the ongoing MiamiCoin Makers Month hackathon.

Other US cities are carefully watching at Miami’s experience and craving that unexpected flow of incoming resources. Some state and local governments have already started pilot programs to leverage cryptocurrencies as payments methods for taxes and services.

Investment firm Blockchains LLC asked the state of Nevada the authorization to build a crypto-friendly Smart City in Storey County. The idea is to design a community entirely based on blockchain, with its own government, taxes, and courts, where only digital currency payments will be accepted for any good and service, both private and public.

While this project is yet to be started, the City of Williston in North Dakota accepts cryptocurrency payments for utility bills. It’s the first municipality in the State of North Dakota, and the third in the nation, to offer this service. “There are a number of advantages to utilizing these online payment methods including security, convenience, and cost savings,” explained Finance Director, Hercules Cummings.

And cryptocurrencies are making a strong entry even into the election for the next Mayor of New York City. The Republican candidate Curtis Sliwa disclosed his plan to make NYC the most crypto-friendly city in the US, making it possible to pay taxes, fees, and fines in cryptocurrency, and opening more ATMs for Bitcoin and crypto to encourage local businesses. Eric Adams from the Democratic Party is also in favor of New York as a hub for bitcoins.

light pollution

Switch off streetlamps to fight light pollution

Paris is acknowledged to have installed the world’s first electric streetlights back in 1878. Three years later, 4,000 electric lamps were in use in the French capital and gas lanterns were gradually abandoned. Today, there are about 326 million streetlights all over the world, and this should grow to over 361 million by 2030. About a quarter of all streetlights globally have already been converted to LEDs and over 10 million have been connected to smart networks.

If we sum streetlights to lights beaming from homes, skyscrapers, shops, office buildings, and billboards, it is easy to understand our cities are over illuminated. Light pollution – which scientists define as the alteration of night natural lighting levels caused by anthropogenic sources of light – affects more than 80% of the world and more than 99% of the U.S. and European populations. The Milky Way is hidden for more than one-third of humanity, including 60% of Europeans and nearly 80% of North Americans.

Authoritative bodies such as the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) are vocal in asking for urgent intervention to reduce the skyglow, the brightening of the night sky over inhabited areas. Many cities are discussing possible measures: in the US, the City of Pittsburgh presented a “Dark Sky Lighting” ordinance to introduce strict criteria for all newly constructed and renovated facilities and parks, and a mandate for all streetlights to utilize Dark Sky-compliant fixtures. The ordinance should be discussed later this month and might serve as a model for other municipalities looking to effectively reduce light pollution.

Light pollution has a remarkable financial and environmental impact. IDA estimates a third of all outdoor lighting in the US is wasted, costing facility owners some 3.3 billion USD annually and releasing 21 million tons of carbon emissions annually. But the widespread use of artificial light is also proven to interfere with people’s mental and physical health, as well as with wildlife and the natural habitats of plants.

The immediate solution we might think of – let’s turn out every light at night – is not such viable. Modern life requires lighting, specifically night street lighting is essential to make road mobility secure and improve public safety. In 2018, the New York City Crime Lab investigated some 80 public housing developments for a period of six months, measuring the effects of the introduction of new streetlights in around half of them. The study found that index crimes decreased by 7%, while night crimes dropped about 39%.

So, the real challenge is to responsibly and intelligently manage outdoor lighting to reduce pollution without jeopardizing quality of service. As reported by BBC, Tucson, Arizona, converted nearly 20,000 sodium street lights to dimmable, energy efficient LED lamps. Light pollution due to streetlights reduced from 18% to 13%. Since 2018 the city has cut its total light emissions by 7% and its annual energy bills by 2 million USD. Additional measures are being implemented to switch off advertising billboards, floodlights, buildings, and sports stadiums.

PE Smart Urban Network is our performing and reliable IoT platform for Smart Lighting: it allows to connect and control districts, streets, and even single lamps from a central management system, turning lights on/off and dimming them according to programmed schedules, environmental conditions or on demand.

Thanks to PE Smart Urban Network, cities can mitigate light pollution and save up to 80% of power and greenhouse emissions: learn more about our solution and join our community to access white papers, brochures, videos, and other insightful resources.


Will post-pandemic commuters be stuck again in traffic jams?

