Urban noise can be quite a nuisance, but it can also provide a lot of valuable information about the city’s needs. A first of its kind project in the city of Santander will check if this data can actually be used to improve the lives of citizens and develop a better, smarter city.

Image via Ear-It

“The EAR-IT project is an EU FP7 co-funded project working over a two-years period (Oct’2012-Sep’2014) on the exiting challenges of using acoustic sensing in smart cities and smart building. With innovation and research in this area, the project will experiment in the city of Santander (Spain) and for intelligent building in Geneva, applications improving security, energy saving, traffic management and more. The project idea will conduct a large-scale ‘real-life’ experimentation of intelligent acoustics for supporting high social value applications fostering innovation and sustainability”, the project’s website reads.

Basically, they want to record sounds and see how this data can benefit residents. For example, an ambulance battling heavy traffic is a problem which could be solved thanks to this system. Pedro Malo, EAR-IT project coordinator, explains how this situation can be improved:

“As we can see, this ambulance needs to get to the hospital fast – lives can be at stake. So we’re proposing a technological solution – acoustic devices like this one – that can fast-track ambulances to the hospital by, for example, changing the traffic lights.”

The characteristic sound waves emitted by the ambulance can be picked up by sensors which will then pass it on, and traffic lights can be adapted to make way for the ambulance.

“Sensors have plenty of advantages,” says Györgi Nagy, a researcher in acoustic technologies at the Fraunhofer Institute for Digital Media Technology. “They are cost-efficient and can be used for multiple purposes. And acoustic sensors don’t need the line of sight: even if we don’t see the ambulance, we can still recognise it by the sound it makes.”

Santander is well on its way to becoming a smarter city, thanks to acoustic and electromagnetic sensors. Image via Unican.es

But there are even more advantages one could think of when it comes to this system – in the case of a robbery or gunshots, the sensors could pass on the data for a fast intervention. Juan Ramón Santana Martinez, a researcher in wireless sensor networks at the University of Cantabria said:

“We can monitor the traffic situation by measuring the noise levels on the streets, or we can even detect emergency situations: if there’s a cry for help or a gunshot, authorities can be alerted automatically.”

But it’s not just about acoustic sensors – electromagnetic sensors work too. You could for example design an app which shows you if there’s a parking spot available, and if yes, then where it is. This could help save time, gas and clear up traffic. It’s this kind of development which will lead the way for the future’s smart cities.

“By ‘smart city’ we mean a system that gathers data on various aspects of city life. It can help to manage traffic, energy consumption, or different parameters related to the environment. These systems make the city more convenient and more sustainable,” says Luis Muñoz, a researcher in wireless networks at the University of Cantabria.

But isn’t this a violation of privacy? If acoustic sensors capture all the environmental sounds, then they will also capture conversations. Won’t this pave the way for abusive recordings? Well, according to scientists, there are plenty of ears in the walls today and yet no personal conversations are recorded. What they want to implement is in no way different to recording systems which are already common in front of banks, public buildings and many other public areas.

Annika Sällström, an expert in user engagement at Luleå University of Technology’s Centre for Distance-Spanning Technology believes people won’t feel they are being spied on:

“People don’t want to be listened to, but still they can accept that audio is captured if it comes down to security and safety. We have found in our study that they can even give up a bit of their privacy for security, so if they can feel a safer city they can give up their privacy a bit.”

What do you think about this? The potential advantages of this technology are obvious – but are they worth giving up a bit of your privacy? Is there a way to grow the new generation of smart cities without giving up any of our civil liberties? I hope the answer is ‘yes’.