Building Bristol’s smart operations

Interview: Barney Smith, head of Bristol City Council’s smart city operations centre, talks about how it is harnessing new sources of data, supporting coordination between agencies and learning from its early experiences

Barney Smith has reached a watershed moment on the week he speaks with UKAuthority. Days before he has stepped down from one of two major roles he has held in Bristol’s smart places initiatives, and is looking forward to dedicating his time to the other.

Barney SmithHe has been juggling posts as head of the city council’s recently opened operations centre and interim chief executive of Bristol is Open, the joint venture with the University of Bristol to provide a digital infrastructure for technology research projects.

But the arrival this month of Julie Snell as head of the latter frees him to focus on the operations centre, and how it can support the smart places effort in the city and surrounding region.

Smith believes Bristol is Open is on a firm footing, with the infrastructure and a sustainable business model in place. A number of projects are underway, several as part of the EU Horizon 2020 programme, using technology to respond to societal challenges.

Most are led by the university, but the council is taking the lead in the Replicate project, looking to combine energy efficiency, sustainable mobility and integrated ICT to create smart places. It is working in Bristol’s Ashley, Easton and Lawrence Hill districts to develop smart homes, smart streets and technology to deal with community issues, and could lead to the development of a smart platform for the whole city.

Three into one

Meanwhile the operations centre is beginning to show its potential. It has replaced three control centres for the city that focused on traffic controls, housing concierge and CCTV in public spaces, and telecare services. The move has involved an updating of the technology stacks and the integration of their data into a single platform.

It cost £8.2 million, but Smith says the consolidation has allowed the council to make savings on its property estate, and costs have been shared with the agencies using the centre.

“And as you move into a smarter way of delivering services the next wave of benefits will come through,” he says.

The centre takes data feeds from a range of sources, including CCTV on the roads and public buildings, automatic number plate recognition cameras, air quality sensors, and devices used in telecare packages, such as smoke and security alarms and panic buttons. These combine with the council’s open data platform and Connecting Care, the electronic patient record provided by the local clinical commissioning group.

It reflects the fact that the potential for telecare forms a large part of the council’s thinking about the potential for the centre.

Smart health move

“There is a significant piece of work around telecare and telehealth, moving into smart health and assistive technologies,” Smith says. “An example is that telecare has traditionally operated around panic buttons and alarms wired back to a receiving centre; but people have home devices they might be using for healthcare, such as a diabetic monitor or a monitor for COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), and you can take the data and look at the setting in the home.

“Through predictive analytics we could predict when an issue is developing and carry out an early intervention, rather than do that when it becomes a crisis management scenario.”

Smith acknowledges the current limitations and that consent for using the data will be very important in making this happen; but he says those early interventions can make a big difference in the individual’s quality of life, and provide savings for the health service.

Although it has only been in operation for a few weeks, there have already been occasions when the centre has made a difference for the better. Smith recounts an incident in which a bridge was hit by a large vehicle and the centre reacted to limit the disruption to traffic, partly by changing the sequencing of traffic lights, and by coordinating with bus operators to reroute their vehicles where possible.

It was an early cause for optimism around what the centre can achieve, and he sees the potential to extend its capabilities by taking on new sources of data.

“What we want to do in future is deploy a more sophisticated range of sensors in the IoT space,” he says. “A good example might be temperature sensors in the road to indicate when you should grit. They show road temperature, rather than just the air temperature, and that could help to reduce the amount of gritting and save money.”

Smith is also confident about the centre building its capabilities quite quickly.

Data ambition

“Within six months we will have a very extensive data driven operation, and be able to provide data for operational benefits and predictive analytics,” he says.

“Today we have various qualitative case studies beginning to emerge. We are building our knowledge around that and will begin to do some metrics where we can show what is happening over three months.

“It should make an impact in months rather than years.”

He says the council has made a good start in completing phase one, setting up the centre on time and on budget, and building a business case in which other public service providers contribute to the cost and provide data, and receive its outputs to support their operations.

“But it's phase two that will really deliver the massive fundamental changes to the way the public will get services much more targeted towards them,” he says.

Evolution elements

There are a couple of important elements around how the operations centre will evolve. One relates to the extension of smart city initiatives to a wider geography, taking in satellite towns and rural areas.

Smith says there is already a notable regional element to its work, with neighbouring councils contributing to it on a service by service basis, and NHS organisations working on different footprints to local government. He sees the potential for this to grow strongly, especially with the recent establishment of the West of England Combined Authority.

The other is around the potential for the centre to publish as well as use open data. Looking at this will be one of the priorities, although it will take time to unfold and Smith is conscious of the data protection issues around some of the data.

The centre is already attracting attention from around the country; he says there has been plenty of interest from other authorities, and that Bristol’s place at the top of the Navigant Smart Cities Index published last month is bound to whip up more interest.

It can provide lessons for other cities in how an operations centre can support coordination between different agencies, and in processing streams of data under the control of different directorates and teams.

Working better

“In terms of making a city or locality work better and getting the collaboration between departments and other agencies it is quite significant,” he says.

“Then you have the ability to move into that smart society stage, where you’re adding richer information from the internet of things and other sources. You can build up as the more advanced types of technology emerge.

“I think it’s fundamental and a major contributor to moving towards things like local government as a platform.”

His conclusions emphasise the need for ambition, and to be ready to begin using it quickly and learn from early projects.

“What we’ve learnt is that it takes a bold decision to progress to something like this, and to create the platform on which you can build smart services. If you build those services on their own you have a significant background investment to make, while here it becomes more of a marginal cost to build on.

“The second thing is that it’s really important to link up to initiatives like Replicate, to gain an insight into the technology, what works and what doesn’t work. Without that you are coming up to it without an understanding of where the potential really lies and what is realistically achievable.”