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Tech talk: Smart Cities

SPEAKING AT WTM LONDON LATE LAST YEAR, Dimitrios Buhalis, director of the eTour­ism Lab at Bournemouth University, led a debate on ‘smart tourism’, looking at how smart cities can better cater for holidaymakers. Business travellers also stand to benefit, but questions are being raised over aspects such as definitions, standards, data sharing, privacy and even accommodation.

What is a smart city? The British Stan­dards Institution is working on a definition, according to Alan Fletcher, chief liaison officer at MK:Smart – a Milton Keynes initiative that was a finalist at last year’s World Smart City Awards 2015. Currently, BSI defines a smart city as one where there is “effective integration of physical, digital and human systems in the ‘built environ­ment ’ to deliver a sustainable, prosperous and inclusive future for its citizens”.

But opinions vary and Paul Dear, global director of supplier and industry affairs at HRG, says he is concerned a smart city has yet to have an “essential definition” among the public. “It is a buzz topic – it’s great to look at the future,” he says. “But with all these things, it’s about standardisation.

As well as Milton Keynes, notable smart cities include Barcelona, London, Singa­pore and Helsinki. One trait these desti­nations share is that real-time transport data can be easily accessed – in the case of Milton Keynes, transport data comprises ten application programme interfaces (APIs) and datasets, alongside data from other sectors, such as energy and water, in the MK Data Hub, the technical and data infrastructure of the MK:Smart project.

Frictionless travel, as a result, may be a big draw for an organisation looking for, say, a conference or meeting host city. With increasing amounts of data available, in particular from those cities embracing the Internet of Things, could a smart city have an edge over other cities?

“HRG’s Meetings, Groups and Events division is the fastest growing sector, and we have a very large team looking at the right venue,” says Dear. “Being plugged into a smart city could be a dif­ferentiation for us, but it depends if that is the best venue: if we had a large con­ference, what is the shortest distance for the delegates to travel? Is there an airline network or alliance that can take everyone into one place?”

However, there is also scope for travel management companies (TMCs) to harness the data for their own tools. “The utopia of total trip is where the travel indus­try is heading, ensuring total connectivity once the traveller is there,” adds Dear.

Florian Tinnus, head of corporate IT at Amadeus IT Group, goes further. “If thou­sands of delegates were attending a large conference in a smart city, Amadeus tech­nology could provide taxi companies or the visitors’ bureau with business intelligence and, potentially, relevant travel itinerary details, to help them better welcome those visiting their city,” he says.

“We also have the technology to offer individual travellers personalised local destination content, such as restaurant reservations or city tours, and we could notify drivers and hotels if flights are delayed. Smart cities can also help com­panies ensure the safety of their travel­lers in the event of natural disaster or other crises.”


There are apps that already plug into smart cities, according to Charlotte Lamp Davies, vice-president of travel and hos­pitality at Data Art, citing Google Now as being able to plug into a city’s transport data, then overlay hotel, entertainment and weather options.

Yet, she argues, a TMC could develop an app that would really benefit the traveller overseas: “It is likely smart city data will be communicated using semantic data struc­tures. In this way, semantic data makes it much easier for applications to break down language barriers. Where this will make a difference for business travellers is when they are travelling in a country where they don’t speak the language. However, the application will be able to take the semantic data and display it in the native tongue of the traveller.”


Meanwhile, accommodation provid­ers could stand to gain the most from smart cities in the near future. Michael McCartan is regional managing director for hotel profit optimisation software firm Duetto. He says: “Understanding the demand for accommodation in a destination is a key data set that Duetto uses to determine pricing. If smart cities are able to provide this data – for example, by capturing search requests on the des­tination websites – then Duetto would be able to incorporate the information into its hotel pricing algorithms and could share information back.”

Paul Richer, senior partner of consul­tancy Genesys, adds: “The smart city could play a useful role as an accommodation aggregator, in a similar vein to what tourism authorities have been doing for quite a while.”

Meanwhile, smart cities are better placed to address any “leaking” tax issues, potentially from users of Airbnb. Data Art’s Lamp Davies says: “A device may be tied into the smart city grid that can feed back data to the city that will help them monitor shared-economy businesses. It could give cities the ability to monitor, regulate and even tax these businesses.”

Whatever the scenario, MK:Smart’s Fletcher says he believes there is a “sea change in terms of the digital revolution, of connectivity” that cannot be ignored: “A city that understands its infrastruc­ture and pressures can really benefit a business traveller by putting forward the best way to travel, and times of travel, from start to finish. We’re half way through a three-year project. We have transport, water and energy and we’d be perfectly open to working with travel companies.”

“The smart city could play a useful role as an accommodation aggregator”


QUESTIONS SURROUNDING SMART CITIES include definition and standardisation.

“Arguably, a smart city defies definition,” says MK:Smart’s Alan Fletcher. “There isn’t a model of technology-defined protocols. For example, for a city such as Delhi, getting more toilets would be smarter than more wifi. A smart city enhances the lives of its citizens.”

He warns data will constantly change and evolve, and says smart cities need something that will recognise that, citing Hypercat – a UK government-funded consortium and standard driving the secure and interoperable Internet of Things for industry.

Meanwhile, Data Art’s Lamp Davies says free-flowing data is something that will only continue to grow. “Yes, from our customers’ standpoint, there are privacy, regulatory and competitive concerns when it comes to data sharing,” she says. “But look ahead ten to 20 years – the benefits of this data will likely begin to outweigh the drawbacks. And none of this sharing will happen on a large scale without organisation and collaboration – there will be standardisation and governing bodies set up that will work through these concerns. Just like the advent of e-commerce saw working groups to create standardised Extensible Markup Language (XML) structures for hotel, air and car transactions, this will almost certainly happen in smart cities as well.”


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