Ensuring urban transport and city inhabitant mobility are both as efficient and sustainable as possible is one of the political and technological challenges facing cities of the future. In recent years, innovative new transport services (such as ride sharing) have been developed which attempt to meet these demands, but they also present new complex operational challenges, ranging from deciding how many parking spaces are required for vehicle fleets to calculating the best possible route to a destination based on traffic conditions. The Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC) has launched the OptimalSharing@SmartCities project with the aim of providing efficient shared transport solutions in Barcelona by creating a new group of smart "agile optimization" algorithms capable of quickly processing large volumes of data to support real-time decision-making.
"More efficient decision-making means inhabitants can save time, reduce energy consumption and increase safety and social wellbeing within a city the size of Barcelona," stated professor Ángel A. Juan, lead researcher and project coordinator for the Internet Computing & Systems Optimization (ICSO) group at the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute (IN3) and member of the Faculty of Computer Science, Multimedia and Telecommunications at the UOC and full professor of the Universitat Politècnica de València (UPV).
The UPV, the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya (UPC) and Spindox Labs, a private company belonging to Italy's Spindox Group, are also participating in the project, which is being funded by Barcelona City Council and the "La Caixa" Foundation.
Identifying mobility patterns using Open Data BCN
Cities like Barcelona produce large volumes of information in real time from sensors, cameras and other electronic devices in vehicles and infrastructure equipped with the Internet of Things. The new project will focus on analysing this type of information, gleaned in this case from Open Data BCN, the open data service operated by Barcelona City Council. "The first step will involve analysing all of the available data concerning inhabitants' mobility, using machine learning algorithms to identify both mobility patterns and citizens' demands," stated Ángel A. Juan.
Constant, real-time reoptimization
With these data in hand the next challenge to tackle will be the development of algorithms capable of optimizing shared transport practices in real time, such as car sharing – time-based use of a shared vehicle – and ride sharing – sharing short journeys or routes in a single vehicle. With these challenges in mind the ICSO Group, alongside other national and international researchers, have developed a set of agile optimization algorithms.
"Coordinating traffic flow for the sheer number of vehicles within a system as dynamic as a smart city, with its constantly shifting traffic and environmental conditions, is a highly complex process and decisions must be both efficient and prompt, meaning traditional methods – as well as those requiring longer computation times – cannot be used. This is where agile algorithms play a crucial part, as they allow for the continuous real-time reoptimization of these dynamic systems," highlighted the coordinator of OptimalSharing@SmartCities.
A traffic simulator for Barcelona
To ensure the validation of results produced by the concepts and algorithms developed over the course of the project the researchers will create a platform capable of producing the "most realistic possible" simulation of a city's traffic, taking Barcelona as the test type. "The platform will provide information to policymakers, industrial partners and other stakeholders on how to coordinate car and ride sharing operations for the city based on financial, environmental sustainability and social considerations," explained the researcher.
Development of the simulator is being led by Spindox Labs, a company with a number of years' experience in applying advanced technology to real life, showing the project's commitment to university-industry collaboration. "We are very grateful for the invitation to work on this project. Spindox are very much oriented towards applied research and the chance to work alongside the UOC – a relationship which has already been developed in other areas – is a great opportunity for us to apply the results of our endeavours in a city as large and complex as Barcelona," said Paolo Marone, Spindox's Country Manager Spain.
An open science-based project
The project is scheduled for completion in mid-2023 and is being developed based on open science policies. This means the outcomes, both in terms of underlying concepts and algorithms and the traffic simulation platform, will be publicly available so partners and stakeholders will be able to try out new transport models based on car and ride sharing principles. In this way, the project will secure the involvement of various companies and organizations operating within the fields of both urban mobility and sustainable transport. "We are behind open science at the UOC. We believe the knowledge generated by universities and research centres should not only be published in the best scientific journals (another important aspect), but also prove useful for sector companies and organizations such as Barcelona City Council in terms of offering better services to citizens," said the researcher.
Consequently, one of the project objectives is "exporting the results and lessons learnt to other cities in Spain such as Valencia and even further afield to other European cities, bearing in mind the fact Spindox is a multinational company based in Italy," concluded Ángel A. Juan.
This UOC research supports Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 9, which focuses on making improvements to industry, innovation and infrastructure.
This is one of the four research projects the UOC is involved in, and one of the two that the UOC is coordinating, from among the seven receiving funding from the grants programme run by "La Caixa" Foundation and Barcelona City Council, as part of the Barcelona Science Plan 2020-2023, to help develop a response to the most pressing urban challenges.
The UOC's research and innovation (R&I) is helping overcome pressing challenges faced by global societies in the 21st century, by studying interactions between technology and human & social sciences with a specific focus on the network society, e-learning and e-health.
The United Nations' 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and open knowledge serve as strategic pillars for the UOC's teaching, research and innovation. More information: research.uoc.edu #UOC25years