It’s a hard time for mobility experts who are asked to predict the impact of post-Covid working habits on commuters and urban traffic. We know the pandemic is not over, and lots of organizations are offering hybrid models with teleworking options to their employees - but the 'return to office' call is equally strong. Most analysts agree there will be a gradual increase in commuters over the coming months, rather than a sudden rush back to the office, but the spread of virus variants might blur the picture overnight.

In some cities, the reduced traffic congestion due to Covid-19 lockdowns and the massive teleworking seems to be encouraging more people to drive to the office. In the US, INRIX compared driving times to downtown Seattle at 8:30am, during morning rush hour: in 2019, before Covid, about 500 thousand workers were within a thirty-minute drive from home, while in 2020, during Covid, more than 800 thousand people were within a thirty-minute drive. This means the lack of congestion gave 58% more people the opportunity to travel downtown in half an hour, thus being more willing to make the drive as they don’t fear traffic.

The possibility that more commuters are driving is proved by parking trends. In several large cities with major mass-transit systems, including New York and San Francisco, parking usage rates are resuming quite quickly after collapsing in 2020. As reported by The Washington Post, in San Francisco parking facilities are at 85 to 90 percent of their pre-pandemic levels, compared with a 74 percent average comeback in other North American cities.

However, mobility experts acknowledge urban people are increasingly interested in alternative commuting systems – and those who commute less often are more likely to ride a bicycle or walk, provided their home-office journey is not too long.

The City of Boston investigated mobility habits of 2,650+ workers and calculated drive-alone commuting rates have dropped 10 percentage points in the last 12 months. About 6.5% of respondents questioned in 2021 said they use to bike to work, while about 9.5% said they plan to bike to work in the future. A similar survey in 2020 had lower results, as 4.4% said they used to bike to work and 8% said they planned to in the future. Building on these findings, the City is improving the existing bike infrastructure and 4.5 new miles of separated bike lanes will be added by the end of this year to the current network.

Changes are under way and it’s not clear whether commuters will be back to their habits of early 2020 or enjoy a new routine — and cities needs to closely monitor the evolution to take wise decisions about mobility and traffic management. But the common feeling is, some adjustments to pre-pandemic commuting patterns might be everlasting.

air pollution

Leverage AI to fight air pollution in India

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is having disruptive effects in many industries and areas of life, and it is increasingly used in Smart Cities to tackle urgent problems such as air pollution.

According to Greenpeace analysts, 22 out of 30 world’s most polluted cities are in India, where every winter more than 140 million people are exposed to severe air pollution. In national capital Delhi, PM2.5 air pollution claimed approximately 54,000 lives in 2020.

Independent research stated India would require a minimum of 4000 controlling stations to monitor air quality – but today, there are roughly 160 active stations in the country, an absolutely inadequate network to collect reliable and meaningful data to support any evaluation or decision-making process.

Here is where AI comes into play. Detailed air quality monitoring should combine different sources of information, including data generated by air controlling stations, weather and satellite data, but also human-related activities such as mobility and traffic, industrial settlements, waste management and garbage burning. AI can be leveraged to correlate all those factors and provide a better geospatial interpolation of air pollution data, thus supporting forecasts by a more precise understanding of pollution sources and evolutive trends.

Citizens can also offer a valuable contribution. In India, the UNDP Accelerator Lab developed a GeoAI digital platform in collaboration with the University of Nottingham to find hotspots of air pollution using satellite imagery and AI object detection algorithms. These algorithms were trained by a large group of volunteer citizen scientists across the world. Specifically, their goal was to detect brick kilns which are hotspots of vulnerable labour and air pollution. Applying AI algorithms to the citizen science trained data, more than 47,000 brick kilns across Indo-Gangetic plains of India were detected and incorporated into the GeoAI open data platform, which uses an innovative approach and a mix of technologies to determine the exact locations of brick kilns through satellite imagery and their compliance to existing environmental policies and laws.

With active facilitation and training, volunteers succeeding in classifying more than 2,500 kilns within a week: such intelligence powered by both citizens and AI is valuable for environmental regulators to initiate action against non-compliant kilns, facilitating targeted intervention to combat air pollution hotspots.

