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Accessible Smart Cities

Podcast episode 47

The Smart City of the future is being built today. But as foundational as 5G will be, its true power is unleashed when it’s combined with the Internet of Things, Machine Learning, Cloud Computing – and good User Interface design. Telecom analyst Chris Lewis says we have a unique opportunity to build the next generation city as accessible for all – not just the abled or wealthy.

Below is a transcript of this conversation. Some parts have been edited for clarity.

Michael Hainsworth: The smart city of the future is being built today, but as foundational as 5G will be, it's true power is unleashed when it's combined with other advances like smart sensors and devices, artificial intelligence, cloud computing, and good user interface design. We have a unique opportunity to make the next generation city accessible for all, not just for the abled and the wealthy. Visually impaired independent telecom analyst Chris Lewis says, when building inclusiveness into our technology, everyone benefits. And he tells me when we think about smart cities, we should imagine a series of concentric circles.

Chris Lewis: As an analyst, you're always looking for frameworks within which to analyze the particular topic and the concentric circles with the individual at the center, then surrounded by the household and business, and then surrounded by society, and the outside, is a great way for me to frame thinking around how people communicate with each other, how businesses communicate, how society communicates, and especially from the point of view of people with disability, how we could design things more inclusively for all of those information flows.

MH: In the past, we sort of thought of services in isolation in these concentric circles they're designed to make us think about how each one is connected to the other.

CL: Absolutely. So, the fact that the individual at the center of it has to react and respond and be connected with buyer, a number of different parties. So, if you think of information flows coming off you as an individual, some of those come back to you and you might be health monitoring your health tracker. Some of them might go off to your doctor, to a carer. Some might go off to your local council, local government or central government. So there's many information flows which you are the center of all those flows. And that's what's fascinating is that we used to have individual flows and think about end to end flow in one particular area. This is now about bringing it all together and thinking how holistically we get better service for the individual, better participation in business and society.

MH: Historically, technologies don't take off on their own, it's when we combine them with others that we get new tools and we get those big leaps. What are some of the other tools that we bring together with 5G to create the smart city that's accessible to all?

CL: So 5G obviously provides the cellular connection, the wireless connection, in some cases, it provides fixed wireless access as well. So obviously, we need to combine that with fiber and the best quality connectivity on a fixed broadband basis on one level. But of course, connectivity is not enough on its own. So in addition to that, we need to have the storage and compute power that allows us to process all the information. We need access to the range of applications that support our personal and our business lives. And perhaps most importantly, we need the analytics layer, which actually literally analyzes what's going on in real time between all of the different components. So we're bringing together many different technological fees, many different service fees. And it's the combination of all of those things that actually makes life, and business a lot easier.

MH: And the big data that comes with bringing all of those components together is pretty significant. I know many cities have signed onto the open data project. Is this part of the foundation of a more accessible city?

CL: It takes us back to the issue about bringing in different tools and streams together. So, if you think of a major city, I live here in London, the transport system for the first time under the council that runs London, actually has an open data architecture, where anybody can get access to all the data relating to for example, all the different forms of transport. So, as a disabled person, a blind person that I am, I can now get apps that actually take that information in and combine everything from bus, taxi, trains, to whatever, to allow me to live better within the city.

So, yes, it's a really important element because it's not just about and traffic and parking, which a lot of people think about. It's about blending all of those different datasets together, some in the government area, some in the government public area, but of course stuff in the private area as well, because what you really want to be able to do is combine all of those publicly available information with information, say about a particular building. If you're going to visit a particular building for a meeting, then it's important that you can tap into that information as well. So there's a real combination of datasets here, not just on the public front, but also on the private as well.

MH: You set the example as someone who has the need for this kind of information, standing at a bus stop in central London, how do you even know if it's the right bus that approaches you?

CL: Well, you know there's many ways as we say of skinning a cat, although I'm not sure it's the right phrase to use, but the issue is certainly throughout my life is, in the early days when I had a useful sight or enough useful sight I would use a monocular to try and read the number, but it's a moving target, so it's difficult. There are various OCR and character recognition piece of software now that you can add onto your mobile phone. But at the end of the day, the most often use form is actually asking someone next to you and luckily in a secular London, there's nearly always someone standing at the bus stop with you. So, the human combined with technology actually is often the best solution to many of these issues.

MH: When we spoke with science fiction author, Cory Doctorow, he told us in 2018 that almost all major technology starts as an enabling technology for the disabled and he cited speech to text as an example. Do you buy into that idea, that most of the big advances we have today were in part started for those who couldn't use one service or another?

CL: I don't necessarily agree with this premise, but what has happened is that, we develop particular services in particular technology around individual disabilities. So your speech to text example or indeed text to speech, both directions of that is obviously important for the visually impaired. A lot of this stuff around optical character recognition was more generic. And I think I prefer to put it into the context of saying, the way in which we as humans communicate via all of our different senses.

We, for the first time with the smart device, with high speed connectivity, reliable connectivity, we have the ability to build a proxy for many of those services. So, I think often you'll find the research that was done into many of these technologies, it's an academic exercise, it may be driven by some particular requirement within a particular disability group, but I'm not sure that's true anymore.

