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CCTV Visual Data: The Secret Ingredient Smart Cities Have Been Lacking?

Gary Flood is an independent IT journalist and commentator @garfage

Some seem to think that using data to make city life better is a new, new thing – only achievable, in any case, with mass deployment of sensors on every parking meter and a gigantic Internet of Things (IoT) network.

 The reality is, of course, that Victorian data scientists like John Snow , Charles Booth and Joseph Bazalgette blazed a trail that led to improvements in public health, well-being and living conditions we’re still benefiting from now.

 Smart cities are just the latest twist in this story (which happens to be a British success story we can all be proud of, too). And as the government has pointed out, it’s one we’re continuing to ‘tell’, with amazing smart city pilots in Manchester, Bristol and Milton Keynes underway.

 This is great – 21st century use of urban data could lead to real breakthroughs in the way the built environment is managed and resourced.

 But why are we doing all this with one hand behind our backs?

 Why are city planners and public-sector stakeholders making this evolution so much slower than it needs to be?

 I’m saying this because there’s a deep, rich resource they are – for some reason – not taking advantage of.

 That’s the huge, and ever-growing, mountain of visual data they add to every day – but, just don’t proactively use.

 I refer, of course, to the wealth of CCTV footage and other visually collected imagery and information that councils, transport agencies, businesses and individuals have.

 Have – and add to, every second. There are no reliable total figures, but we all know there are a lot of CCTV cameras in Britain, and they’re taking a lot of pictures; 2015 news coverage suggested that, at that time, Police number plate recognition systems had at least 17 billion images in its memory bank, and that CCTV cameras on Britain's roads captured at least 26 million images a day, for example, while we think there must now be upwards of 6 million cameras in operation in the UK at least.

 Yet estimates suggest that, at most, 1% of that visual data ever gets looked at.

 There are genuine concerns among some parts of the public about CCTV. I am not sure that many British citizens would be happy to hear the Lord Mayor of London had added facial recognition software to his camera network, for instance, as his Moscow equivalent seems to have done. Many of us worry about the 1984 issue, where we worry our every move will end up monitored by unaccountable and faceless authorities; why should we agree to even more of our movements being monitored and collected, we ask?

 But the British public – all of us – are perfectly happy with our smartphones capturing our data and Facebook monitoring all we do, too

Smart city IoT fuel…

 I think there’s a great way forward here that could get us to smart city data-driven urban excellence while also making ideal use of that visual data – and which also, neatly, gets us out of the Big Brother trap.

 CCTV data records what roads are busy, or empty – what train or Tube platforms are crammed or quiet, as well as at what times the road outside the school gates are safest, and which part of the sports ground is filling up fastest.

 So – take that visual data and make it into smart city IoT fuel, the raw material that goes in one end of the funnel to fuel the algorithms that will power the applications our future smart environments will depend on.

Put AI and Machine Learning onto that visual data fuel, and let them start to figure out the secret movement patterns that are the rhythm of your town or city centre. Why? Because machine intelligence is by definition impersonal, interested only in mass patterns of data – it doesn’t care about the individual, so there’s no suggestion of it prying into my life or yours at all here.

And as that’s going to be the 99% of the visual data no-one’s looking at anyway – the public can be reassured their physical movements are simply feeding the useful public smart apps that you’re going to deploy to help them commute, shop and entertain themselves better.

I think that’s got to be a great way forward – and one that gets us to become the modern-day inheritors of John Snow’s mantle, too.