In March this year, Watford Borough Council set technology companies two challenges:

The first was to come up with ways to help monitor taxi ranks and controlled parking zones, both to direct drivers and passengers to empty spaces and stop people breaking the rules. The second was to count the number of people walking through the town centre and its parks.

Last week, the winners were chosen, and the Watford Observer was there.

Nowadays, even finding a parking space in your own street can be a headache. So imagine a simple piece of technology that could take you directly to a space with an app on your phone. The same device can stop commuters parking outside your house, lead taxi drivers to empty places in ranks, and stop unlicensed cabs.

It is not far off. Watford Borough Council announced the winners of two contracts to solve its first Digital Watford Seminar that evening.

The winners of the first competition were IoT Solutions. IoT stands for the internet of things - how you can connect your phone to your central heating.

So how do you use this to track cars? Founder Neal Forse explains: "It's all about the sensors."

Their system uses magnetometers, which detect the magnetic fields of cars passing over them. These bluetooth, and can communicate with a 'bluetooth beacon' about the size of a key fob. The fobs can be given to taxi drivers, or people living in a controlled parking zone (CPZ) to keep in their cars so the device knows which car is there.

The information from the sensors can be used in a mobile phone app for a driver, or a 'dashboard' set up to monitor use of taxi ranks and cars using CPZs.

In the first trial, five magnetometers will be installed in the taxi rank at Wellstones. This will monitor how busy the taxi rank is and detect unauthorised vehicles using it.

In the second, ten more magnetometers will be installed at another taxi rank and 70 in the town's smallest CPZ. This will monitor queue depth in the taxi rank, and alert the council to cars without sensors in the taxi rank or parking zone.

All this runs on a low power, wide area network, or LoRaWAN already installed in Watford. The network is designed to use little data and little power - the batteries in the magnetormeters last five years. In testing, a single sensor on a bin lorry was able to map the entire system over just two weeks and the signal could be picked up as far away as St Albans.

Onto the next problem: counting people.

Watford Borough Council wants to find out how many people are using the high street and the event space in The Parade, as well as its parks. It currently has five cameras measuring this, in fixed locations.

Enter Giosprite, a Staffordshire-based startup who describe themselves as providing 'smart city solutions'.

Their technology is made up of cameras and sensors that detect media access control (MAC) addresses from Wi-Fi devices such as phones, tablets and laptops.

It counts 'blobs' — this is the technical term — as they pass across the screen to make one count. The system also tracks how many Wi-Fi devices such as phones pass across the area. Because not everyone has phones - a family of five may only have two on them, the system makes an estimate of how many people are passing through given points that the company says has 90 to 95 per cent accuracy.

Using this, it can detect how many people are coming into the town centre, where they are going, see when peak times are and identify trends.

It wants to put nine sensors in the high street, and seven at pedestrian entrances to parks.

Giosprite sales and marketing director Anthony Brown says the cameras do not have facial recognition, and the MAC addresses are communicated only between the detectors.

So what does it cost? When I asked, I was told the figures were not available for exactly how much these contracts are worth. The council has a pot of investment cash, and is spending around £10,000 on each of the trials.

The point is that if the council's scheme is successful, it is working in partnership with these companies can can sell the technology to other local authorities.

Both companies are small. Mr Brown said: "It's a rapidly growing industry. It is particularly suited to organisations like us that are relatively new."

It can also save money. Andrew Cox, the councils' head of service transformation, describes this as "very disruptive technology" and says it saved Brighton City Council 75 per cent to 80 per cent.

The same sort of simple sensors could tell council workers when bins are filling up so they only have to empty those. Fit sensors to mousetraps, so they can tell the person checking them they have gone off and you can save hours.

He said: "It's better from a financial point of view and it's better from an environmental point of view."

It's not just time and money, temperature sensors in the house of an elderly person can alert care workers to when something is going wrong.

Sensors were used in the Serengeti to detect the vibrations humans make and alert rangers to poachers.

Closer to home, you can monitor smoke detectors, see when lights have been left on or doors have been left open and cut energy costs.

Mr Cox said: "This is a bit of a call to action from a digital point of view. We have this network. If you can think of ways to use it, please let us know.

"We want to tell people to think about what their challenges are. We can solve those problems."