Smart tech helping to improve planning in Liverpool, NSW

Liverpool City Council is using smart sensor technology to gain a greater understanding of pedestrian and traffic movements within its CBD to help inform its planning decisions as the Sydney suburb grows.  Liverpool City Council is using smart sensor technology to gain a greater understanding of pedestrian and traffic movements within its CBD to help inform its planning decisions as the Sydney suburb grows.  

Liverpool City Council has undertaken a project to gain a greater understanding of how pedestrians and traffic move around its central business district.

At the beginning of September, Liverpool City Council rezoned 25 hectares of land in its CBD, allowing for mixed-use development and helping enable what it forecasts will become Sydney’s third CBD.

The momentum growing on delivery of the Western Sydney Airport, which began construction in September 2018, the Badgerys Creek Aerotropolis and the proposed Western Parklands City concept under the Greater Sydney Commission’s Western City District Plan also paints the picture of this new bustling business and community hub within the New South Wales capital.

Likewise, the establishment of new University of Wollongong (UOW) and Western Sydney University campuses in Liverpool in the past 18 months and the new $740 million Liverpool Health and Academic Precinct on its way also means the Western Sydney suburb is capitalising on its exponential growth.

With many of these major developments now underway, Senior Officer City Innovation at Liverpool City Council Emily Tinson says the council expects Liverpool’s population will double over the next eight years.

“The change around planning in the city centre from business to mixed-use opens up the opportunity for multipurpose buildings which could accommodate residential, office space or retail – this will attract more residents, students and workers. We’re also home to Liverpool Hospital – one of the biggest teaching hospitals in Australia – which will undergo a major expansion. This is significant in itself,” Ms. Tinson says.

With Liverpool positioned well for expansion through these major developments, the city is putting in motion ways to best manage and monitor this growth, given the necessity for the council to cater for nearly double the population in less than a decade.

“Liverpool is looking for new ways to gain insight about how people and traffic use the city centre,” Ms. Tinson says. “If we know where people are going and how they are using the CBD, that’s going to help us plan for when the population of the city increases.”

The council wanted to use a system to count pedestrian and vehicle movements around the city centre, collecting data from smart devices and camera counting technology. This information would then be used to inform urban design and traffic management decisions around the area’s growth. Liverpool City Council then began discussions with UOW and other universities about how they could come up with the technical solution for the project.

Senior Professor Pascal Perez, Director of UOW’s SMART Infrastructure Facility, says with the new university campus in Liverpool, there was a strong consensus between UOW and Liverpool City Council to undertake a number of projects together addressing these concepts.

“Our SMART Infrastructure Facility and Digital Living Lab – a smart communities initiative – had already commenced a lot of projects around the Internet of Things (IoT) networks with a lot of interest in infrastructure, and the council’s project rang a bell for us,” he says.

Liverpool City Council engaged with UOW’s SMART Infrastructure Facility to help develop and use a prototype for the project, which utilised IoT concepts to help produce data the council could use to inform its decision making around planning and improving liveability in the CBD.

With a project in mind, Liverpool City Council then secured a grant to jointly fund the project under the first round of the Australian Government’s $50 million Smart Cities and Suburbs program, which set its Smart Pedestrian Project in motion.

Under the Australian Government grant, the project team had to undertake the work within 12 months, beginning in March last year. “The council wanted an evidence-based solution to know where people are in the CBD, where they are parking, how they are moving between shopping areas – what’s key now and in the future as a result of the anticipated urban change. We also had to make sure it was non-invasive to the public and maintained their privacy,” Snr. Prof. Perez explains.

The challenge was to develop a way of understanding the mobility patterns of people, cars and bikes that could provide the right information, but also keep the privacy of the public, now and into the future. “Liverpool also has the planned Western Parklands City and Badgerys Creek projects coming up, which means there will be a lot more people living in the area and meant there was a need for council to prepare themselves, particularly with air pollution,” Snr. Prof. Perez explains. “How much exposure in terms of public health can we expect? To understand that, we need to benchmark it.”

UOW’s SMART Infrastructure Facility researchers developed a unique solution that uses a combination of Liverpool City Council’s existing CCTV network, image recognition, Wi-Fi and LoRaWAN – digital networking technology that creates a wireless network that can cover large distances with low power – to produce a smart sensor.

The research team then retrofitted the council’s CCTV assets with smart visual sensors and an algorithm that, rather than identifying people in the camera’s field of vision, would give them a tracking number that tracks their mobility.

“Each smart sensor perceives people, vehicles and bicycles and extracts their mobility patterns anonymously. Mathematical modelling then allows reconstruction of movement through the area, showing mobility patterns within the CBD, with the whole process being privacy compliant,” Snr. Prof. Perez explains.

“It’s revisiting the concept of a camera – it’s profiling in one way but using smart sensors to avoid any issues of privacy.”

By retrofitting the existing CCTV system, the project team was able to bypass the current installation and connect their server to the system – essentially using the existing network as sensors rather than cameras.

It also uses the existing set up to monitor air quality in real-time.

“The novelty of the system comes from the fact we’ve been able to retrofit the existing CCTV with smart sensors,” Snr. Prof. Perez says, adding that the combination of all these different technological facets into one smart sensor is believed to be a first for Australia.

“The backbone of this IoT network will be that the council can link freely free with any new servers they want,” he says. “Basically we’ve come up with a system that’s open source and able to be hooked onto any kind of dashboard. It will fit the needs of what the council is trying to achieve through this project, but it can be adapted to use new technology and address further needs for the future.

“It’s creating a new level of information for the city and its roads and exploring what different purposes that information can be used for.”

While the technological aspects of the Smart Pedestrian Project have worked in theory and practice, Snr. Prof. Perez says community engagement was paramount to the project delivering the outcomes the council wanted.

“It’s important they understand the process and the protection of the privacy of those involved – we don’t want to be Big Brother.”

Communicating what the project aimed to achieve around improving mobility and liveability of the city meant community engagement was positive, with participants going so far as to suggest to the team where the best spots for the sensors would be.

Snr. Prof. Perez says delivering the Smart Pedestrian Project with Liverpool City Council and similar data-driven, smart city applications require a set goal in mind from day one.

“A key thing on this project and other smart city applications is having a really clear definition of the problems and what the innovation will be used for from the start,” he says. “Data is the becoming of it. This technology, for instance, can be used for more than just tracking mobility – it can be used to inform a whole different range of things but this just needs to be clearly identified from start to finish.

“A lot can be done to the Liverpool CBD to improve its liveability and innovativeness and the council has great plans for that in the future.”

Once the project ends in March next year, the data gathered from the sensors will be used by Liverpool City Council to assist in its urban planning and decision-making processes around the CBD.

For Liverpool City Council, the project signifies a shift towards embracing the smart city concept – a move it is taking one step at a time. “Understanding what’s happening on our streets now and where we can build and monitor growth over time will have an impact on decisions the council makes in the future. It’s putting our toes in the water in smart city ideas where using data and information is key,” Ms. Tinson explains.

“I think, for us, we really want to do something ourselves and do something that works before we delve into other smart city applications, and there are so many different things out there.

“We’re just concentrating on a relatively smaller project and where it works for us as an organisation.”

Because the Smart Pedestrian Project utilises the city’s existing CCTV network and an open source platform, it arms the council with the ability to explore more data-driven projects down the line.

“I think the experience we gain from this is going to be so valuable in terms of building on smart city ideas and applying it to other existing services,” Ms. Tinson says.

“If it’s successful, we’ll expand and build on it for the future.”

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