Automated cities : App development & Urban OS in the UK

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Automated cities

Description: Automated cities

Cat Hackforth talks to the creators of the world’s first city-wide OS

While you’re at work, a discarded cigarette sets light to a bin and fire begins to lick up the building. As the fire alarm sounds, the light panels on the office wall turn green and their 12 x 12 LED grids display scrolling arrows that direct you to the nearest fire exit. Sensors in the building’s structure alert the emergency services, who arc directed to the blaze by a yellow line, again displayed on the LED panels. The fire is quickly extinguished, and further sensors built into the office confirm that the building has suffered no Structural damage.

This type of practical automation of city services is the basis of the Urban OS - a system of networked sensors, cloud-controlled middleware and simple user interfaces that could represent the future of cities worldwide.

The Urban Operating System (UOS) is the work of Living PlanIT, a technology company whose partners include Microsoft, McLaren and Cisco. Its aim is to reduce waste, improve safety and enhance quality of life for its residents. UOS takes its cues from mobile operating systems like lOS and Android, with small programs called PlaceApps controlling functions within the city-everything from street lighting and traffic management to domestic appliances. These apps will be accessible from a wide range of devices, including smartphones and wall panels.

App development

Description: The first buildings based on the Urban OS are bieng built in Greenwich and in PlanIT Valley in Portugal. There is also a project underway in Birmingham

The first buildings based on the Urban OS are bieng built in Greenwich and in PlanIT Valley in Portugal. There is also a project underway in Birmingham

“The idea of the PlaceApps is that most of the logic actually runs server-side, rather like an iPhone app,” explains John Stenlake, Chief Technology Officer at Living Plan IT. “The app principally consists of a few service calls and then you have a pretty thin binding to the actual device that consists of some appropriately styled elements, and whatever validation is needed for buttons or fields. The rest of it is all done by services at the hack end.”

Stenlake and his team have already developed a PlaceApp for fire detection and evacuation management. “The application uses many sensors in the building that might be sensing temperature,” he says. Some of the sensors appropriately embedded in structures can he good up to 400°C, so even in a fire they work for a long time before it gets too hot for them to handle the situation, thereby providing a lot of very useful informal ion about what the problem is, where it’s happening and how it’s spreading.

Urban OS in the UK

Description: The operating system will work best in new buildings with the necessary infrastructure already in place. Conversion of older buildings is less viable

The operating system will work best in new buildings with the necessary infrastructure already in place. Conversion of older buildings is less viable

Living PlanIT is building a test bed for the Urban OS in Portugal (PlanIT Valley), but the technology could arrive here first. “It’s quite likely that the first buildings our technology goes into will be in Greenwich,” says Stenlake. “One of our partners is Quintain Estates and Development, which is a very forward looking developer. Adrian Wyatt, their CEO, is a real visionary who had figured out the need for some of this stuff before we came along, and it was very much a meeting of minds. They have new developments going on around Greenwich peninsula, around the 02, in association with Lend Lease. We’re very much looking forward to that - we think that will just beat the first buildings in Plan IT Valley out of the ground.”

PlaceApp security

Urban Plan IT is developing a bank of PlaceApps for Urban OS, but the company plans to publish its API so everyone from partners like Microsoft to self-taught bedroom coders can try their hand at PlaceApp development and even sell their creations in a virtual store.

With the Urban OS and its apps permeating every aspect of city life, we asked John Stenlake what the company was doing to avoid compromising residents’ security and privacy.

“In the general case, I don’t think there will be a lot of data that actually persists on the device, and anything that does persist we can encrypt, so quite honestly I don’t think there’s a huge security problem there,” he told us. “Obviously security and privacy is really important, and so all of the APIs require authentication, and there are authorisation levels by role and by identity for any call that you want to make against those APIs. A lot of these things end up being contextual, so for example you would be able to remotely control certain things in your apartment from your smartphone, but you wouldn’t be able to do it with your friend’s apartment — not even if you were standing in it, unless your friend had granted you those permissions.”

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