How Big Data Will Make Your City Smarter

How Big Data Will Make Your City Smarter

Smart Garbage Trucks and Talking Street Lamps: How Big Data Will Make Your City Smarter

By Lloyd Marino

If smart concrete wasn’t enough, get ready for smart garbage trucks. It may seem like a far off notion, but it’s coming. While you’re at it, get used to the term “smart city,” because that’s already happening, and you’re going to be hearing more and more of it. According to an article in Forbes, in just five years we could be spending a whopping $400 billion a year building smart cities. But that begs a question: What are smart cities exactly? Also, how do we make our cities smarter?

Basically, a smart city is a municipality that uses digital technologies and/or information and communication technologies to enhance the quality and performance of city services such as transport, waste management/disposal, law enforcement and energy use to save money, become more environmentally friendly by reducing resource consumption, and improve the lives of it citizens. As we speak, technology heavy hitters like IBM and Cisco—to name just two—are working with universities and civic planners and civil engineers on developing data-driven systems for everything from streetlights to garbage trucks.

An exciting aspect of these developments is that we’ll be able to interact with and get information from these smart systems using our equally intelligent phones, watches and, crucially, the machines will also speak to each other. Garbage trucks, as an example, will be guided to the location of uncollected refuse or overflowing dumpsters, and sensors in our cars will direct us towards available parking spaces, and away from heavily congested roadways.

So far, the most commonly adopted model involves attracting big tech companies that develop software and hardware applications, and encouraging them to put their ingenuity to use to smarten surrounding areas. Public money factors in as well, with municipalities world over putting up big dollars to get the smart city ball rolling in their neck of the woods—so to speak. In Glasgow, Scotland, the government has offered up a tidy £24 million ($37 million) for technology to make the city “smarter, safer and more sustainable,” as they put it. Applications planned or in development include the aforementioned intelligent street lighting—much like we now see in Chicago and other large American municipalities—that literally turns itself off when there’s no one around, conserving energy, mapping energy use to better understand needs, and even recording how people get around, promoting, say city officials, the use of bicycle and foot paths, while reducing traffic congestion, pollution, and energy costs.

Down the road, sensors attached to streetlights and other urban necessities and accouterments will even measure footsteps, noise levels and air pollution and this data will be used to prioritize delivery of other services. Glascow’s Technology Strategy Board, which is coordinating the smart city project, says that more than 200 potential data streams have been identified. Glascow’s extensive CCTV (closed circuit TV) network will begin monitoring traffic and street lighting, as well as crime.

Other localities are jumping on the smart city bandwagon. Below is my short list of the ways that a select number of cities are already maximizing Big Data and the Internet of Things (IoT) to improve their residents’ quality of life:

  • In Bristol England there’s a program in place to develop a wireless network specifically dedicated to the Internet of Things (IoT) and “Smart City” communications between devices. The beauty of these machine-to-machine transmissions is that they’ll use less power than existing Wi-Fi and mobile networks, making them more environmentally friendly and cost efficient, an ideal situation for devices that run non-stop.
  • In the midst of the worst drought in recorded California history, Long Beach California wisely approved the use of smart water meters to detect illegal watering in real time, which helped the municipality and its residents cut water usage by 80 percent.
  • Today, Los Angeles controls 4,500 traffic lights and traffic flow around the city by collecting and analyzing data from a series of magnetic road sensors and well-placed traffic cameras. The city’s efforts have reportedly reduced traffic congestion by an estimated 16 percent. If you live in Los Angeles, a 16 percent reduction in traffic congestion may not feel much, but I can assure you it’s a positive start.
  • Boulder Colorado, is testing its first ever “smart grid,” quite literally an electricity transmission system involving the installation of smart meters on homes that allow customers to log into a website and see their real-time energy usage, putting an end to most folks reliance on monthly meter readings. If all goes according to plan, this smart grid would allow power companies to predict power usage, helping the city plan future infrastructure needs and preventing brown out scenarios, especially during the summer months when demand skyrockets.
  • A Silicon Valley start up called Veniam is testing a new way of creating mobile Wi-Fi hotspots in Porto, Portugal. To date, more than 600 Porto city buses and taxis have been outfitted with Wi-Fi transmitters, creating the world’s largest free Wi-Fi hotspot. Veniam sells routers and service to Porto, which then provides free Wi-Fi to its citizens, no different than a public utility. In exchange, Porto gets access to a nice chunk of data, the idea being that the collected information can be used to offset the costs involved in providing citywide Wi-Fi. Already these transmitters have paid big dividends. Sensors connected to the network actually tell the city’s waste management department when its dumpsters are full, saving time, money and fuel that would otherwise be wasted emptying partially full containers.
  • New York City is creating the world’s first “quantified community” where nearly everything about the environment and its residents will be tracked. The QC will be able to monitor pedestrian traffic flow, determine how much collected garbage is actually recyclable, and assess air quality, all in real time. The project will even collect data on residents’ health and activity levels through a mobile app.

But to date, the undisputed smart city king is Songdo, South Korea, a municipality conceived of as the first smart or “ubiquitous” city, as they’re otherwise known, fully built from the ground floor up using the latest, fully integrated smart technology. Just 15 years ago, Songdo was a marshy stretch of tidal flats on South Korea’s northwestern coast and home to a scattering of fishermen. Owing to its rural heritage, 40 percent of Songdo is designated as “open green areas,” which still leaves room enough for 80,000 residential apartments, as well as 500 million square feet of office space. Every single Songdo home and office comes with a built-in terminal connecting it to systems monitoring the public infrastructure, and a smart energy grid to check and regulate supply and demand. However, the city will not have the aforementioned “smart” garbage trucks. Here, trash collection is completely automated, through pipes connected to every building. The solid waste is sorted, recycled, buried, or burned for fuel. The city is also is testing cost and energy saving technologies, including smartphone-controlled home appliances and utilities, and even a tracking system that lets anxious parents keep track of their kids (using microchips implanted in bracelets).

The advent of smart cities doesn’t mean everything is wine and roses, of course. There are plenty of folks voicing caution and displeasure over the new technology wave. Some say the data collection systems, which gather information about where and when we travel, with whom we associate, and even what kind of garbage we create and how we dispose of it, don’t address critical aspects of privacy or information security.

More technology can also mean more opportunities for hackers and terrorists. The threat that some ambitious sort could shut down a city’s power grid, traffic system, or water supply isn’t just the stuff of Hollywood block busters — mostly because the technology is new enough that cities and providers may not take the necessary steps or put appropriate safeguards in place to protect themselves.

Others have somewhat predictably voiced concerns that Smart Cities would be prohibitively expensive for much of the population, leading them to become enclaves of wealth and privilege that effectively shut out billions of people.

These are not challenges that can be ignored, nor would I pretend to. My two cents is that with affordable smart phones and mobile technology now available to a larger number of people (according to Business Insider, 1 in every 5 or 2.6 billion people worldwide owns a smart phone, with that number expected to increase to 6.1 billion by 2020) it should be possible to create inclusive systems available to significant numbers of people. Taken as a whole, it seems that the benefits outweigh the risks with these new data-driven technologies, so long as the municipalities are paying attention to security and protecting their assets and their customers, which, at this juncture, many may not do. Moreover, some estimates suggest that 66 percent of the world’s population will inhabit urban areas by 2050. Therefore, it’s imperative that cities discover more and better ways to leverage high tech — and the data it generates — to improve efficiency, protect the environment, as well as their citizens, and reduce costs.

Bottom line: Smart City technology is here and we all need to take a leap of faith.

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