3rd September 2019

Could smart tourism fuel Northern Ireland’s economy during Brexit uncertainty?

Understanding that a no-deal Brexit in October, not to mention the possibility of a return to direct rule, could hit Northern Ireland’s (NI) economy hard, our new Prime Minister has announced that Northern Ireland is set to benefit from £300m in extra funding for economic growth deals. While this additional cash injection is undoubtedly welcome, it doesn’t alleviate the fears around our tourism sector and the negative impact that a no deal Brexit could have on jobs and the economy more generally if tourism drops. As a region, we need to look at ways of safeguarding our tourism industry here in NI by implementing measures that can support industries throughout the sector.

This is where smart technology such as IoT, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) has the potential to come into its own - helping tourism and hospitality organisations turn data into intelligent insights and transform the way they operate and make decisions. The good news is applications are already bringing this innovative, smart technology to life.

Turning data into intelligence

While smart technology is high on the agenda for many organisations, they are less sure about how they should apply it. No matter what the technology or the organisation, all implementations must be problem driven. That means an organisation needs to identify the challenge and problem they need to address first, and then allow the technology to solve it. Only then can we understand the true value the technology delivers.

Belfast City Council provides a great example of smart technology in action. The Council needed to fully understand what was happening in its parks and open spaces in terms of usage and safety issues relating to anti-social behaviour and crime. It needed greater insight to improve the management of its green spaces and attract more visitors and residents.

ParkKeeper resulted as part of the Council’s Amazing Spaces Smart Places campaign to address these important park management issues. Based on Civica’s SensAI cloud software and trialled at Belfast’s Botanic Gardens, the solution uses a network of Internet of Things (IoT) sensors to track anonymous WiFi connection data to record footfall and better understand the flow of people through the park, in real time as well as the ability for citizens to report issues and incidents .GDPR sensitivities are satisfied too, as the technology doesn’t connect to users’ phones or store any personal data.

Knowing popular visiting hours helps the council with resource planning and enhances the experience for visitors. Emerging patterns around anti-social behaviour such as graffiti, littering or vandalism, can also be identified and fed back to the Council. The tracking data, all recorded on an application, is not just client-facing but is also available to the public. So, for example, if a facility is busy in one location, a family can decide to go elsewhere. 

Data is analysed using AI & ML to provide intelligence, highlight trends, predict outcomes and fast-track decision-making, such as whether the police need to be called, park wardens need deploying or playground swings needs fixing. This helps optimise resources and ensure that city parks and community spaces are much safer places to visit.

Smart decisions to boost tourism

The SensAI app affords huge opportunities for other industries in NI too, such as the event industry, where SensAI has recently been used to highlight which keynotes and panels proved most popular amongst delegates. However, it’s the tourism industry which holds the most promise right now, especially with Brexit looming and heightened fears around a potential dip in visitor numbers and revenue.

Tourism in NI is currently flourishing, with Belfast rated one of the UK’s top five destinations for 2019 in Trip Advisor’s Travellers Choice Awards. To protect this, smart technology holds the key to ensuring attractions remain fit for purpose. It’s important to understand how tourists are spending their time and which attractions they’re enjoying most when they visit NI - to ensure they have the best experience possible and want to return.

Smart technology can generate insights into the most appealing visitor attractions as well as the most popular times of the day to visit. By using Civica’s SensAI application, organisations can determine and react to real time information, providing insights to an activity at a given location both historically and in real-time.

Footfall insights can help leisure organisations make better decisions, i.e. where to position beer tents, food stalls or toilets to ensure maximum convenience. Intelligence gleaned from tracking anonymous WiFi data connections can also be made available to the public, with visitors using customer-facing portals to plan their visits during quieter times of the day rather than standing in long queues.

Deriving value from data

Whether we’re talking about public or private sector organisations, the focus must be on deriving value from data and using that intelligence to make better-informed decisions.  And, the more data that’s gathered, the smarter the applications becomes.

Once problems are identified, smart technology can be used to overcome challenges and help ensure that public spaces in NI are more enjoyable to use and tourist attractions are given the investment they need, both now and in the future.