Inside Bristol's Planetarium is the UK's first interactive Data Dome - a powerful, pulsing network linked to a projection environment that allows you to visualise data.
The dome is hosted by the University of Bristol’s Faculty of Engineering and is managed by Bristol Is Open, a venture between the university and Bristol City Council whose aim it is to make Bristol the world’s first 'open programmable city'.
Launched in 2015, it is one of several organisations around the country that are seeking to use technology to make their cities smarter and enhance the life of citizens. Others include Milton Keynes’ MK:Smart, PeterboroughDNA and Manchester’s CityVerve. Bristol Is Open’s efforts have already been recognised globally, being awarded the global Smart City Innovator award by the TM Forum. The latter is a global industry association for digital business, which aims to connect talented individuals, companies and ecosystems to accelerate the UK’s digital transformation.
Professor Dimitra Simeonidou is chief technology officer for Bristol Is Open and professor of high-performance networks (HPNs) at the university. She explains that the concept and architecture for the project has been developed by the HPN group based at the university and that the Data Dome, launched last November, is one of the underpinning infrastructures of the whole project.
“There is a lot of hype about data and the kind of business opportunities it could offer,” she says. “What we are trying to do is have a smart city network connected to a city infrastructure. We can collect real-time data from Internet of Things platforms and devices around the city and visualise it in 3D in the Data Dome.
“For instance, pollution is very hard to see but if you monitor energy consumption, traffic and other factors and visualise the data, you can assess its impact. By putting in place interventions, you can then see how pollution levels could change. The visualisation of data can drive so much innovation.”
A wide variety of businesses are being encouraged to make use of the Data Dome, and Rolls-Royce has been announced as a project partner. It is investigating the use of the fully immersive hemispherical display system in the 100-seat facility for high-end visualisation of its products and associated big data. Its first visualisation is of the Trent XWB, the world’s most efficient aero engine.
Paul Stein, chief scientific officer at Rolls-Royce, says as well as enabling the company to tap into the Bristol and Bath area’s rapidly growing digital media capabilities, the partnership will help inspire and engage young people. “With immersive sound and vision experiences of our products, we can show them how exciting engineering can be,” he says.
The university’s involvement in the Bristol Is Open venture is also bringing a number of benefits to students. Simeonidou reports that it is allowing its doctoral training centre in communications to offer more technical projects and students have an opportunity to make a direct impact on the city and the life of its citizens.
For example, PhD student Sam Gunner is being funded by Siemens to work on an intelligent transport system. In the past he has worked in the research and development department of Transport for London where he was part of the technical team upgrading the communications infrastructure for the traffic-control system. He then spent two years as a systems engineer designing and managing the installation of onshore renewable schemes. Now he is incorporating sensors into traffic lights and integrating them with the Bristol Is Open network to develop computer-vision solutions to monitor and control traffic across the city.
Other student projects are focusing on areas such as optical wireless and spectrum optimisation in wireless. “They like the opportunity to develop something and install it within the Bristol Is Open platform to demonstrate its outcome,” says Professor Simeonidou.
Ultimately though, Bristol students’ ideas and solutions could have a more far-reaching effect. The global drive towards smart cities is relying on collaboration and sharing ideas and best practice around the world. As part of a consortium with San Sebastian and Florence, the university has also been awarded 25 million euros to create integrated smart city solutions to tackle familiar urban problems such as traffic congestion, poor air quality and unsustainable energy usage. The award sought two to three high-impact cities – called ‘lighthouses’ -- which facilitate collective learning and through which key findings and ways of working can be replicated by ‘follower cities’.
The Bristol consortium, called REPLICATE (ReNaissance of PLaces with Innovative Citizenship and TEchnologies), will primarily focus on East Bristol and look at how technology can be developed to create efficient, integrated and interactive urban environments that empower citizens.
Professor Simeonidou explains that the university’s involvement in such projects is helping its students get involved in conversations with the city council to find out what the city needs from smart technology. “It means they can pilot and effect something in their own city. The whole cycle is a very fulfilling experience,” she says.
The capability of the Data Dome and Bristol Is Open network is also linking up the work done by the engineering department with other faculties such as health sciences.
“For instance, if you are able to visualise pollution you can link it to levels of respiratory disease,” she adds. “Myself, I am an engineer, so my interest is in the infrastructure and delivering the service but I can clearly see the kind of interest having this level of visualisation could create for other disciplines to get involved in the whole smart city project. So in 12 months from now we would be talking about social sciences and digital health projects.”