Sensors help make Spanish port city a smart cities star

Mon, 2013-03-25 15:36 -- Liz Enbysk

Cities from Amsterdam and Stockholm to San Diego and Nanjing are reaching for the brass ring of sustainable, efficient and pleasant smart cities. But Santander, an old port city on Spain's Atlantic coast with the same financial problems nagging at many European cities, has already made it happen.

Santander Mayor Iñigo de la Serna is justifiably proud of his city's accomplishments. In an ABC News story he was quoted as saying "This is the future. This is the only way to change things. It's not an option, it's obligatory." He added that at some point all major cities will have to follow suit.

Visitors from major corporations and countries like Japan and China have visited Santander, a city of roughly 180,000, to see firsthand what many regard as a town that also is a "living experimental laboratory."

How did the city do it? IT professor Luis Muñoz, along with millions in research grants (mostly from the EU), set out to come up with a prototype smart city. He installed 10,000 sensors around in the downtown area, attached to street lights, poles, building walls – and placed several beneath the asphalt in parking lots.

The sensors measure several things, from light and pressure to temperature and cars and people as they move through the area and transmit the information to Muñoz's laboratory. At the other end, buses, taxis and police cars transmit information like their position, speed, mileage and environmental data like pollutant levels. The city's residents can participate, too. All it takes is a specially designed app for GPS-enabled cell phones.

As the ABC story makes abundantly clear, the city records pretty much everything. Its system can identify locations where traffic jams are or where the air is particularly polluted, what happens when an accident obstructs a major street and which streetlights are out. The sensors also will give the city the information it needs to ensure that watering the park gives maximum results with no wasted water.

Residents also have access to the "Pulse of the City" app which can tell them and tourists when the next bus is coming, act as a digital tour guide and allows them to report problems like potholes straight to city hall with a photo and location information. And while the data is public, people who send reports remain anonymous.

Santander is a truly interesting smart cities story. And to hear the mayor tell it, many more innovations are planned. It will be well worth following the city's continued progress.

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