Air pollution in India, as well as in other countries around the world, represents a serious health issue and decreases the quality of life. AI can contribute to take mitigation actions by providing location-specific air quality data and useful insights to authorities, industries, businesses, and citizens.

curb management

Curb management needs data

You might assume curbs are about pedestrians walks, but city managers think of these spaces as an interesting source of parking revenues. Curb management is normally based on cities’ fixed assets, with street signs displaying applicable rules: vehicle parking can have variable prices according to districts, days of the week or time slots; there might be reserved spaces for residents, disabled or electric cars.

However, curbs are nowadays seeing a convergence of different competing uses. From an increase in pick-ups and drop-offs to new ways to get around like shared bikes and scooters, curb management is becoming increasingly important for urban mobility – and cities are looking for new ways to organize and monetize their curb space.

Curb policies are mostly decided on a case-by-case basis without any data-driven support. This might result in a street block having metered parking all day and no loading zones for morning deliveries, no stopping restrictions during rush hours or specific options for commercial operators. Many drivers can either park illegally or circle the block multiple times while waiting for a spot (and we know that up to 56% of city traffic is due to idle cruising for parking). Where curbs allow different use cases, sometimes unclear signage causes some driver confusion as to which rule applies where, creating an inefficient parking and ticketing system.

Several innovative cities in the US and Europe recognized curbs are vital community spaces and one of the most extensive and valuable urban assets. Active and data-driven curb management enables communities to offer more equitable access among different users, improve level of service for everyone, collect data on transportation behaviors, draw more customers for local businesses, and create a sustainable revenue source.

In South California, US, the City of Stanford is executing a curb management plan to map all available spaces, their locations and current use. This preliminary survey will assist the City Council in enhancing street-level parking management, relieving spaces to improve alternative transportation options and identifying possible multiuser curbs space options. This project is scheduled to be completed within the year.

Again in the US, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) is leveraging curb management to address some immediate safety issues along 6th and Taylor streets, which are among the streets accounting for 75% of severe traffic injuries and fatalities in San Francisco. The communities that live along these corridors largely consist of seniors, children, people with disabilities, limited English proficient people and lower-income families. Together with some travel lane reconfigurations and signal changes, SFMTA believes better curb management can significantly contribute to pedestrians’ safety.

In Italy, the City of Turin is piloting a curb management project leveraging an analytics software. Data captured by cameras overlooking street parking and road traffic are analyzed and correlated with information generated by flows of public buses, delivery trucks, ride-sharing vehicles, scooters, bikes, and pedestrians. This should allow a comprehensive view of all mobility needs in the trial districts, supporting data-driven decision making.

With widespread, reliable datasets, the opportunities for smart curb management are vast. Cities can improve urban mobility and mitigate congestion thanks to a streamlined management of available street-level parking, price parking more equitably, better manage micromobility and commercial vehicle transit – with tangible benefits for their communities and the environment they live in.

happiness london

Pursuing citizens’ happiness

Rapid urbanization brought Smart Cities at the forefront of several global challenges including climate change mitigation, digital transformation, and cybersecurity. At first urban leaders prioritized the resolution of infrastructure problems and directed investments to essential public services. Although not all issues got unraveled, cities are nowadays focusing more on the needs of their people. This trend stems from the fact that high satisfaction among residents increasingly contributes to the sustainable, inclusive development of a city, and therefore becomes beneficial to the entire community.

Metrics of citizens’ satisfaction, happiness, and wellbeing have become key performance indicators for cities. Back in 2009, Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz recommended using wellbeing as a measure of quality of life and social progress, and his suggestion didn’t fall on deaf ears. Just to mention some notable examples, the EU Commission conducts regular satisfaction survey among residents of major European cities, while Dubai launched a new development program called the Happiness Agenda, setting the goal of making the UAE’s capital “the happiest city on Earth”.

Expectations for the quality of urban living are definitely high, and the choice of which city to study or work in, visit, or invest in, has become more difficult. A new global study by Boston Consulting Group and BCG Henderson Institute surveyed 25,000 residents in 80 cities using 155 metrics to understand their satisfaction with urban life: their Cities of Choice ranking compares quality of life, economic opportunities, social capital, interactions with authorities, and speed of change.

