Bristol is Open CEO reveals what makes Bristol the UK's top smart city

When Bristol reached the top spot of Huawei's UK Smart Cities Index in 2017, the judges gave particular credit to Bristol is Open, a network infrastructure laboratory run by the city council and the University of Bristol.

Tom Macaulay Jan 16th 2019 A-A+
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When Bristol reached the top spot of Huawei's UK Smart Cities Index in 2017, the judges gave particular credit to Bristol is Open, a network infrastructure laboratory run by the city council and the University of Bristol.

The venture provides companies, academics and public sector organisations, with an open city-scale connectivity testbed and data sharing platform built on a fibre network underneath the streets, a wireless 'hetnet' along the Brunel Mile, and a radio frequency mesh network installed across 2,000 lampposts.

Companies can use the network to run trials using Wi-Fi, 3G, 4G, 5G, LTE and Li-FI to explore new ways of helping citizens, some of which could save their lives.

For example, Bristol was named one of the country's highest-risk areas for drink-related drowning by the Royal Life Saving Society. The local fire service say they rescue people from waterways at least once a month, and intoxication has been linked to 73 percent of all the drownings in the region, despite Harbourside pubs often hanging posters warning revellers to not "drink and drown".

Bristol is Open aims to reduce the dangers by using thermal cameras to beam a virtual line down the edge of the harbour wall that can send an alert when someone crosses it to the harbour master and emergency services. Voice communications have also been installed so respondents can communicate with a person who falls into the water.

"When we turned it all on a few weeks ago, in the middle of a Thursday afternoon, somebody walked straight off a harbour wall as we had the cameras live," Bristol is Open CEO Julie Snell tells Computerworld UK. "It highlighted to us the importance of needing this, because this gentleman was just walking down and he walked straight off a long drop, straight into the water.

"In no time flat, I could see the reasons why we'd gone for thermal cameras. One of them was because we didn't want any more intrusive cameras tracking people and you can't identify people from it, but two was so we could identify when they're in the water. The harbour master gave us feedback that if they don't know within a metre square where someone's dropped into the water, the odds of recovering a person are slim. We're probably recovering a body.

"As this person dropped into the water, in less than a few minutes their body temperature was at the point where we could only see their head and one hand where they had managed to get close enough to a pontoon to hang onto a rope. The body temperature drops so fast - and it wasn't particularly cold - but because the thermal camera was on them we were able to stay on top of it.

"Since then, we have managed to get high-bandwidth CCTV that swings around and aligns with that software, so we can now direct the emergency services more effectively. And even though this was only a trial, we have decided to move this straight into our live 24-hour operation centre here in the council, because God forbid if it happened and we didn't pick it up straight away. We couldn't live with ourselves. It shows that even in a trial phase, something like that could make all the difference."

Taking on the challenge

Snell took on the role of CEO in October 2017, three years after the venture launched, bringing with her the experience of 16 years working in telecoms, including five years as a BT board member and two chairing the Wireless Broadband Alliance.

"They were working on the strategy to 2050, because the realisation was companies moving to the area wanted to see long-term strategies for the city," Snell recalls of Bristol City Council just as she joined the venture.

"And the city didn't do this as a council on their own. They invited people like myself - city business leaders - into city hall, once a week, and we all worked together across all the areas in the city region that were a problem.

"That gave me visibility of what the real issues were facing the city, which made it really straightforward for me to focus on where we take Bristol is Open next. And what's become very clear is we are a classic city of two halves. We are very successful on one side, but like every city we've got a digital, a physical, a mental and a health divide."

This divide covers all the city's citizens, from its children to its elderly.

On one side of Bristol, 80 percent of young people go to university, but an eight-minute drive away is an area where less than five percent of them get a single A-level.

The elderly are similarly divided. In the last 10 years, the number of people in Bristol over the age of 85 has increased by 50 percent, and many of them live isolated lives in underprivileged areas that are often disconnected from their community. 

