Oct 27 2020

Smart Cities Connect 2020: Houston Emphasizes Resilience in Pandemic Solutions

The Texas city produced a comprehensive smart city plan after Hurricane Harvey struck in 2017.

The city of Houston has found opportunities to apply smart city solutions to the pandemic, panelists told online attendees at the Smart Cities Connect Virtual Conference and Expo Tuesday.

Houston Director of Innovation Jesse Bounds spotlighted a specific application in which the city has deployed a new wastewater testing solution for early detection of COVID-19 in communities. When the city identifies the presence of the virus in neighborhood wastewater samples, it can focus its contact tracing and prevention efforts in those areas, Bounds said.

"It targets efforts better," he said. 

Sameer Sharma, Intel’s global general manager of new markets, smart cities and transportation for IOT solutions, agreed. He quipped, “I have never been so excited about wastewater treatment and the intelligence and the data that can come with it.”

Intel worked with Houston to identify readily available technologies that would assist with the sampling and analysis of wastewater, Sharma said. With this support, Houston can determine aggregate levels of infection in specific areas.

Houston Supports Tech to Contain Spread of COVID-19

In another innovation, Intel produced a software-defined bed for intensive care units, creating “a very targeted solution for COVID treatment,” Sharma said.

Sharma noted that smart city projects benefit from adapting existing infrastructure. For example, cities already have invested in traffic cameras. Municipalities can further extend the utility of those transportation control devices to addition applications — perhaps crowd monitoring to enforce social distancing guidelines, Sharma said.

“We didn’t ask to be in this crisis, but the way we react to it is a choice we must make,” he said, adding that Intel recently published “COVID-19: Reimagining Life in a Post-Pandemic World,” as an e-book to help smart cities navigate transportation technology applications during the crisis.

Bounds outlined other measures Houston has taken since the pandemic shut down parts of American society in March. The city has made investments in technologies to support remote work and online services to protect citizens from exposure to COVID-19, he said. Houston also has looked at disinfecting robots and touchless control systems to further contain the virus, as well as artificial intelligence solutions to monitor communications and combat misinformation.

“There is a lot of opportunity, for future pandemics, to expand on contact tracing efforts,” Bound said, noting that the city has automated a system to contact people due to the overwhelming numbers of contacts to be made.

MORE FROM STATETECH: Explore how IoT helps cities conserve water.

Natural Disaster Sparked Urgency for Smart City Planning

Houston truly accelerated its smart city plans in 2017 after Hurricane Harvey struck the region. At the time, the hurricane was the second-costliest disaster in U.S. history. It killed 70 people in Houston, flooded 12 percent of city buildings and destroyed half a million vehicles.

The storm spurred action and created urgency, Bounds said. “It aligned all of our partners around the theme of building back better, which our mayor often talks about."

The resulting Resilient Houston plan emphasizes partnerships and innovation. Houston tapped major universities to participate in smart city research, and it turned to significant private sector partners like Microsoft and Intel to help implement solutions. “All of those pieces have set the foundation to accelerate our smart city program going forward,” Bounds said.

Sharma added, “Our job is to make sure all of the best assets are in place” in a single, cohesive platform presented through “frictionless” delivery to improve the quality of life for residents.

He urged cities to consider three major guiding principles.

  1. Think big, start small, move fast: Rather than trying to solve all problems at once, cities must break them into smaller pieces.

  2. Data is a key part of everything: The pandemic has shined a light on personal data as it relates to public health, and the need for cities to explain how data is collected and used.

  3. Find partners: These projects are too important and too difficult for a city to go it alone. Houston found strong partners in Microsoft and Intel, and other cities can follow that example.

Getty Images / LUNAMARINA