Helping local government overcome the barriers to IoT
The recent IoTUK report The Future of Street Lighting gives many practical examples of Internet of Things (IoT) deployments by local authorities (LAs) in the UK, as well as their counterparts globally. But deployments in the UK are still the exception rather than the rule, and LAs considering investing in IoT face a bewildering array of challenges that could derail a project before it even gets off the ground. If they want to penetrate the potentially huge local government market, IoT companies must help local authorities and other public sector bodies understand the barriers they face and provide practical advice and solutions to help overcome them.
Some of the challenges are technology-related and unique to the smart city agenda, but many resonate across the spectrum of local government services.
Finding funding is the obvious first hurdle to overcome in the current climate of budget cuts. However, many IoT solutions are relatively low cost, particularly in comparison to the alternative, and can deliver savings elsewhere in an organisation’s budget. For example, the cost of street lamp sensors is far lower than building a new road or even a cycle path, and can reduce the need for expensive maintenance in terms of digging up roads further down the line.
Wherever possible, IoT companies should ensure their solutions are affordable and have a clear ROI. In all cases, the solution must have a concrete business case, in terms of being able to lower costs (directly or indirectly) or deliver non-financial benefits, such as reducing carbon footprint to help achieve environmental targets. For their part, authorities need to take a long-term view and invest now to save later.
Finding the right partners can be a daunting task for councils faced with a plethora of IoT solutions offered by huge numbers of companies large and small. It’s a problem that Devon County Council and Exeter City Council avoided by being approached by a company with the right solution to fit their needs, and which had already formed a consortium of specialist partners and academia. IT service provider NTT Data proposed the Engaged Smart Transport project, which uses real-time traffic and weather data collected from sensors on lamp posts, and combines it with other data sources to better understand what affects people’s travel behaviour, with the ultimate aim of easing congestion and reducing emissions.
The city has been further boosted by Exeter City Futures, a Community Interest Company (CIC) which has set up an accelerator programme to support businesses developing innovative solutions which would contribute to the goal of creating a low carbon, congestion free city. As Jamie Hulland, Transportation Planning and Road Safety Manager at Devon County Council, says: “We’ve been fortunate to have private-sector companies invest in the city and come up with new innovative ways of solving some of the problems we face in our traditional infrastructure planning.”
Not all councils will be so lucky, but the message to IoT companies is clear: be proactive. Don’t wait for potential customers to come to you but do your research to target organisations that have a real need for your product. To the uninformed, Exeter may not be the obvious target for a congestion reduction project, but the need is clear when you consider that it has one of the largest travel-to-work areas in the country and a successful economy with a rapidly growing population.
There’s another lesson to be learned from the Exeter/NTT Data example: don’t go it alone. If your product needs other elements in order to deliver benefits, work with the right partners so you can propose an end-to-end solution that will solve a real-world problem from the outset.
A big challenge for local authorities is that IoT means a new approach to providing services. IoT companies can play a role in encouraging them to think beyond the traditional way of doing things. But they need to be mindful of and sensitive to the fact that council employees will now be working with people who may have very different skill sets and backgrounds, both to themselves and others they have previously worked with.
Effective communication and liaison between the council and external party is vital to ensure a successful outcome. The IoT supplier must be able to smooth the way and handhold as necessary, but the authority must also have a point person who is willing to listen to and act on new ideas, co-operate with the supplier and communicate back to the council. That communication must encompass all levels of the council, from getting the message to officers that the new ways of working will deliver benefits to getting all team members on board and keeping them there.
For Jamie Hulland, the greatest challenge in the Engaged Smart Transport project is centred around data sharing. The department collects a huge amount of data which it uses for modelling, but lacks the in-house data analytics expertise of its partners. Hulland says: “These companies may be able to use our data in ways we could never dream of, and come up with a different outcome or different set of products.” While he doesn’t feel the need to know exactly how the data will be used, he does need guarantees that the data will be secure. The council is now looking at cloud-based solutions which will enable data to be shared easily and securely.
There are challenges for both suppliers and government in implementing IoT projects, but the opportunity is potentially huge and IoT companies shouldn’t shy away. There is plenty of help available, in terms of funding, information and networking opportunities. In Exeter’s case, Innovate UK has provided match funding for the Engaged Smart Transport project and the next Exeter City Futures event will be held on September 20. In the smart transport sector alone IoTUK is working through the CityVerve smart city demonstrator in Manchester and the Transport Systems Catapult in Milton Keynes, which is holding its next networking event on September 13.