How Cities Are Getting Smarter

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There isn’t one definition of a smart city technology, but here are places governments are making progress.

These past couple weeks, many of the folks I work with have been toiling away on smart cities projects, a concept that aims to make the places we live more automated, convenient, efficient or safe though technology. Most of these programs are administered through state or local governments, though the vast majority are also funded, at least in part, by the federal government. 

Back when I was a full-time federal reporter, the concept of smart cities was just a fledgling idea in most municipalities. My very first assignment as a reporter for a national trade publication back in 1998 was to spend a charming day at the jail in Baltimore. The jail was implementing a new electronic inmate processing system, which technically was considered a smart city innovation at the time.

There isn’t one definition of a smart city technology. For the most part, even the smallest towns today have some level of automation which might quality, even if it’s only traffic light controllers. But in general, smart city projects rise above that level of background automation that we take for granted and break the mold in some way, normally by improving the quality of life for residents—that is how I define it. Here are a few areas where smarter cities are already making a positive change. 

Crime Prevention and Reduction

You almost can’t go outside without seeing a security camera or without one seeing you. Graphics card manufacturer Nvidia predicts that more than a billion will be in use worldwide by next year. It used to be that the cameras themselves deterred crime: Potential criminals would see a camera and wouldn’t do anything illegal while being watched. But the fact cameras are everywhere now make them less intimidating. Criminals either forget that cameras are there, or simply take precautions to try and hide their identity. 

And why not? There might be a billion cameras, but that doesn’t mean that there are a billion people watching them. Even going back after the fact and looking for evidence of a crime within the matrix of camera feeds can be a time consuming and sometimes fruitless process. This could be solved by a project like Nvidia’s Metropolis platform, which aims to arm cities with a way to automatically spot crimes without human intervention. It’s similar to the Defense Department’s Project Maven, which is training AI and cameras to look for dangers in the field. 

Another smart cities variant of this visual processing technology are the license plate readers mounted on police cars in an increasing number of municipalities. The attached computer can scan up to 1,800 plates per minute across four lanes of traffic, immediately alerting officers if it finds a stolen vehicle or one that is flagged for some type of violation like an expired registration. Police can then respond right away, even though they were not specifically looking for evidence of vehicular crimes and code violations.

On the Road Again

In some cases, smart city technology can make old ideas even better, or perhaps more intelligent. Remember we mentioned traffic light automation earlier? While many traffic signal networks can be controlled, by default most of them use simple timing patterns for day-to-day operations. The flaw in a system like that is evident when something like an accident occurs that blocks a lane, or a special event like a concert or football game lets out and tons of people try to flock onto normally peaceful thoroughfares. You have all seen the results, sitting in a line of cars not moving while the traffic light cycles from red to green every 30 seconds as programmed. If only the light would stay green for a couple of minutes to clear the glut of traffic trying to enter the road, the problem could be solved fairly quickly.

The Transportation Department is trying to fix those problems using adaptive signal control. Cities like Los Angeles, Pittsburgh and San Antonio are already testing adaptive signals. They work by tying a series of smart sensors into the traffic light network and providing an artificial intelligence that can react as needed for maximum traffic flow efficiency. Where they are being tested, travel times have been improved by up to 50%.

Off the Road Again

When it’s time to end your journey, smart city technology can also lend a hand. If you are in Redwood City, Calif., the pattern of traffic at local parking garages, designated parking lots and even street spaces are monitored and fed into a predictive engine. The end result is that the city can advise motorists where they are most likely to find a free space nearby.

On the other coast, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority is using predictive modeling in a smart cities program to let travelers know when everything from public buses to taxis to Uber and Lyft drivers should arrive, and how long it will take them to reach their destinations given the historic patterns in the area. That way, informed travelers can more accurately pick the method of transport that will get them where they need to go in the most efficient way possible.

A Splash of Smartness

Other less visible but similarly impressive smart cities technologies are already making a difference. Any situation where you have a defined system is a good candidate for smartening up, which makes water and power systems perfect for consideration. For example, the city of Chattanooga, Tenn. is using a smart grid to help drive solar power for the local airport and may be able to completely rely on it in the near future.

Other cities are finding that applying smart city technology to their water systems can make those systems more efficient. They can even detect leaks in underground pipes by monitoring for above-average flow in certain parts of the grid, potentially fixing problems long before they become noticeable or even hazards to those above. And of course, this keeps the taps full of clean, always-available water.

It’s nice to see that smart city technology is not limited to one area of the country, or even to the largest cities. Some of the most impressive examples are occurring at medium and smaller cities that are better suited to testing pilot programs. Here’s hoping that your home city gets a little bit smarter too, because the end result with a smarter city is a better quality of life, and that’s something where every little bit helps.

John Breeden II is an award-winning journalist and reviewer with over 20 years of experience covering technology. He is the CEO of the Tech Writers Bureau, a group that creates technological thought leadership content for organizations of all sizes. Twitter: @LabGuys