Test 8 August, 2017

Digital lamp posts: an unlikely public service

When walking down the street, most people hardly think they are consuming a public service. It’s easy to take the design and functionality of roads, lighting and infrastructure for granted, and to forget them in discussions around public-service reform.

The ‘smart cities’ agenda is set to change that, by introducing innovative ways to integrate technology with everyday city life and services. London’s Greenwich borough is already developing significant innovations in e-mobility and data sharing; Manchester and Birmingham are not far behind. The spotlight now is on an unlikely public-service reform: digitising lamp posts.

Cities like Paris and Copenhagen have already added sensors to street lights to monitor air quality, changes in weather, and traffic. This has optimised lighting hours and improved parking fine enforcements, but opportunities go beyond that. Comparing these data across neighbourhoods (or even streets) can help policymakers map the impact of pollution on health and educational attainment. Equally, investigating public incidents gets easier with greater context and footage, such as when lamp posts can collect and share data on traffic, crowd sizes, sound and video. All of this takes advantage of existing street lighting infrastructure, connectivity and non-intrusive design.

What makes lamp posts smart, however, is not only the information they collect, but their ability to connect with relevant services or users and immediately share these data, enabled by the Internet of Things (IoT). In San Diego, digital lamp posts are being used to recognise gun shots, triangulate the exact location of that shot, and immediately alert emergency services for a faster response. Dubai‘s Smart Guidance Pillars equip lamp posts with an emergency button, which immediately connects to police, ambulance, or fire services for a faster, targeted response. Lamp posts could then directly “communicate” with traffic lights to turn them green for emergency vehicles. It’s The Italian Job, but for public safety.

Digital lamp posts can also support the UK’s urgent public safety communication needs. The UK is currently transitioning from a radio-based network to 4G for emergency services. This could drastically improve data sharing, efficiency and cooperation, but there are concerns about 4G coverage nationwide (only at 70 per cent in July 2016). An unreliable signal could mean that mission-critical communications with a control room, such as requests for back-up, break down in key moments. Improving connectivity at pace and scale is a challenge, and smart lamp posts could help by acting as broadband hotspots. Lambeth has boosted 4G coverage by attaching antennas to 15,000 lamp posts. In rural areas, connectivity from these antennas can reach 2 kilometres. The UK should leverage its 10 million lamp posts to help meet connectivity needs rapidly and affordably.

A smarter use of new technologies and IoT can be a game changer for public services overall. Work remains to be done to ensure that future cities are cybersecure, that data is stored safely, and that access to sensitive data is restricted to the right people. These are huge issues, but ones that other countries are tackling, and Reform has already written about the potential of digital innovations such as blockchain to record data securely and transform public services.

Over the next few years, smarter cities will transform how citizens relate to public services and what they think is possible. Digital lamp posts, in some circumstances, could be unlikely life savers. Perhaps that will give people pause for thought next time they walk down the street.