In fact, we're now in a position where innovation comes in based upon the fact that we can program much more easily. We've got the connectivity, the storage, the compute, wherever we want to have it. And we have the sensors and other devices around us which we can bring in. So, I think it's now much more a question of having the technology to be able to wrap around people. Whereas in the past, we almost forced fitted people into a particular technology because we were trying to just address just that one issue.

MH: Well, smart speakers, that's one of your favorite developments in recent years, and there's a speech to text component to that.

CL: Do you now it's interesting there are a lot of people say, oh, you know, is this privacy issue and you really want to be telling them all they're listening to you all the time. Actually, in my household, I probably have half a dozen of them. Obviously, I use it regularly just for listening to the radio, actually being a blind person and not seeing things written down a lot. I use it for spelling sometimes as well, but how the hell do you spell this particular word? But more importantly, it links me into the things that manage the household.

So, lighting bizarrely is actually an important issue for visually impaired people because you particular lighting can really affect certain sensitivity conditions. And so, actually access to the thermostats, to the lighting system all over the house is really important. And then of course add to that, the fact that gives you a gateway out to do all your shopping via whatever your favorite retail application is and of course communication as well.

And the other piece, which I think is important to mention, which people don't always think about, the smart doorbell, which I think is a favorite of yours. Actually, the camera function in that for hearing impaired people, for deaf people, when someone who arrives at the door that they know in their database, it will flash a green light but if it's someone they don't know it flashing the red light. So it's an awareness, it's adapting around the individual and a lot of it is mainstream technology, which is great because it's giving you that interface.

MH: You call the smartphone, the proxy for the senses? How do we leverage it for those who senses are diminished?

CL: Well, I think that the sheer power in your hand that is there from the fact that you've got this device with increasingly powerful camera, which of course is a proxy for the eyes, increasingly powerful microphone, which is a proxy for your hearing and then the processing power and the apps, there we say a proxy for the brain in many cases, but it's there to be leveraged to help people in whatever way.

So, a great example of combining the technology with the human factor as I mentioned earlier on the bus stop is an app called Be My Eyes. Whereas a blind person, you point your phone and what you're trying to understand. And it polls for a volunteer somewhere in the world who will then look at it and actually relate through the communication channel and what you're looking at. And I actually used it bizarrely to be able to change a thermostat in a hotel when I was in China recently because I couldn't get any help from the people in the hotel, but the people on BMI has helped me actually set the temperature to the right temperature by telling me which buttons to push.

MH: Wait a minute, you're telling me you have crowd-sourced eyeballs?

CL: Exactly.

MH: So then, all of that is tied into 4G, that's what most people's smartphones are today. So, what does 5G offer that 4G can't?

CL: The promise of 5G when delivered ubiquitously, is that we will get obviously higher speed. So that allows even more of that video eyeballing as you just talked about. It will give us the ability to put in lower latency. So if there's a particular requirement, let's say in a healthcare or social care application or a medical environment where I get much better response time. And then also built into the standard is the issue of location as well. So one of the issues I've always had with using navigation systems as a blind person is they're just not accurate enough. So we need the next generation of accuracy so that when I'm walking down the street, I can avoid those bollards, which are just knee high and can cause major problems.

MH: One of the big advances that 5G offers over 4G is the concept of network slicing. Do you see 5G network slicing as helping bridge this digital divide for the disabled or the elderly for example?

CL: Slicing for me is still an issue to be clarified in terms of exactly what it's going to deliver. Because of course, we're basing the slicing importance on the way we think about the network and the delivery of the network service, whereas actually most of these services we're talking about combined other things like compute storage application and data that we talked about earlier on. So, I am sure that when we get slicing right, that, that guaranteed delivery end-to-end will be valuable in areas let's say in health monitoring into the home because we do see 5G as a way of getting health services and we have some great experience or exposure to that during the pandemic time. So yes it will, but the jury is still out, it's one of those technology, which is still some way away from being widely available and the application of it in different areas is still unclear.

MH: From where I see it, we have the opportunity to create these independent networks that are focused on whatever the key need is. You could have a slice that is super high speed, very low latency, which could give you those eyeballs that we're talking about on a virtual basis. And then other aspects of that would require a great bandwidth, but not necessarily the kind of latency that we're talking about here.

CL: It's true and therefore it's about the application, it's about the way we consume services and information but of course, bear in mind that application I described to you would be my eyes, I was using in China on a smartphone over a wifi connection connected to the hotel and then presumably over some international connection. So, the best effort of the internet actually was fit for purpose for delivering that service. So, we've got to be careful not to assume that just because we can do something like slicing with all that low latency and high bandwidth that is going to apply to everything.

And of course, if you have to pay for it and we know that disabled people generally earn... If they're in employment earn roughly two thirds of what their circled able-bodied peers earn. So actually cost is an issue. So, we have to look at who's going to pay for that service. Now, if we're thinking about delivering a medical application, then of course that's going to be funded through the healthcare system, whether that's private or public and social care to the same extent or possibly a little less extent.

