Better Data Management is Key to Denver’s Smart City Aspirations

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The situational awareness dashboard at the city’s Traffic Operations Center is the first step in a grander plan.

Rush hour isn’t a good time for work to get started at a construction site on Denver’s bustling Santa Fe Drive, but it happened recently—increasing traffic congestion and reducing air quality with so many vehicles idling.

Only this time the city’s Traffic Operations Center, or TOC, was quickly made aware of the issue thanks to its recently enabled situational awareness dashboard.

Previously, the problem would have taken four hours of to completely resolve itself with the regular cycle of traffic lights in place, but trained employees were able to change the timing of lights at left-hand turn lanes to 40 seconds. Within 14 minutes, the logjam was “completely remediated,” said Dave Edinger, the chief information officer in Denver.

“That created a huge traffic mess for us that we were able to pretty quickly identify,” Edinger said.

Critical to the TOC’s effectiveness is a cloud-based enterprise data management system, or EDM, Denver is building to handle the constant flow of  information from traffic and other smart city sensors. In 2017, the city received a $6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation to ramp up this effort.

The TOC’s dashboard displays real-time information on traffic accidents, 9-1-1 calls, 3-1-1 complaints regarding downed trees or power lines, road closures, special events, imagery from traffic cameras and GIS databases, power outages, and even stream gauge levels. Microsoft Azure, a cloud platform, ensures the EDM can scale to ingest more data coming in.

About 18 months ago, Denver formed a governance strategy among agencies for its EDM—making it a “system of systems” for improving public safety, mobility, equity and health, said Emily Silverman, the smart city project manager for Denver.

After all, Columbus, Ohio may have won DOT’s Smart City Challenge, but Denver wasn’t about to give up on the application it submitted or its plans.

Edinger said four values are critical to Denver’s long-term smart city strategy concerning its EDM: maintaining local control of the data and outsourcing only if it won’t inhibit innovation; basing everything on open-source software, so it can be shared; building according to federal standards; and ensuring interoperability among any number of different smart devices.

While the traffic jam case required TOC Program Manager Jim Fox thinking on his feet once the dashboard alerted him to a problem, a completed system might not require a person getting involved to address problems. Artificial intelligence can take over and resolve them, Edinger said.

Denver remains in the beginning stages of experimenting with AI at two “living labs” in different parts of the city. One is located at 29th Avenue and Federal Boulevard, a state highway running through a low-income community.

Such a high-density area is great for testing a variety of sensors monitoring crosswalks and red-light violations at the intersection, along with air quality. Traffic signal timing is easy to tweak based on inferences from the data coming in, Edinger said.

“We want to understand how the data can really improve outcomes,” Silverman said.

Denver’s EDM can also assist with providing a smoother ride for emergency vehicles through light-based system Opticom, which turns lights green for first responders and all other lights red as they approach intersections. But emergency vehicle drivers remain in the dark about whether all lights have been switched and if the intersection is clear, so the city is working to give them situational awareness from sensors in the area.

The city’s Department of Public Health and Environment also co-designed air quality dashboards with teachers and parents to monitor outside public schools.

US Ignite, a nonprofit accelerator, recently partnered with Denver and the Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions on an initiative to privately, securely share data from Denver’s smart city effort with other municipalities attempting the same things.

“Sharing data is how smart communities will continue to grow, improving economic development and quality of life,” said Nick Maynard, CSO of US Ignite, in a statement. “But we can only achieve that reality by collaborating on issues of technology, security, privacy, and usability.”