According to this survey, London, New York, Helsinki, Copenhagen, and Abu Dhabi are the best five cities in which to live around the world. London had brilliant results in almost all variables but excelled for its public transportation system (only 8% of residents reported the station/bus stop they use is too far from their home or workplace, compared to 20% on average in the other cities) and inclusivity (68% of female respondents confirm people have equal opportunities regardless of their gender, ethnicity/race, in comparison to 51% on average in the other cities).

The availability of quality services proved to be a base element for citizens’ satisfaction. However, BCG researchers pointed out there are two really important factors to be considered. First, cities should beware people experience when using infrastructures and services, as satisfaction does not depend only on the existence of efficient and reliable services, but on their proximity, ease of access, waiting times, etc. Working on these conditions increases the return on investment expressed as positive advocacy score. Second, any improvement should we backed by widespread communication, as less well-informed residents often perceive services to be worse than do better informed ones.

Resident centricity will define cities of the future. Citizens’ satisfaction and happiness will increasingly impact the attractiveness of urban communities for potential residents, visitors, and investors – so city leaders should pay attention to the living environment they shape and nurture.

hotel waste

The Summer challenge of hotel waste management

When the Summer season is in its peak, the increased number of people in tourism areas can make waste management operations definitely challenging. Some studies proved a tourist may generate up to twice as much waste as a local resident: in highly popular towns and locations, this can negatively impact the existing waste collection system, resulting in higher operational costs for a lower quality of service, and a backlash in terms of sustainability and environmental commitment.

Hotels generate large amounts of mixed solid waste, as it is more difficult for guests to correctly separate their trash – also because many hosts lack in adequate instructions and bins. Back in 2018, a team of researchers from Rostock University, Germany, investigated hotel waste generation in Tunisia, specifically in Hammamet and Gammarth, and discovered that 83% of accommodation facilities collected mixed waste, which was sent to landfills. About 58% of hotel waste was organic, while at least 36% was made of recyclable materials that could have been valorised if proper sorting had been performed onsite to separate glass, metal, plastic, and paper.

In Tunisia, solid waste management is mainly the responsibility of municipalities. During the Summer season, most cities struggle to keep the pace with the increased quantity of trash to be treated, so many of them delegate hostel waste collection to private operators, achieving a superior quality of service at lower costs.

The above-mentioned study compared taxes paid by hotels for general services, including trash management, to waste collection costs. Despite private operators are more convenient than public organizations, results clearly marked that hotel taxes do not cover the municipalities’ waste-related expenses.

Some interesting lessons can be learnt from this case. Reducing waste generation and promoting circular economy models is a multi-faceted matter, that requires a clear strategy, an efficient infrastructure, and a widespread educational effort.

Waste management should not merely be considered an expenditure item, but an opportunity to improve quality of life and tourism attractiveness by making cities cleaner, healthier, and safer. Some municipalities are starting this change by investing in educational programs and initiatives, but also putting pressure on hotels, businesses, and households by charging fees on residual waste collected. This should encourage a more accurate trash separation and recycling.

Smart technologies can help: our Smart Waste solution allows cities and operators managers to enhance solid waste collection by monitoring bin filling and optimizing waste trucks itineraries, taking data-driven decisions about resource allocation and dispatching. Moreover, thanks to Machine Learning techniques, we are evolving our system from a raw data collection platform to an actionable prediction solution, providing an estimate of the date when the bin will reach its capacity limit.


Download our paper ‘Smart waste, an opportunity cities should not trash’: join our digital community to benefit from insightful resourcing about smart IoT applications for Open Cities!


Cryptocurrencies, from environmental calamity to climate-friendly technologies

The environmental impact of blockchain and cryptocurrencies is a hot topic, since the amount of energy needed to power their network is staggering.

Some analysts proved the Bitcoin network is currently consuming more energy than several countries, including Kazakhstan and the Netherlands, so it is considered to be exacerbating the production of the greenhouse gases that cause climate change. In addition to mining, lots of power is also needed for transactions, which is enormous in comparison to traditional credit cards: if a Mastercard transaction is estimated to use just 0.0006 kWh, every Bitcoin transaction consumes up to 980 kWh, according to some independent studies (but the Ethereum Foundation is working on a different verification method that, being based on Proof of Stake, could cut energy cost of each transaction by 99%).

