Jesse Berst, Smart Cities Council; Peter Auhl, CIO, Adelaide; Jeff Merritt, chief innovation officer, New York City; Jeff Stovall, CIO, Charlotte; Andrew Therriault, CDO Boston; Archana Vemulapalli, CTO, D.C.

Oct 04 2017

Smart Cities Week 2017: How 4 IT Leaders Made Effective Smart City Infrastructure Possible

Engaging community and key stakeholders to ensure useful technology investment and solid ROI are key to making smart city projects a success.

Like snowflakes, each city and its technology needs are unique. Recognizing these differences isn’t just important, but essential to making smart city projects successful. This was the message from Wednesday’s opening panel, “Clearing the Road Blocks to Smart Infrastructure,” at Smart Cities Week 2017 in Washington, D.C., in which IT leaders from several cities shared their keys to success, lessons learned and challenges ahead as they embark on major connected technology initiatives.

“Every city has a framework in place for smart city initiatives, but what is that plan meant to achieve?” asked Jeff Stovall, CIO for the city of Charlotte, N.C., during the panel. “What do we want to be smart about?

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Charlotte Ups Public Safety with Connected Tech

For Charlotte, the answer is public safety. With an eye on outcome-based planning, the city has implemented several initiatives using connected technologies and analytics garnered from city data to improve safety and policing practices throughout the city.

“Over the past few years, particularly spurred by the 2012 Democratic National Convention coming to Charlotte, we really had to look at our infrastructure and ask: ‘How are we going to protect our citizens? What are going to be the mechanisms that we [use] to sense and detect issues in our community, and how are we going to put those into actionable processes?’” Stovall said.

In order to bolster safety, the city ramped up the number of cameras used for surveillance, particularly in the downtown area, “which is pretty much completely covered in cameras at this point,” said Stovall.

Moreover, the city outfitted its police officers with body cameras to enhance transparency and launched a program aimed at providing its police force with predictive analytics “down to a police car level.” This means that the city can push a predictive analytics dashboard to every police car in its force.

“We’ve also implemented a wireless environment across our city that provides a very secure network for our local first responders,” said Stovall, noting that the first responder network was something that came out of a federal grant. The city decided it wouldn’t set up its own LTE network but use commercial LTE networks to “provide a level of safety and security that we needed for the network for our first responders.”

Boston Turns to Connected Tech to Modernize Its Energy Grid

Meanwhile, Boston has turned its eye to increasing energy efficiency throughout the city. It currently spends about $40 million a year on electricity across 3,000 separate utilities, leaving Boston Chief Data Officer Andrew Therriault and his team with a huge amount of data to reconcile.

To effectively capture the information and begin implementing efficiencies from the disparate energy sources, the city employed a few separate methods. To start, the city recognized it needed to get a handle on energy billing itself “in order to identify instances of overcharging, but also to use that as a way to figure out when an older infrastructure is over-using electricity beyond what it should so we can learn how to address that,” said Therriault.

By digging into the bills and setting up a system to essentially turn old-fashioned paper bills into data that allows the city to monitor and analyze its energy use, Boston is on track to save almost $1 million over the next year, according to Therriault.

Boston is also making use of open data and predictive analytics to better monitor and understand energy use throughout city buildings and resources.

In many city buildings — like city hall or the central library branch — the city provides real-time energy monitoring, updated every five minutes, through its open-data website, Analyze Boston. In building out dashboards, the city’s data team can look at this data internally with the aim to provide cost savings and energy conservation where possible

“In data from our central library branch, what you will find is that there is a sharp drop in energy between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. The reason for that is that, that is when the electricity companies charge a peak-hour premium. By being able to see our energy usage and monitor it, we have worked with the people managing those buildings to adjust the level of air conditioning and lighting in your nonpublic areas at those times.”

By adjusting energy usage in the central library based on this data, the city was able to save $40,000 in the last year.

“These are changes we can make everywhere throughout the city,” said Therriault, adding that next steps include figuring out ways to analyze and adjust behavior on buildings where gathering extensive data is not possible.

New York Eyes Modular Infrastructure Models

New York City’s LinkNYC project, which replaced old phone booths with more than 900 Wi-Fi kiosks that have tablets, charging ports and displays with relevant information for residents, is now seen as a huge success for the city and one of the largest mobility projects to date. But when Jeff Merritt, chief innovation officer for the city, stepped into his post, it was unlikely the project would ever get off the ground.

When we came into office this project was dead,” said Merritt. “Folks wanted to get rid of street clutter. Pay phones were an eyesore. There was an adverse reaction to the idea of putting digital advertisement on city streets. I think that we did the hard work of recognizing the opportunity that exists there.”

Merritt and his team recognized that there was a short window before pay-phone contracts expired and acted quickly, reaching a compromise to decrease the amount of advertising on city streets and putting out an open-ended request for proposal.

“[We got] something that far exceeded anything we could have ever come up with on our own,” said Merritt.

He credits the success of the project, which plans to expand the number of kiosks to more than 7,500, to thinking and acting more quickly than many governments have in the past with IT projects.

“It requires us to think differently about hardware and infrastructure and think about it in a way that is modular and flexible,” said Merritt. “We recognize that many of the components of LinkNYC will be outdated in a very short amount of time so the [kiosks] are built in a way that the actual individual module … can easily be swapped in and out.”

DC Touts Collaboration as the Key to Smart City Success

Washington, D.C., has become a hub for smart city innovation, with recent projects around smart waste management and a more responsive water system, among other initiatives.

The key to making these projects an ongoing success, says Archana Vemulapalli, the city’s CTO, is good IT governance that prioritizes resilience and equity and keeps all stakeholders and citizens in the loop.

We wanted to be equitable. We wanted to make sure that we really looked at what resident population need was … and factor all of those into the decision-making,” said Vemulapalli.

What the city came up with was a framework of principles that it builds into all projects, including resilience, sustainability, transparency and equitability. In order to maintain these principles throughout each project, it works on creating a collaborative framework for each initiative that is focused on the needs of its residents, and not on keeping up with the Joneses.

You have to do what’s right for your city. Your city is unique. Your county is unique. And it is different from the next county,” said Vemulapalli, noting that it’s important to have all the information necessary to make the correct judgement call for your residents. “It’s very important that you align with where you want your city to go overall.”

Read more from StateTech’s coverage of Smart Cities Week 2017 here.

Juliet Van Wagenen

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