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The building blocks of safe and smart cities
November 2018, This Week's Editor's Pick, Integrated Solutions, IT infrastructure, Government and Parastatal (Industry)

It’s easy to talk about safe and smart cities, but getting from where one is to a fully operational safe and smart city is no small task. In fact, it is a task filled with challenges – technology, process, human, cultural and integration, for example, and those are only the start of the potential mazes one has to navigate.

To find out more about some of the foundational aspects of safe/smart cities, Hi-Tech Security Solutions spoke to Bertus Marais and Rudi Potgieter. We asked them for their take on four facets of a safe/smart city: communications, data, security, and, of course, data analysis (which is arguably the most important element of safe and smart city success in the age of artificial intelligence and smart devices).

Communications is essential

The fact is a city can’t be safe or smart if you don’t have a reliable communications infrastructure that is able to transmit everything, from small chunks of data from thousands or millions of sensors, through to video footage from hundreds or even thousands of cameras.

Most cities have some form of communications infrastructure in the form of cabling, the more modern cities using fibre cabling, which is a vast improvement over the traditional copper – and less valuable to criminals. But do we want continuous construction as fibre is laid and upgraded repeatedly? Today we have other options in the form of 3G, LTE and more – but are these technologies providing the bandwidth and reliability required and do they offer the reliability that would be required in emergency situations?

Bertus Marais, GM, public safety and security at NEC XON.
Bertus Marais, GM, public safety and security at NEC XON.

Bertus Marais, GM, public safety and security at NEC XON believes that fibre is the best connectivity option today, since “it unquestioningly offers the best throughput, although copper solutions can still be used. However, where legacy technologies, such as copper lines, are dug up by criminals, it’s often best to replace them with fibre since it has no value to those thieves who only mistakenly dig it up thinking it’s copper.”

In the real world, however, he adds that there is always a mixture of communications technologies in a city and XON often integrates legacy communications infrastructure where it serves the needs of safe and smart cities’ modern requirements. “With combined video and sound that generally means including any carrier-grade technologies, which means those with the necessary throughput and that support five-nines uptime and availability.”

Microwave is also a suitable wireless alternative in both regulated and unregulated spectrums, notes Marais, depending on local legislation.

Rudi Potgieter, senior product manager 
at Vox.
Rudi Potgieter, senior product manager at Vox.

Rudi Potgieter, senior product manager at Vox concurs, noting that a successful safe/smart city requires a solid, stable and high-speed network infrastructure, “therefore it has to be fibre”.

This is because a key condition is a secure, robust and fault-tolerant connection between the cloud and edge devices. In addition, high bandwidth applications such as video need a fibre based network to work optimally. The city cannot depend on a degraded form of connectivity, Potgieter adds. A secondary option can be spectrum wireless as it can handle lower bandwidth applications, but it can’t be the primary form of data carriage. Fibre is non-negotiable when it comes to running a proper safe and smart city.

Data is the lifeblood

In the age of IoT there is almost no limit to what data can be gathered, stored and analysed, but this is as much a challenge as it is a benefit. What data should be collected to develop and maintain services in the safe and smart city; and what storage options are there for this huge amount of data?

As noted above, video surveillance would be the biggest ‘chunks’ of data transmitted and stored, but IoT devices like sensors, while only providing small amounts of data at a time, can quickly end up creating enormous amounts of data that needs to be held somewhere.

“You must also consider how long you want to store or retain data since that has a big impact on the storage demands,” says Marais. “Storage technologies are evolving rapidly today so that you have exceptionally high speed, solid-state storage options and virtualisation technologies.”

Safety and security, emergency services, and citizen services are the top priorities for the majority of cities, particularly African cities, he adds. African cities are dealing with more rapid urbanisation than those in highly developed economies, a trend that creates a number of social and economic challenges for cities attempting to service their populations. IoT and smart analysis platforms provide the requisite foundation for efficiencies that these cities need to go beyond simply coping with the burgeoning populations and demand on their services delivery today. They provide the capability to meet the needs of these people in the future, too.

“The ability to store data from this new wealth of sensors and intelligently analyse a growing volume of it, in near real time, provides a richer source of information to predict future needs and successfully beat the challenges cities face in both global and regional contexts.”

The sky is the limit in terms of what data can be collected, concurs Potgieter, as long as there is a sensor or device that can gather that data – whether it be leak detectors in water systems, devices that measure degradation of the roads, or sensors that manage services such as refuge removal. That said, the system architecture is critical and should be done correctly in the first place. The system design is as important as a solid connectivity backbone. The amount of data from sensors grows exponentially over time and research figures suggest that cameras across the globe will generate 2500 petabytes [about 2.5 million terabytes] of data every single day by 2019.

