I was pleased to see that See.Sense won first prize in a BT and Cabinet Office smart cities competition earlier this month.
I’d met the company a few times, and everything about it creates an aura of good feeling – it’s about using technology to improve the experience of cycling, it’s a plucky little British company that has chosen to manufacture a high-value, high-tech product at home rather than offshoring to China, it’s helped to save a factory and jobs in a small community…I could go on.
It isn’t that the prize is so significant that it will change the company’s fortunes, but it’s nice to have one’s own positive impression confirmed, and it will help See.Sense to gain a bit more recognition.
The original idea for See.Sense came from founder Philip McAleese’s experience of cycling while working in Singapore. He had a few near misses with cars, and noticed that while the latter all had bright daylight-visible running lights, bicycles had to make do with much dimmer devices.
Making them brighter would require a bigger, cycle-unfriendly battery; McAleese’s brainwave was to add the kind of contextual awareness that was becoming available in the first generation of smartphones. In this way a connected bike light could be bright where and when it needed to be, and save its battery when it didn’t.
A little market research, a relocation back to Northern Ireland, and a Kickstarter-funded prototype device led to a first wave of sales, and to the discovery that the sensors which could be embedded into the bike light were much more accurate than originally anticipated.
It began to dawn on See.Sense that it was creating a user-funded network of mobile urban sensors, and that it was now in the big data business. The smartphone ecosystem means that the app, as well as the light’s firmware, can be upgraded, and the lights themselves are upgraded and replaced often enough that the deployed ‘fleet’ of sensors is likely to be weighted towards the latest model.
The product, now called the ICON, is a lightweight USB-rechargeable bicycle LED lamp, with enviable illumination features, a set of sensors that includes accelerometer, temperature and ambient light detection, and Bluetooth connectivity to a smartphone app.
The app provides control features and the geolocated contextual information to the light, which means that it shines more brightly at danger spots such as roundabouts, road-junctions, approaching car headlights at night, or when travelling into shade and tunnels.
Perhaps more important, the bike light also collects and transmits the data gathered from its sensors. Using the sensors on the light, rather than the smartphone’s own sensors, allows the measurements to be more accurate and more frequent; a smartphone can ‘only’ take 15 accelerometer readings per second, whereas the ICON light can take as many as 800.
This means it is less likely to miss the vibration patterns associated with a pothole or a patch of icy road. Other sensors – such as air pollution – could be added if there was a business case.
The company is now exploring how it could work with city administrations, and considering various options as to how the model would work. This could evolve into a data sale relationship, or the city might choose to subsidise the bike lights themselves. As part of the BT and Cabinet Office prize, See.Sense has the opportunity to work with the city of Milton Keynes to turn its ideas into reality and demonstrate a positive impact on the people who live there.
Irene McAleese, cofounder of See.Sense, said that the trial with Milton Keynes is due to begin this month, following a series of closed beta trials in Northern Ireland. The data will be shared with the MK Data Hub, allowing the discovery of the data alongside a range of other data providers.
It seems to us that there is also a potential synergy with the OneTransport platform, which aims to provide a shared architecture and a commercial model for transport-related data and analytics. Conversations are ongoing with transport planners in India, as well as other UK cities.
Data streams could include road quality data and safety information, because the accelerometers are able to determine near misses it’s possible to map areas where it’s dangerous for cyclists.
It would also be possible to monitor the effectiveness of cycling promotion initiatives. At the moment cities use connected in-path cycle counter sensors (like this one), which are expensive to install and are sometimes vandalised. Using the connected light would allow cities to not only monitor cycling activity but also to reward individuals.
The company is privately owned, managed by a husband and wife team, and employs six people in Northern Ireland. Manufacturing is contracted out to Nitronica, a County Down company based in a former Plessey factory. The relatively small volumes involved means that there is more value in maintaining high quality and low returns than in lower cost manufacturing in China, and the ‘Made in the UK’ label has turned out to be an unexpected marketing asset.
Of course See.Sense is not the only player in the emerging ‘internet of bicycles’ space. The company is aware of Strava, an app-based social network aimed at allowing users to compare their performance, which has made some effort to sell its somewhat skewed users’ data to cities; and Bike Citizens, which emphasizes navigation and route-finding rather than performance.
We’ve written about AirPublic, which aims to put sensors on shared bikes to create a pollution monitoring network. Others have plans for connected bike pedals, IoT-enabled high-spec bikes, and an EEG-enabled stress-monitoring connected bicycle helmet. Unlike all of these, though, See.Sense seems to have a much stronger focus on the smart cities ecosystem rather than just concentrating on riders, which makes it all the more interesting for us.
Jeremy is Principal Analyst at Machina Research. He has worked in the telecommunications industry for more than 30 years. His research areas including smart cities, IoT start-ups, and the impact of IoT on strategies for sustainability.