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Public Service At Your Service Through Smart Cities

September 24, 2015

Good government seems to be an oxymoron these days, but local, state, and federal bureaucracies around the world are investing in connectivity and technology to save money while improving public safety and efficiency for its citizens.  You don't have to look hard to find projects where officials are opening up public data, investing in tech for new and better services, and working with emerging ideas to apply them to real world problems.

"Smart Cities"  are all the buzz these days, combining broadband and the Internet of Things (IoT) to do such things as fight crime, reduce traffic congestion, improve the delivery of basic services, and foster economic growth.  This month the Obama Administration rolled out a $160 million Smart Cities initiative, with projects spread across multiple departments, including the National Science Foundation, Departments of Homeland Security, Transportation, Energy, Commerce and the Environmental Protection Agency.


More than 20 cities are working in multi-municipality collaborations with universities and industry in various projects.  First steps are to create test beds for IoT applications and develop new collaborative models between public and private sectors.  Industry is eager to sell solutions, academia and start-up companies are incubators for new ideas and approaches while city governments want to collect and leverage data to improve efficiency and save money.

Investing in  the “Smart City” is also an economic development play.  Products and services developed stateside are a "significant export opportunity" for the U.S., according to the White House, since there's going to be big growth in population growth and urbanization over the next couple of decades with 90 percent of the increase expected in Asia and Africa.

The "Array of Things" being operated by the University of Chicago in their hometown is a prime example of applying IoT to urban environments.  The "civic Fitbit" will deploy 500 sensors scattered around the city to gather data about the city's heath and motion, recording temperature, humidity, light, sound, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, motion,  and low-resolution infrared data, plus Bluetooth to ping mobile phones in order to count pedestrian traffic. Collected data should be able to provide an immediate snapshot of air quality, provide predictive information to warn drives that a street or bridge may be icing over, monitor crowds and traffic flow during parades and other events.

Like many civic projects these days, the Array of Things is publishing everything as open source -- software, hardware, specs, and data - so anyone can build apps and hardware from and for it.  Potential applications include being able to conduct real-time detection of urban flooding, adjusting traffic lights during peak hours to improve pedestrian safety and reduce pollution, suggesting safe routes for walking late at night.

US Ignite, a non-profit fostering the creation of next-generation applications, has received $6 million in the Smart Cities effort from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to "jumpstart" gigabit applications in 15 communities.  Participating municipalities include Burlington, VT; Chattanooga, TN; Cleveland, OH; Flint, MI; Kansas City, KS MO; Madison, WI; the; Richardson, TX; Utah Wasatch Front cities including Salt Lake City and Provo, UT; Lafayette, LA; Urbana-Champaign, IL; and Austin, TX. Each USF Ignite grant participation will build two highly interactive and visually immersive next-generation apps not available on today's commercial Internet, leveraging the low-latency and high speed of their local muni gigabit networks and connectivity.

Does a connected community deliver economic benefits?  Chattanooga, Tennessee boasts that its all-city gigabit network is a major draw for start-up businesses in combination with affordable office space and a lower cost of living than Silicon Valley.  CenturyLink and ADTRAN both cite the benefits of gigabit networks, citing a 1.1 percent direct impact to per capita GDP in communities studied, along with higher property values and greater educational opportunities. 

Edited by Stefania Viscusi

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