“In terms of data storage, technology has evolved away from requiring bulky servers and their processing power. With processing chipsets becoming more compact and powerful, most security and IoT devices needed to build a safe/smart city have the functionality to do smart processing on the edge,” Potgieter says. “This means the processing power predominantly happens on the device and limited data is transmitted over the network and stored in the database. The device is clever enough to filter out what data is required and only pushes the essential data to the data centre to make informed decisions.

“Data storage takes on different forms, some data is stored on the edge, some locally, critical data is pushed centrally and non-critical data is archived in the cloud.”

Security is non-negotiable

As we all know by now, you can collect any amount of data from basically any devices, but no matter what industry you may be involved in, you simply have to pay attention to the task of securing the data and resulting information from unauthorised access.

In the safe and secure city environment, data needs to be secured from the edge device through to the control room/data centre and from there to the people who need to work with it. Importantly, this needs to be done without affecting the performance of people and their need to act immediately on some of the data as it comes in or after going through analysis.

Potgieter notes that legislation such as PoPIA will make it legally binding to store and share data in a responsible manner. A trusted technology partner will assist a city with governance and compliance around the personal data of its citizens. The right technology should be able to transmit data in a proprietary manner and working with a reputable partner will ensure that the network is designed and maintained to the highest security standards.

“Securing all the data involves designing the network correctly the first time and managing the roles and responsibilities of users,” Potgieter says.

The infrastructure to drive smart, safe, and secure cities is the same as that used by many commercial operations like banks, says Marais. Banks collect and store a huge volume of sensitive customer and transaction data and they use a variety of technologies, such as encryption during transit and storage, to safeguard that information. The same applies to smart and safe cities.

“We apply various protection levels based on the type of information being captured and transmitted against what’s required by local regulations and good practice. We incorporate role-based access to that information appropriate to user activities. The level of confidentiality is customisable in the application appropriate to the sensitivity of information.”

Analysis ties everything together

Collecting large amounts of data is of limited use unless it can be analysed and converted into useful information for future planning.

“Data for the sake of data is pointless and counterproductive,” agrees Marais. “Big data intelligence drives the pragmatic application of smart systems to solve real world challenges by contextualising data to give it meaning.

“We could have multiple human operators watching hundreds of CCTV camera’s footage from across a city and have little to no impact on crime levels. However, a smart back-end platform alerting a single human operator to suspicious behaviours or activities based on feeds from the same network of CCTV cameras can have a massive impact on reducing crime across a city or precinct. This is where proper artificial intelligence (AI) makes an impact.

“It is the ability of the computer systems to automatically be as smart or even smarter than humans at things like recognising persons of interest, picking them out from crowds of people, and alerting emergency personnel to intervene before incidents occur, that has the most impact.”

He adds that collating and collecting data from a number of IoT devices across the city of Johannesburg over a long period could also, for example, lead to improved services delivery by more accurately predicting utilities usage and services such as refuse removal.

Focusing on video surveillance data, Potgieter says, “Current statistics tell us that 99% of video recorded is not being watched. Therefore, if cameras across the globe will generate 2 500 petabytes of data per day by 2019, 99% of that video will not be watched. It is humanly impossible to watch that amount of footage without using some form of analytical software.

“Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) technologies make that task easier as they filter the data and only push meaningful events for human scrutiny. GPU processing is currently cost prohibitive and is an inhibiting factor when it comes to analysing video through AI and ML. Video data is unbelievably rich in content and the true value of the data behind video will only be revealed when the cost comes down to make these technologies more accessible.”

In terms of the type of data to collect, Potgieter says most cities already remotely monitor their traffic lights and this can be expanded to monitor traffic flow to proactively alert enforcement agencies or emergency services of an issue. The heartbeat of the city is around monitoring and optimising traffic flow, followed by safety and security. Movement around a city is vital for the economy and this should be managed optimally as a start when moving towards becoming a safer, smarter city.

Services delivered

Both companies represented in the article play specific roles in smart and safe city environments.

Marais says, “NEC XON supplies a wide range of end-to-end technologies that support smarter, safer cities. Swelling populations need more optimised resources. Smarter agriculture can improve yields. Powerful analytics based on collecting the right information can inform more efficient, more cost-effective service delivery. Big data analytics can improve the functions of utility services.

“We work with partners to create solutions for a variety of social challenges using technologies such as biometrics, smart-grid energy storage, big data analytics, and artificial intelligence (AI) to help us build societies of more equal opportunities and efficient services.”

According to Potgieter, “Vox provides four layers to a safe/smart city – a network, cloud, sensor and application layer, while its sister company Frogfoot Networks provides fibre infrastructure. Vox provides public and private cloud as well as a hybrid cloud models, and through fully-managed IoT based solutions offers connected devices to manage everything from reservoir water levels and waste management to small devices that can detect when an electricity cabinet’s front panel or a traffic light’s base station is being tampered with.”

For more information, contact:

• NEC XON, +27 11 237 4500,,

• Vox Telecom, +27 87 805 0000,,

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