Car wars: Could IoT solve all our traffic problems?

23 Feb 2018

Prof Siobhán Clarke, principal investigator, SFI Connect research centre. Image: Paul Sharp/SHARPPIX

Prof Siobhán Clarke is leading the new SFI Enable research programme, which uses IoT to make urban areas more liveable. She spoke to Dr Claire O’Connell.

If you have been in Dublin city centre of late, you probably know all about congestion. At the very least, you would have had plenty of time to think about it as your bus inched around College Green.

But take heart: on the very doorstep of that traffic chokepoint in the city, Prof Siobhán Clarke at Trinity College Dublin (TCD) is heading up a new group of researchers and industry partners called Enable, and it wants to use the internet of things (IoT) – a network of connected sensors and devices – to help citizens move and live more easily in urban areas.

Smart urban areas

Enable will engage communities and citizens in a co-design process to see which technology solutions can address real-life issues in urban areas, according to Clarke, who is a professor in TCD’s School of Computer Science and Statistics.

“At Enable, we use the tagline of ‘Connecting communities to smart urban environments through the internet of things,’” she explained.

“There are a number of different research challenges, from sensing information and providing a good understanding of what is going on in the environment in real time, through to using that information to make good decisions about what should be done to make the city work better.”

And getting cities to work better will be increasingly important as the 21st century progresses. Clarke cites a figure from the United Nations that by 2050, around 70-75pc of the world’s population is expected to be living in urban areas.

“That brings a lot of strain on cities, and on the services that cities are expected to provide,” she said.

Connecting research and industry

Anchored in the Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) Connect Centre and linked to the SFI Insight and Lero research centres, the new €14.5m SFI Enable research programme was launched late last month.

Its 60 academic researchers across TCD, Dublin City University, Cork Institute of Technology, Maynooth University, NUI Galway, University College Cork and the University of Limerick will work in partnership with more than 25 companies, including large multinationals such as Intel and Huawei, and SMEs such as Cork-based Accuflow.

“Enable is not coming out of the blue,” said Clarke, adding that they have already been engaging with the Smart Dublin initiative. “We are bringing people together to address the challenges.”


Prof Siobhán Clarke speaking at the launch of SFI Enable. Image: SFI Connect

Not stuck on the bus

So, how will the researchers solve that challenge of the commuter getting stuck in traffic as they cross Dublin city or any other? By using real-time information from multiple sources, they hope to develop an app that can figure out the best way to keep moving.

“The app might tell you that the traffic isn’t great at the moment, so you should get off the bus at the next stop and there are bikes available nearby. It can also tell you there are spaces to leave the bike back at a stop where you can get on the Luas,” Clarke explained.

“It may also bring in aspects such as the weather – it might let you know that the weather is expected to improve shortly so you could get off the bus a little early and walk.”

As well as improving mobility and way-finding, the researchers at Enable also hope to tackle other important urban issues, such as energy efficiency and waste management.

Early engagement

The key to getting everything to work is early engagement with communities and citizens, and co-designing solutions, according to Clarke. “There is no point in us as technologists pushing out technological solutions and saying, ‘Here you go,’” she said.

“We want to engage citizens and talk to them about it, and that will help us in design of solutions.”

Testbeds are also important for developing technology for urban environments, said Clarke, and Enable research will engage with initiatives in Cork’s Albert Quay, Dublin Docklands and CHQ, Croke Park, and the Mallow Urban Rural Testbed.

Building the pipeline

Clarke’s own journey into researching smart cities and urban environments began with a love of maths, though she had to go out of her way a little to study it at honours level for Leaving Cert. “They didn’t teach honours maths in the convent school in Longford, which was common at the time, and I had to go to the boys’ school,” she recalled.

“But that put me on the path of STEM and I did a degree in computer science and I went to work in IBM. That gave me a lot of experience in software engineering.”

Clarke went on to do a PhD and she wanted to carry out research in a challenging area with applications in the real world – making cities smarter fit the bill.

She would like to see more women getting involved in computer science and software engineering, and she actively encourages more young girls to develop an interest and go on to apply for jobs and research positions in the area.

“I think there is a pipeline issue,” she said. “And it’s important to have role models, because we need more women applying.”

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Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication