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No small potatoes: Digital Jersey’s big data ambitions

Image credit: Marc Le Cornu

Once a home for Normandy dukes, the island of Jersey is now a potential testbed sandbox environment for the Internet of Things and 'digital twin' data analysis.

If someone were to ask you to name ‘the most connected place on earth’, you might think of San Francisco, Singapore, South Korea or Sweden - places well-known for their superfast broadband speeds. You might not think of Jersey, the small island English Crown dependency that sits just off the coast of Normandy, France, 85 miles from the UK.

That claim to be ‘the most connected place on earth’ stems from the fact that every single broadband connection on the island of Jersey is gigabit fibre broadband, with a guaranteed download speed of 250 megabits per second. This makes Jersey the 10th fastest cable broadband location in the world, beating the UK, USA and Japan.

E&T has come to Jersey to meet Tony Moretta, CEO of Digital Jersey, to hear more about the positioning of the real-world island of Jersey as a digital-twin data source for outside companies to use in order to develop, test and launch cutting-edge IoT and 5G technology.

Whilst perhaps more commonly known for such diverse specialisms as financial services, Jersey Royal potatoes and sandy-beach family holidays where everyone reassuringly still speaks English, Jersey is quietly becoming a compelling territory in which to conduct digital business. These days, it is fintech, the IoT and digital-twin data technologies that suggest one path for Jersey’s future.

Digital Jersey is the island’s government-backed economic development agency and industry association dedicated to the growth of the digital sector on the island. As its website declares, the aim is to “upskill the island’s workforce, create new digital jobs, help companies to increase their productivity and develop strategies to make Jersey a world-leading base for digital innovation”.

Meanwhile, Sandbox Jersey is Digital Jersey’s testbed proposition, offering external companies an opportunity to develop, test and launch new technology products, without the high costs and complex legal, government and regulatory barriers that often present themselves in other cities or markets.

Digital Jersey is positioning itself, and the real-world island, as the ideal location to carry out on-island testing which can then be easily scaled up to meet the needs of a much larger territory. Pursuant to this end, Digital Jersey is busy creating a physical, economic and social ‘digital twin’ of the island, enabling public and private entities to combine data from myriad sources for better scenario planning and more informed decision making. There’s also an element of future-proofing, gathering key data today for the data-intensive businesses of tomorrow.

“[Jersey] is a nice-size train set,” says Moretta, “because Jersey is to all intents and purposes an independent country. The only reason it’s not classed as a nation state is because we share the same head of state in the Queen, but I think the only thing that Jersey relies on the UK for is defence. Everything else - the health service, education, everything - it’s all independent. We have our own Parliament, our own legal system, our own regulation - everything. You’ve got all the components of a much larger country, but in 45 square miles.”

Those key components include one electricity company, one water company, an international airport and a passenger and cargo port. Organisations using Jersey as a testbed can therefore benefit from full critical infrastructure on a micro scale.

“One of the advantages of that is Jersey Telecom is still owned by the government. When they said to the government, ‘We’re going to do fibre, we can do it to the [street] cabinet and this is what it’s going to cost’,” they supported that Moretta explains.

“The fibre rollout finished spring/summer [2018]. They’ve been doing it over five years, because although Jersey is a small place, most of it is countryside, so it’s quite complicated. Apparently, they started in the outlying areas first so they could get the hang of it.”

Even Jersey’s famous Elizabeth Castle, situated several hundred metres out in the sea, has a fibre broadband connection, laid underneath the paved causeway while the tide was out. “The only FTTC you have on Jersey is Fibre To The Castle”, jokes Moretta, referring to Fibre To The Cabinet (FTTC). In fact, both castles on Jersey have gigabit fibre.

“We’ve also got three completely separate 4G networks here,” Moretta continues. “I did a speed test the other day and I got 126Mb on 4G in St Helier. Partly that’s capacity because we’ve got three networks with only so many people. We’ve also got three IoT networks here as well, island-wide LoRaWAN network [LoRaWAN being a network layer protocol for managing communication between LPWAN - Low-Power Wide Access Network - gateways and end-node devices as a routing protocol], we’ve got an MBIT network and we had Sony here testing a proprietary IoT network that they’ve been developing. Jersey was the only place they’ve tested it outside of Japan, because again it’s a bit easier to do it a bit off the grid and working with a friendly telco.”

A friendly telco is just one of Jersey’s charms for companies looking to test new digital technologies. The government set up separate companies for the island’s utilities, but still owns them all, “so the degree of cooperation you can get when you’ve got Jersey Electricity, Jersey Water, Jersey Telecom, Ports of Jersey all feeling like they’re owned by the same organisation can be quite useful”.

It is this close cooperation that enables the Sandbox Jersey concept, wherein Digital Jersey as an organisation is pitching the island as a real-world testbed. Moretta explains: “The reason we did the Sandbox Jersey thing is that we’ve always thought Jersey is a great place to test things, because apart from the technology platform, it is a walled garden surrounded by the sea. 100,000 people is a good size. You try and do things in cities in the UK and you’ve got people coming in and out from all over the place. I remember doing technology trials in Swindon and places like that and they’re not that self-contained. I’ve actually done technology projects in university campuses because they’re great places, you can control the infrastructure, you can control the population of people using it, it’s a closed environment. Jersey is like a giant campus in that sense.”