These struggling students and isolated elderly people have something else in common: they both tend to live in places that lack high-speed internet access.

"We have managed to get some funding to move our network out of the city centre and take it to those that are not as well off as everybody else, and really try to understand how we can help those that are socially disconnected, and those that are health-wise disconnected," says Snell.

This could be by creating cost-effective internet packages that give less privileged children the benefits of digital learning, or by installing sensors in a home that monitor movements and temperatures and send alerts when patterns change from a modem to the city's low-power wireless mesh network.

These sensors could monitor movements and temperatures and send alerts when the patterns suggest something is wrong, but they would need to be unobtrusive and acceptable to the user. To ensure this is the case for any tech Bristol is Open develops, Snell seeks the input of the university's social science departments and tests the concepts with the people who will use them in that environment.

"We want these people to then to be part of the design process as we evolve it, rather than us going to have a look at it, think we know the problem, go away and design the solution and then bring it back to them," she says.

Sensors and 5G projects

Bristol is Open has already run a range of different projects on the network. They include installing sensors to test pollution levels and help citizens travel along routes with cleaner air, analysing water levels to identify flood risks and evaluating traffic flows to reduce congestion.

Bristol University's high-performance network labs provide much of the wireless technology resources and expertise. They were also the birthplace of the startup Zeetta Networks, which has partnered with Bristol Is Open to deploy NetOS, a platform that enables multiple technology networks to be spliced into a single virtual network, and then sliced to apportion different operational sub-networks to specific group users.

It also provides a proven network operating system for 5G, which is top of the list of trials currently underway at Bristol is Open.

The first phase of the 5G testing recently went live on the network.

"5G is not about another symbol that goes in the corner of your phone that says you've got lower latency, higher bandwidth. This is about the other things that will run over this network, where you've got high demand for multiple high bandwidth broadcasting," says Snell.

"It's going to be more about all the other devices that will be utilising the network, what I would call the dumber items that aren't controlled by people. This step-change to technology starting to be more intelligent and starting to run itself is when the 5G is going to really make a difference."

Although Bristol topped Huawei's rankings of the UK's top smart cities, Bristol Is Open has decided not to work with the Chinese company as some of the trials contain very sensitive government and public data.

"We've got a duty of care, particularly for some of the trials that we will be doing in the next 12 months. They will be around very sensitive data," says Snell.

"The idea is these are pilots, but if we prove the business case then we will be rolling them out, and it would be remiss of us to do something with a bit of technology that in reality the BTs or the Virgins wouldn't be using going forward, because all we intend to do is prove the possibilities, and then it's up to the networks out there to go and deliver the solutions and support them."

What makes Bristol so smart

Huawei is not alone in praising Bristol's smart city credentials has earned a lot of praise and awards for its development of a smart city. Bristol has also won the Smart City Award at the GSMA Global Mobile Awards, while Bristol City Council's traffic control service was named Best Smart City Project at the Smarter Travel Awards and Bristol is Open topped the Smart Cities category at the World Communications Awards (WCA). Snell believes the local mindset is a big factor in the success.

"For me, I feel empowered to go and understand those problems, highlight those problems, and then get the attention to go and fix them," she says.

"I think often that's not the case in some cities. I think there is an aspiration here to try and find solutions. It's as if people are empowered here, and they're always enthusiastic. 

"The other bit for me is we're a city full of innovators. We've got so many startup hubs and things like that that we've got people here who can see the vision and can often see the problem, and they've got the ability to come up with a solution. I think that’s part of the mindset here. There's no wrong answers - we'll have a go at fixing it.

She feels that the Bristol's youth and diversity is the driving force behind its forward-thinking approach.

"On the whole we've got quite a young city, although we've got an aging population...More than one in every five people living in Bristol is under the age of 17, and around 16 percent of the population belong to black and minority ethnic groups. I think you'll find that helps us be more diverse in the way we address our problems."