Mar 02 2021

Street Smarts: Pittsburgh Moves Forward on Timely Foundational Revisions

Facing fewer funding constraints, the city is working to establish robust structural and connectivity capabilities to back its smart tech.

For 14 years, the city of Pittsburgh was under state financial oversight due to structural deficits.

As a result, funding for the type of major IT infrastructure modernization efforts that can help support smart tech systems was scarce, according to the city’s acting CIO and acting director of innovation and performance, Heidi Norman. Since the city emerged from state supervision in 2018, however, IT updates have been a focus for her department.

Pittsburgh hopes to award a leased fiber WAN contract for city facilities this year; it’s also in the process of transitioning its servers and data to the cloud, a move Norman says will help increase operational transparency and position city departments to make better decisions that are based on data.

“We’re using a Google cloud platform to lift and shift a lot of the servers, computer storage and what we call the data rivers,” she says. “Most people would call them data lakes, but we’re Pittsburgh — everything has to be about rivers, not lakes.”

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the city also kicked off a technology refresh program, which involves devices leased through Dell Technologies, to ensure city employees have up-to-date machines and solutions.

“When folks turn on their computers, they know the devices work, the software they need is there, they can connect into the network and get to data, storage, everything they need,” Norman says. “If you have that, then really fun, exciting, new technology around smart cities is way more possible — and you can do it on a more comprehensive basis.”

Public Service Needs Have Bolstered Smart Technology

The smart tech systems Pittsburgh currently has in place utilize a variety of connectivity methods. For example, fire inspectors collect data using Apple iPad devices at investigation sites and transmit it via LTE and cellular technology to a central database, Norman says.

Sensor-enabled smart garbage cans use Wi-Fi to convey information about how full they are. The Department of Public Works also receives a notification if a can has been set on fire or otherwise vandalized and can send a crew out to fix it.

Workers can view the optimal routes to get to cans that need maintenance via a dashboard on a tablet or other device, instead of physically checking every single receptacle on a weekly basis. The city has said initial research found the technology could cut the typical labor hours required to empty cans in half.

Smart technology is also helping the city remove snow more efficiently, via a GPS-based solution that gives DPW employees turn-by-turn route information. The technology replaced a system that would show residents where snowplow trucks had been, but not what services they’d performed.

“We have systems that track what the snowplows are doing, such as, this truck was in a location and plowed the street but did not salt it,” Norman says. “The route optimization allows supervisors and foremen to understand where trucks need to go and the route to take so they prioritize, for example, the emergency evacuation routes first.”

Working with the Metro21: Smart Cities Institute, a multidisciplinary smart tech research and development initiative based at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh equipped 50 city intersections with a real-time, AI- and sensor-powered, robotics-assisted traffic signal control system — which can help calm traffic flow and enhance pedestrian and bicyclist safety, according to Metro21 Executive Director Karen Lightman.

AI traffic signal

Pittsburgh’s East Liberty neighborhood served as an early testbed for the new AI-based traffic signal technology. Source: City of Pittsburgh

Traffic information is culled from video cameras; software processes the data to create an optimized traffic flow, a command is sent to the controller and scheduling information is conveyed to neighboring traffic signals in the system.

“We started with, ‘Let’s make sure traffic can move quickly through the intersection,’” Lightman says. “The next step, when we have connected and autonomous vehicles, is how do you ensure intersections can better connect with buses, cars, pedestrians — that whole network?”

MORE FROM STATETECH: How will smart cities expand in the years ahead? 

Tech Plans Concentrate on Commercial and Educational Accessibility

To help tech startups in the area pilot and test their products and services, the city launched PGH Lab in 2016. The program has served as a testing ground for more than 25 tech providers, according to Senior Civic Innovation Specialist Itha Cao, who manages it.

One project, for instance, involves tracking content performance across various platforms and using AI to curate topics aimed at specific audiences, as well as helping to determine where ads should be placed to increase awareness of the city’s free Financial Empowerment Center services, Cao says.

“The program started out with an initial goal to elevate tech startups; in exchange, we get new ideas,” she says. “People are used to working in government with a shoestring budget and limited staff capacity. That’s something startups can help with and are already coming up with solutions for.”

In addition to its smart incubator efforts, Pittsburgh’s future technology plans include working to reduce the digital divide that exists within the region.

Nearly 1 in 5 households in Pittsburgh do not have a broadband internet subscription, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. Research conducted for the Pittsburgh Equity Indicators shows the percentage of Black households without high-speed internet at home (23.8 percent) was nearly twice the percentage of white households (12.3 percent) that did not have home access in 2018.

The Digital Divide and Challenges to Remote Learning

Pittsburgh’s digital divide is significant enough that remote learning had to be delayed at the onset of COVID-19-related school closings in 2020 because a sizeable number of students needed computers, says city council member Erika Strassburger, who represents the city’s 8th district and chairs the Innovation, Performance and Asset Management Committee.

“Functional computers are the new pen and paper for schools,” Strassburger says. “It’s essential. It took weeks of computers being ordered and distributed before they could even start online learning last year because of the massive digital divide in the city. It’s along economic and racial lines. The digital divide is a symptom of a larger problem.”

Devices are just one part of providing more equitable access. High-speed internet also is crucial, according to Cao. She says her department now prioritizes building rewiring needs because she discovered a number of the city-owned recreational centers that house vital programs — such as Rec2Tech, which facilitates interactive STEM learning — had connectivity issues.

“When you’re talking about smart tech on the local government level, there’s a lot of old infrastructure, which is very challenging,” Cao says. “It doesn’t matter if you hand a kid an iPad if they can’t connect to Wi-Fi. The digital divide is very real. You can’t get far with smart technology until you have the basics in place first.”

LEARN MORE: How are cities working to close the digital divide for students? 

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