Despite these issues, United Nations experts believe that cryptocurrencies and the blockchain technology can play an important role in sustainable development and even contribute to climate change mitigation. The three main areas where blockchain can accelerate climate action are transparency, climate finance, and clean energy markets.

Transparency is a key attribute of blockchain-based applications, and this might become particularly relevant in regions with weak institutions and high levels of corruption. For instance, the World Food Programme is leveraging blockchain to ensure that aids and resources get to those who need it most: successful projects are being piloted in Pakistan and Jordan. A transparent monitoring system could contribute to improve waste management and prevent illegal transfers and uncontrolled export, or to tackle illegal fishing.

It can also be beneficial to smart agriculture. As more and more environmental data sets – such as weather patterns or IoT sensor readings – are fed onto blockchains, a wider range of environmentally-conscious smart contract applications becomes available to support the management of crop yields, soil quality controls, carbon offsets, and more. Interesting examples relate to regenerative agriculture programs, which incentivize communities around the world to reduce their carbon footprint through more sustainable land-use practices and a wiser combination of planting trees and conservation.

Blockchain can boost climate financing by securing and favoring investments that contribute to carbon neutrality. Climate data is incomplete and unreliable in many countries but, if carbon markets are scaled up, businesses and industries will be more confident in their transition to low carbon technologies. Blockchain could be an important part of accelerating the take up of renewable and clean energy sources such as wind and solar, providing a reliable framework to trade these sources that are, by their nature, intermittent and decentralized.

Despite all these potential benefits, the huge energy consumption associated with cryptocurrencies and the blockchain technology is one of the main hurdles that needs to be overcome, and many players in the industry are working to address the issue. If we want to make a positive impact on the climate crisis, more technical research is needed, as well as more international dialogue, involving technology experts, scientists, and policymakers.

risk assessment

Data-driven analysis and counterfactual frameworks for forward-looking risk assessment

Data are pivotal to understand critical changes within and around Cities and organizations: although Covid-19 pandemic contributed to accelerate the journey towards a more structured use of available information for decision-making, much more should be done to have truly data-driven resilient Cities.

A specific domain where data can be further exploited is risk assessment. Traditionally, risk is calculated as the combination of hazard, exposure, and vulnerability – this has been a powerful framework for disaster risk management for many years, and it is still applied when dealing with risk transfers and insurance-related matters. But these risk assessment tools find some limits in the vulnerable world we live in.

“We have amazing tools to understand and manage risk, but these tools need a paradigm shift. These include accounting for climate change, rapid urbanization, long-horizon planning, including “Black Swan” events,” told Dr. David Lallemant, Head of Disaster Analytics Society Lab at Nanyang Technological University, during a recent event by Resilient Cities Network.

Cities needs to consider a longer timeframe when making decisions, as today’s major climate investments will impact urban development for the next 50+ years. And here is where data come into play. Data-driven dynamic models can provide smarter, forward-looking risk assessment since working on time-varying hazard rates, urban development simulations, and time-dependent fragility models.

Moreover, Dr. Lallemant highlighted that current risk management and emergency preparedness programs are mostly shaped on past events, learning from past adverse events such as earthquakes, floodings, or extreme weather phenomena to identify how likely they are to occur again, how to prepare and mitigate their impact. But past experiences and existing data may not be enough in a context of extreme uncertainty: Cities need a different risk assessment approach to tackle low probability and totally unexpected events.

A recent research paper suggests an innovative framework for incorporating downward counterfactual thought in disaster risk modeling for both natural and human hazards. In a nutshell, once an event has been identified, its historical data and parameters are collected and correlated to identify the small changes that might result in downward, worsening consequences. The framework was tested on five case studies in Singapore, including Mt. Pinatubo eruption in 1991 with the extensive dispersal of volcanic ash over the airspaces of Southeast Asia, and the tropical cyclone Vamei that hit the region in 2001.

In recreating those past events and exploring the many alternatives that might have happened, researchers managed to define plausible high-consequence downward counterfactual scenarios and identify priorities for disaster preparedness, also acknowledging some areas where data are currently unavailable or under-available, and future investigation is to be recommended.

The idea behind these studies is that we should not wait until experiencing a disaster to learn how to build more resilient Cities. The application of data-driven dynamic models in concert with counterfactual frameworks can enable communities to perform better risk assessment and make better decisions for their good.