‘We all benefit when our cities can breathe again’
An interview with geodata expert and Ubilabs CEO Jens Wille on how Telekom's parking sensors are making cities smarter.
Since spring 2020, Deutsche Telekom’s Urban Mobility/Smart City division has been fitting smart sensors in car parking areas in German cities and municipalities as parts of various projects. The aim has been to gain an insight into the use of the parking spaces to reduce the volume of traffic searching for parking and thereby to make the cities more livable in the long term. In the lead at the moment is Hamburg, with almost 1000 parking sensors installed; other cities will follow. In this interview Jens Wille, geodata expert and director of Ubilabs, which is executing the project jointly with Telekom, talks about the visualization of parking space data, about renegotiating the use of city spaces and about cooperation among equal partners.
Interview: Angelika Brandt
Mr. Wille, you and your company Ubilabs have been project partners to Deutsche Telekom for two years now. What exactly is your part in the cooperation?
While Telekom installs the sensors, we are responsible for making the parking space data visible, usable and something that can be experienced. In technical terms, we have been commissioned with building a real-time data pipeline and with analyzing and visualizing the data. At the moment – the first stage – we are concerned with displaying the current situation on a dashboard. Users can view the statistics on this dashboard, or follow utilization over the course of the day. We are implementing the parking space data for multiple stakeholders: these include the local residents who wish to know whether a parking space is free, and the law enforcement bodies that check that maximum parking periods are complied with. In future the latter could also obtain information about where the probability of parking periods being exceeded is particularly high. We then create further stakeholder personas in collaboration with the relevant city.
It is expected that the project will embrace a range of other cities in the next few years. Will mobility change as a result?
Our objective is to contribute to equalizing traffic to make cities more pleasant to live in. At the moment, 30 to 40 percent of inner-city traffic in Germany is devoted to searching for parking spaces. Parking spots are thus a precious commodity that will only become more scarce and costly in future. And transparency is all the more important here. As a driver, I want to know what chances I have of being able to park in a particular place, or whether I would be better off leaving the car at home and taking another mode of transportation. We aim on the one hand to create measurability, and on the other to improve the use of urban space for all stakeholders.
That all sounds very positive in principle. So are there only winners, or are there losers as well?
Car drivers will certainly have to rethink considerably and learn to let go of fond habits. The distribution of limited city space has to be renegotiated. In the end, after all, we all benefit when our cities can breathe again. As someone who chose to live in Hamburg and as a trained architect, I am impressed at how successful the redesign of the Ballindamm on the Binnenalster lake has been. Since the end of last year there has been far more space for pedestrians and cyclists.
So you are a member of the cycling lobby then?
There are two hearts beating in my chest (laughs). In fact I have several bikes – but I also use the car when I need it.
People are saying that we are pursuing a shared vision.
Your company, Ubilabs, is highly specialized, but with only about 40 employees it is comparatively small. What’s it like to work together with Telekom IoT? Do you experience ‘David and Goliath’ moments?
We’ve been working alongside Telekom for some time now and done so very willingly. Apart from this, we have also had very good experiences with other large customers. Our exchanges with my project partner and Smart Cities expert Oliver Stumm from Telekom IoT always take place at the level of equals. And maybe there we tick like our technologies: Oliver is the hardware and I’m the software (laughs) – and indeed they communicate with each other constantly. People are saying that we are pursuing a shared vision and both have a strong interest in drawing the best from the project and from the data available.
What are the biggest challenges you are facing?
The task for Ubilabs is to build pipelines that will scale the enormous data volumes in real time. This calls for a lot of technical dexterity. We also have the job of effectively tailoring the tools and dashboards for the various different users and providing them with the best possible user experience. For the parking space data project, our users are cities and municipalities, whom we are getting to know better as time goes by and whom we are becoming better able to advise. This is a challenge, because we are entering new ground all the time, but it’s also highly enjoyable. And these are also valuable experiences that can be passed on to the next cities and municipalities
What are the benefits that you are offering to your users?
The tools that were previously available for parking space data were clumsy and not user-friendly. Ubilabs developed an exploratory approach that comes closer to the user’s perspective. We want this to enable our customers to rummage freely through the data without needing to be IT experts. When we look at the dashboard together with the customers, experience shows us the best solutions.
What do the next steps of the project look like?
The next iterations will be further enhanced with historical data, forecasts or even route planning for the parking space management. The data can also be enriched, say, with information about the weather. All scenarios will emerge through close collaboration with Telekom and other users. There is scarcely a limit to what is possible.
Jens Wille, architect and city planner, is one of the three directors of Ubilabs. These specialists in data and locational technology provide support to companies that are shaping the future of mobility, urban life and sustainable development. They offer an integrated portfolio of consulting, software development, visualization, and data management. Currently Ubilabs employs 43 people at its sites in Hamburg, Munich and San Francisco, who own over 100 bicycles between them.
This article appeared in the Urban Mobility blog of Deutsche Telekom.