Smart Cities: Understanding the Untapped Value of Sensor Data

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chicago+reflectionTechnology leaders in three cities imagine how they would harness Chicago’s innovative sensor pilot in their communities

This fall, Chica­go will install a net­work of 40 sen­sors to dis­cov­er how new data sets can inform deci­sions that make the city a bet­ter place to live. The Array of Things ini­tia­tive will begin with devices being installed on light poles at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go, School of the Art Insti­tute of Chica­go, and Argonne Nation­al lab­o­ra­to­ry, and will be expand­ed in the com­ing years to a sys­tem of 1,000 sen­sors that cov­er the city’s cen­tral busi­ness dis­trict.

Every 15 sec­onds, the sen­sors will col­lect and report data on tem­per­a­ture, humid­i­ty, car­bon monox­ide, vibra­tion, light and sound. At this ear­ly stage, offi­cials are imag­in­ing how this data might improve city walk­a­bil­i­ty and how the net­work can con­nect with pedes­tri­ans’ phones via Blue­tooth to cre­ate an even rich­er data set.

Smart cities and the Inter­net of Things are both tech­no­log­i­cal con­cepts in the ear­li­est stages of life. How these tech­nolo­gies devel­op out of this con­cept stage — and pilot projects like the one being launched in Chica­go — will large­ly be deter­mined by the vision and resource­ful­ness of tech­nol­o­gists and city lead­ers who under­stand the untapped val­ue of sen­sor data.

A smart sen­sor net­work like the one Chica­go is pilot­ing could help Davis, Calif., improve in the areas of traf­fic flow, safe­ty, park­ing and pol­lu­tion, said Chief Inno­va­tion Offi­cer Rob White. In fact, Davis is so inter­est­ed in what Chica­go is doing, he said, that city offi­cials may study the net­work next year as part of their annu­al study mis­sion.

From a Sacra­men­to region­al stand­point, this seems to me a no-brain­er to real­ly help move our cities for­ward pret­ty fast, in an excit­ing way,” White said. “This would give us that infor­ma­tion at a much fin­er-grain detail, but also allow us to make bet­ter deci­sions.”

Davis has one of the high­est per­cent­ages of bicy­cle com­muters in the nation, with cyclists account­ing for 22 per­cent of all work­ers in the city. And a smart sen­sor net­work, White said, could be used to improve bicy­cle and traf­fic flow.

All city lead­ers make safe­ty a pri­or­i­ty, but in cities like Davis, where there are large stu­dent pop­u­la­tions, safe­ty tends to be an even big­ger con­cern, White added. And in Chica­go, a smart sen­sor net­work could be used to direct pedes­tri­ans only to well-lit or crowd­ed areas — some­thing that would be ben­e­fi­cial for the city to pro­vide, White said.

A sen­sor net­work equipped with lidar detec­tors could be used to scan for open park­ing spaces too, White said. “We have a huge park­ing prob­lem in and around our down­town,” he said. “And it would be fan­tas­tic to have these things scan spots on the street and direct peo­ple to park­ing on demand in areas where there might be free spaces. From a tech­nol­o­gy stand­point, that would solve a large pol­i­cy prob­lem we’re deal­ing with, and I think a lot of down­towns of our size deal with is this con­stant rota­tion­al park­ing demand.”

Being privy to fine-grain sen­sor data gives city offi­cials more pow­er to make bet­ter deci­sions that improve cities, White said.

In Pasade­na, Calif., offi­cials have been toy­ing with the idea of sen­sor net­works in months past, talk­ing with ven­dors like IBM and Ver­i­zon to iden­ti­fy specif­i­cal­ly how sen­sor-dri­ven data can help their city.

We don’t have an offi­cial smart city pro­gram, but we are def­i­nite­ly col­lect­ing a lot of data on our streets, and it’s being col­lect­ed to help mod­el traf­fic,” said CIO Phillip Leclair. “But it hasn’t yet been con­sumed into some­thing that con­nects with anoth­er kind of data source that helps us have more insight into what’s going on on our streets.”

Cities are only going to get more crowd­ed, Leclair added, so sys­tems like the one being pilot­ed in Chica­go could “absolute­ly” pro­vide val­ue that many cities could take advan­tage of.

Beyond traf­fic, I think there’s a whole bunch of oper­a­tional insights and issues around met­ro­pol­i­tan areas like Pasade­na and big­ger cities,” he said. “We have to some­how get more peo­ple, more cars, more every­thing through our exist­ing infra­struc­ture, so col­lect­ing more and more data about who’s here and what they’re doing and where they’re going is going to help us plan for our next-gen­er­a­tion cities.”

Eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment is an area where col­lect­ing data from pedes­tri­ans via sen­sor net­works could be of huge ben­e­fit, Leclair said, explain­ing that net­works could be used to fol­low a per­son down the street by track­ing their anony­mous, but unique, Blue­tooth address. Data on where peo­ple are going and how long they stay there could help cities make their com­mer­cial dis­tricts and ser­vices more effi­cient.

Whether city-spon­sored or whether retail­ers are track­ing you in a mall, those pri­va­cy issues will even­tu­al­ly be tack­led,” he not­ed, “but from an eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment per­spec­tive, we’ll have a whole bunch of data about con­cen­tra­tions of peo­ple by time and where peo­ple are com­ing or going. And this, he said, is anoth­er met­ric that retail­ers or prop­er­ty man­agers can use to help sup­port high­er rent, or may be an incen­tive for some­one to set up shops in par­tic­u­lar loca­tions.

The same data about pedes­tri­an pat­terns could also be used for pub­lic safe­ty, LeClair said. Over time, trends of pedes­tri­an den­si­ty will be estab­lished for dif­fer­ent areas dur­ing dif­fer­ent times of the day. If the net­work detects that there are sud­den­ly 200 peo­ple mov­ing through a giv­en area at a time when there would nor­mal­ly only be a hand­ful of peo­ple, that could sig­nal that there is an emer­gency, Leclair said, adding that the same kind of data could be used to han­dle planned surges of pedes­tri­ans dur­ing large events.

We are, just like every­one else, hun­gry for data,” he said, “and try­ing to real­ly under­stand what we could and what we could learn from it in order to pro­vide bet­ter ser­vices, to have a bet­ter oper­a­tion, to have sit­u­a­tion­al aware­ness, block by block, of what’s going on.”

Stream­lin­ing vehi­cle, bicy­cle and pedes­tri­an traf­fic could col­lec­tive­ly reduce emis­sion rates, but if pol­lu­tion sen­sors were paired with cam­eras, it might also be pos­si­ble to catch indi­vid­ual pol­lut­ing vehi­cles, said.

Seat­tle wants to be an inno­v­a­tive city, not just by virtue of the tech­nol­o­gy com­pa­nies that are based there, but also via the city government’s oper­a­tions, said Chief Tech­nol­o­gy Offi­cer Michael Mattmiller. The oppor­tu­ni­ties pre­sent­ed by the project in Chica­go, he said, present every­one with just the begin­ning of what may be pos­si­ble.

You can also put sen­sors into sewage lines and pow­er lines so you have bet­ter sit­u­a­tion­al aware­ness of when there are prob­lems with resources,” he said. “There’s adding more sen­sors to roads and trans­porta­tion net­works so you can mon­i­tor con­ges­tion, for exam­ple when we have things like the Super Bowl parade in Seat­tle, vehi­cles have a hard time nav­i­gat­ing, espe­cial­ly pub­lic safe­ty vehi­cles. Sen­sors can pro­vide a much bet­ter path through to get life­sav­ing sup­port where it needs to go.”

The city is now in the ear­li­est stages of exam­in­ing the poten­tial of projects like dri­ver­less bus­es, enhanc­ing pub­lic safe­ty through the use of sen­sors, and col­lect­ing more data while enhanc­ing pri­va­cy, he said. “Based on the con­ver­sa­tions I’m hav­ing with my fel­low depart­ment heads, there’s a lot of inter­est in inno­v­a­tive Inter­net-of-Things types of appli­ca­tions.”

And as the city exam­ines broad­band Inter­net options, Mattmiller said sen­sor net­works offer poten­tial for new pos­si­bil­i­ties. “When we have sen­sors, whether it’s improv­ing trans­porta­tion, help­ing pub­lic safe­ty, those sen­sors all have to con­nect to a net­work,” he said. “So how are we, as a city, think­ing about con­struct­ing net­works where as many depart­ments as pos­si­ble can lever­age a com­mon resource effi­cient­ly? So if we’re going to have all these sen­sors, do we build out a fiber net­work that can also be lever­aged to deliv­er Inter­net or car­ry oth­er types of munic­i­pal traf­fic?”

Seat­tle also is launch­ing a new pri­va­cy pol­i­cy that is intend­ed to keep the pub­lic bet­ter informed about the city’s projects with regard to data col­lec­tion — about exact­ly what data is being col­lect­ed, why the data is being col­lect­ed, and how it will be used, Mattmiller said. Get­ting pub­lic sup­port for tech­nol­o­gy projects is impor­tant, he not­ed. And in recent years, fail­ure of city gov­ern­ment to engage the pub­lic on that front has cost the city both in rep­u­ta­tion and project progress.

The Chica­go Array of Things ini­tia­tive is very excit­ing, said Mattmiller, who is now look­ing for­ward to meet­ing with his fel­low depart­ment heads to exam­ine what kind of oppor­tu­ni­ties his city can har­ness and what the path to get there might look like.