Digital Jersey’s core remit is to both diversify the island’s economy - “which is obviously quite reliant on finance, as well as tourism and agriculture” - and also to create a more digital economy. The key questions are how to get other parts of the economy using technology more widely and how to create a more digital society.

“Lots of people talk about smart cities and smart islands, but there’s no consistent way of saying ‘What is that?’ Are we already smart because we’ve got fibre? Are we smart because we’ve got 4G? Everyone’s talking about it. It’s almost become a devalued term. You go around exhibitions and it’s smart everything,” Moretta says.

“It’s also about how companies can come over, they can help us fix problems we have here. We got government funding for what we originally called the Jersey Data Platform. When we talked to a lot of people who’d done future cities projects, what they normally complain about is the time it takes to negotiate with all the different owners of data because they’re all private sector companies. Here [on Jersey], they’re all mostly government-owned, so you get that cooperation.

“Originally, we thought, well here’s something where we can put all the data into and as well as people coming to play with the physical space, we can also give them the data to play with as well on the data platform. That’s the bit that’s evolved into the digital twin. Effectively, you’re talking about a Jersey simulator and that’s where you keep the data.”

As Moretta notes, the data-gathering and analysis process can be a win-win, two-way street for both the companies doing the testing and for Jersey itself. For every new sensor experiment, Jersey gets valuable data that can be used with its digital twin to plan real-world improvements to island life.

“It’s not just about having the data sitting there,” he says. “It’s about saying, OK, maybe I want to test an air-quality sensor, so I’ll put some up, but I also want to see what’s causing the differences. If I can see the data from Ports of Jersey to show, on this day, how many visitors have we got coming into Jersey, is that a particularly high number of visitors, higher traffic on the roads?

“Jersey has got its own Met Office, so I can get the weather data to see what the weather was like in Jersey. If I can get the traffic data from government, to say, OK, that air quality, what’s generating it? You might have your own network of sensors, you might be testing something, but actually having a digital twin to operate in makes it a lot more useful as a test bed. It helps the company and it also helps Jersey.”

As an example, Moretta recalls a visit from the IBM Watson team, which collected all the road traffic accident data for analysis, in order to determine the optimum routes around the island for the police and ambulance services, depending on the time of day and the day of the week. On a small island with limited road infrastructure, such insights are solid gold.

Other projects that Digital Jersey has initiated include updating the air-quality sensors, as the old government-installed ones weren’t online - “somebody had to turn up, plug something in and get the data out, it wasn’t real-time” - and working with Jersey Water and Honeywell to install battery powered sensors on water pipes in order to track flow data on pipes and leakages. Further projects like these are in the offing, to give a more holistic overview of the island’s activity.

“One of the interesting things in Jersey that we’re starting to look at is the interconnection between things. Like, there’s a lot of agriculture here: Jersey Royal potatoes are obviously very famous and they put a lot of nitrates into the soil for that,” says Moretta.

“Now Jersey Water wants to know if there’s any danger of the nitrates getting into the water supply, because we have the reservoirs and they’re all close. So we’re talking about putting those sensors in not only for the soil to give us readings, but also combining that with the water quality sensors, as a sort of early warning system so that Jersey Water knows when companies are going to be spraying nearby. You start to see the beginnings of something, if things are connected up.”

Looking ahead, Digital Jersey’s ambition is to help upskill the island’s workforce to compete in a digital world, as well as attract digital-native companies and start-ups to the island.

“We have [in St Helier] the Digital Jersey Hub, which is a combination of event space, collaborative workspace, a bit like a small version of a WeWork,” Moretta says. “We’ve got 26 permanent desks for startups, meeting rooms, things like that, and we’re expanding, doubling that in size. We do a lot of courses, so we’re building a digital skills academy here.

“Actually, one of the things we got government funding for is a dedicated IoT lab. Over on the west of the island, there’s a Jersey Telecom exchange and of course the thing about exchanges is that the buildings stay the same size, but the kit keeps shrinking into the corner. So we’re converting most of one of these exchanges. That will be a dedicated IoT research lab, so it will have workshops for testing and building sensors, it will have some permanent desks for startups, work areas, a presentation suite with a video wall.”

Given the immutable geographic fact that Jersey is physically closer to France than it is to the UK, it comes as no surprise when Moretta explains that “as well as reaching out to the UK, we’re talking to France as well. A lot of French companies are interested in the UK market. Jersey is a good way of testing things before entering the UK’s big market.”

Uniquely positioned, then, in so many ways, Digital Jersey is effectively making the whole island available to anyone with digital ambition.

“Ultimately, what we’re trying to do is grow the number of jobs in Jersey in the digital sector. If we can create a more digital society and a digital economy - so you’ve got agriculture, tourism, finance, all better users of technology - that’s better for the economy.”

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