Insight enhances smart city network for the City of Whittlesea

Report production has gone from days to minutes under the new system.

Microsoft partner Insight has enabled a Victorian council bolster its internet of things (IoT) data as part of a larger smart city initiative.

The global cloud and connected workforce specialist deployed a new system that collects and stores data in an Azure-based platform for the City of Whittlesea.

Completed in June, the new system collects the data from the  Northern Melbourne Smart Cities Network, a LoRaWAN network that tracks footfall, air quality and environmental factors monitoring, water level monitoring, waste management collection and assets.

The smart city network was formed through a collaboration with the City of Whittlesea, RMIT University, La Trobe University and IoT sensor and telemetry vendor Minnovation Technologies, and has been rolled out across Moreland City Council, Banyule City Council, Mitchell Shire Council and Nillumbik Shire Council.

With the new system working with the smart city network, the City of Whittlesea was able to introduce self-service analytics, with Power BI being used for data exploration.

That usage of Power BI in particular has allowed Whittlesea council staff to cut down the time it takes to generate a report significantly, with data location previously taking two to three days. Now, producing reports takes minutes.

The system stores the data on the Azure platform in two zones — a raw data zone and then a curated zone. The latter zone has the data indexed by council, data and time, and is orchestrated using Data Factory and Data Bricks.

George Ibrahim, head of business insights and analytics at the City of Whittlesea, said the system can bring the council’s data into its own environment, which can then be shared elsewhere.

“It allows us to bring that data in, in a raw format and curate that data and split it in between each council and then transform that data using the Azure functionalities into our data warehouse, and then individually into data smarts for each person to actually use, or each council to use," he said.

“And each database administrator is basically the owner of their database. And if they want to share their data with anybody else, they can, if they don’t want to, they don’t have to. So, it was just an easy environment to set up and maintain.”

The system has also been used so far to observe how recent parks and assets have been used in Victoria’s lockdown. As the state lifts restrictions, Hans Wolf, chief information officer for the City of Whittlesea, believes the system will be able to use the captured data to determine how residents are changing their activities.

“We’ll have the trends of what things were happening during the COVID period and what it was like outside of a COVID period," Wolf said.

“You can see people activity in some of our shopping strips. And then you can see the people activity completely fall away. It’s nice to be able to share that with the local traders, so they can get an understanding of when things are coming back up again from a pure data perspective.”

Additionally, the fact the data collection storage is cloud-based gives the council the flexibility in retaining its data should it decide to move cloud providers.

The system was brought in to inform the local council about its asset usage — it previously relied on “a lot of experience and a lot of intuition”, according to Wolf.

“We didn’t have any data on the use of some of the assets that councils provide. We didn’t really know…if you build a park, how do you know how many people are using that park, whether there’s a playground in it, whether that makes a difference to how many people use that park?” Wolf said.

“That’s where the concept of this IoT and sensors came from. If we were going to invest in a park and a playground, what was the patronage before that playground went in, and what was the patronage after? How do we prove that it was successful in attracting people to the park?”

Insight’s role in the project was labelled as “extensive” by Ibrahim, with its contributing spanning from initial pitching and scoping sessions, the designing and building of the Azure Data platform, as well as working with other vendors to consolidate data onto the platform.

“They were key in liaising with vendors Minnovation and Assetic to get the data into its environment as well as working with the councils business and analytics team to work out what how best to leverage the technology to other surrounding councils,” he said.

The overall IoT LoRaWAN network has also been made available for public use, with 75 per cent of current traffic usage not being related to the council.

This includes tech schools in the Whittlesea, Banyule and Nullumbik areas, which are planning to introduce an after-school program next year for students in year 7-10 to track and monitor waterway health through sensors.

There are plans across the whole system to bring in new sensors, such as monitoring feral animals, checking if bird-boxes are being used by birds and tracking noise levels in areas with high levels of complaints.

Eventually, Wolf wants the system’s sensor’s to be able to trigger maintenance jobs, such as filling in a pothole or fixing a waterway that’s about to burst.

“We want to get our staff out there blocking off the bike paths and things like that so that the water doesn’t affect safety," he said.

“We want to know all that stuff before the community tells us. We think that’s genuinely the best customer service we can provide, knowing about things and fixing things before anyone notices.”