But yeah, it's a really interesting question about how we apply technology and do we always apply the latest technology or is when I worked for a software company back in the late '80s, it was, does it do its job? Is it fit for purpose? And a lot of the Internet is fit for purpose today. And we keep thinking it's going to fall over, but it just seems to keep going.

MH: As we build smart cities with 5G as a foundational technology, you've made the case that, inclusion must be designed and developed into the application or device from the outset. We can't just bolt on the kind of accessibility services that are required by a certain percentage of the population.

CL: No, we can't and I speak from painful experience over many years of fighting computers using my screen reader software, to be able to get access to especially more recently, to all the different webinars and collaboration tools. There's no standardization in terms of the hot key to mute and unmute the button of the call or whatever. , But if you build it in from scratch, then the way in which I would navigate my way to find buttons on a screen, or to put a question in a Q and A feed that becomes much more available.

Whereas, when you add it on afterwards, it's that sort of clunky add on, it can't possibly get the benefit of all of the features of an application. So, the good news is, that increasingly organizations like Apple and the Android community are building it into the operating system and indeed Microsoft as well. But then we need to make sure that people are more aware in the applications world to design it from scratch because the billion people, roughly in the world who have some form of disability, it's a big potential market. You want to include them in it from an economic point of view, as well as from a sort of global sustainability point of view.

And then of course, the awareness of the businesses and authorities, when you're building applications, you want to make sure you have that available to bring everyone into the fold. And I think in a smart city environment, we know there's a percentage of people who we call them the digitally impoverished who don't have access to it. It's not always the disabled, it may be people who just fall below the line of being able to afford all those services. So we need to build it from scratch. So there's no additional cost. So it's just there as part of it. But also the benefit to everyone is great because we tend to design more simplified, better interfaces, which actually work for everybody.

And if you, as a fully sighted person, sometimes want to use some of the channels that I use to communicate, the example of text to speech you mentioned, or dictation, yeah, it's available for everybody. So you begin to choose your preferred channel of communication, your preferred means of interacting, whether it's interacting with your smartphone, with your smart speaker, your home, or indeed when you're out and about in the city.

MH: As developers of 5G services and new technologies, I suppose important for us to recognize the value of not being penny wise but pound foolish, because bridging the digital divide feels like it would be more expensive to ensure inclusiveness at the outset, but down the road, it pays back dividends.

CL: It's an interesting thought and I think in the past it would have been more expensive because we design things for each particular disability. Whereas now, because we've got this common platform of the smart device, whether it's a phone or speaker or whatever, that actually we've got a common platform upon which we can build more services. So, I'm not sure it's going to be at that much more expensive, but the awareness when people build the apps and really importantly, when they refresh the apps as well as really an issue, because of course people tend to change the companies they work with to refresh their apps and that the next company may not be so aware of the accessibility question or the internal team may change.

So, yeah, awareness is absolutely key. And I don't think that the cost is going to be prohibitive, the awareness is what we need to raise for all parties concerned, whether it's a transport app or whether it's an entertainment app or going to a sports stadium. All these things you think they wouldn't be relevant for people with different disabilities, but they are. I want to be able to navigate to my seat when I go to Wembley to watch a football match or whatever it may be, and the components are there. That's really intriguing, is that all of the pieces are there, it's a question of making sure that everyone is aware of it on an ongoing basis and it's built into thinking from the get-go.

MH: So you pointed out when we talked about the network slicing component, so 5G, that's really not here just yet, we're still on 3GPP Release 15 that's not till 17. We still have some time to go before we get to that point where a lot of the power of 5G has been unleashed. So, lets sort of fast forward a decade, once we've gotten past all of those releases, the build-out has happened. What does an accessible smart city look like to you?

CL: The future gazing is always fascinating, isn't it? Because I certainly envisage a time when, if I'm going to a meeting in the center of London, that either I can have that fully integrated transport experience where I know when the bus is coming, I know where to get off, where to get on the tube. Obviously the accuracy of navigation helps me, but of course, then when I get to the meeting, ideally in the building, it will tell me which door to go in and navigate me to the room. So, I should be independent of any human intervention. So that's my dream.

Now, of course, whether that espresso and almond croissant is waiting on the desk when I walk into the meeting room, is another matter. But that whole notion of personalizing your journey, your activity, your route to a particular shop, or to a restaurant, all of that should be made very straightforward. And of course, you think of all the sort of citizen services that are delivered in the city, and all the services we consume, all of those services can be made more accessible by building this in at the beginning.

And with that ubiquitous, reliable connectivity that 5G combined with the expansion of fiber also brings, we should have no excuse for wrapping that service around everybody. And as I say, it benefits everybody, it doesn't just benefit me. It would make your journeys into the center of Toronto or whatever much easier as well.

MH: I think you just hit on a brilliant opportunity for the hyperscalers to leverage 5G, ACAS, almond croissants as a service.

CL: Just my personal favorite Michael.

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