Phil Goldstein is a former web editor of the CDW family of tech magazines and a veteran technology journalist. He lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife and their animals: a dog named Brenna and two cats, Grady and Princess.
Adam Stone writes on technology trends from Annapolis, Md., with a focus on government IT, military and first-responder technologies.
The term “smart cities” conjures images of smart streetlights with sensors, connected traffic cameras designed to make pedestrians and drivers safer and pervasive Wi-Fi in public areas.
All of those solutions generate significant amounts of data, and it is data that is the lifeblood of any smart city — how city governments capture it, share it between city departments and make use of it to improve services for residents.
Analyzing and sharing data has become more crucial for cities than ever, and as a result, they are creating chief data officer positions and hiring more data analysts. “Cities have also deepened their ‘bench strength’ in data and evidence skills,” notes a June 2021 report by What Works Cities and the Monitor Institute by Deloitte. “Whereas five years ago cities might have single, isolated positions or offices, data skills and practices are now spread more widely across people and departments. This creates broader culture change in the use of data and evidence to inform decision-making, and it ensures data-driven practices last beyond changes in administrations.”
It’s crucial for smart city leaders and chief data officers to share data across city departments, break down silos and ensure the data is put to the best use possible.
Lauren Su is the director of certification at What Works Cities, an initiative of Bloomberg Philanthropies and Results for America to improve cities’ use of data. She tells Smart Cities Dive that today, “data isn’t just a valuable tool for city leaders, it’s a necessity.”
The percentage of cities with a platform and process to release data to residents has more than tripled over the last six years, from 18 percent to 67 percent, according to the What Works Cities/Deloitte report.
“At the start, there were a handful of cities that were saying, ‘Let’s build an open data portal. Let’s start to think strategically about our goals,’” Jennifer Park, executive director of the opportunity accelerator at results for America, and previously founding director of certification and community at What Works Cities, tells Smart Cities Dive. “As more and more cities have joined these networks or have been connected with each other, I think there’s been an increase of cities that have realized, ‘Wait, if we invest in this, which is relatively low-cost, we can actually transform our city and deliver better services that are more equitable and more efficient to our residents.’”
StateTech has recognized several cities across the country for their efforts to use data to make services more effective. Those cities make up StateTech’s 2022 Smart Cities to Watch list, a collection of the smart cities that everyone in local IT should keep an eye on for the next year and beyond (check out our 2020 and 2018 editions). Read on to find out how they are excelling at using smart city data to improve the lives of citizens.
Click each city (listed alphabetically below) to explore its smart city efforts.
Key Smart City Leaders: Christopher Stewart, CIO, City of Austin; Daniel Culotta, interim Chief Innovation Officer, City of Austin; Jason JonMichael, Assistant Director of Smart Mobility, Austin Transportation Department
Main Smart City Priorities: Austin, Texas, is testing a combination of new sensing technologies at the edge, enabled with artificial intelligence, to support traffic operations, according to JonMichael, assistant director of smart mobility at the Austin Transportation Department.
The city is exploring how the solution will help it “create and act on unique decision support scenarios related to our intersection operations while taking into consideration the multitude of external factors that impact traffic flow,” he says.
The goal is to allow the city to understand in real time what is happening in a transportation corridor and adjacent corridors. That would allow the city to be more efficient in how it times light changes.
Austin also is looking to leverage federal infrastructure funding to spur innovation. “I’ve spent the better part of my nearly 30-year career working in transportation innovation, and this is the first time that I’ve seen this level of direct, focused funding,” JonMichael says. “As a country, we are about to take on a major initiative to begin planning, investing and deploying smart infrastructure or intelligent infrastructure.”
The law represents the opportunity for new infrastructure and a “modernization of the old infrastructure that we’ve propped up and leaned on for too long — sustainable infrastructure for everyone,” JonMichael adds.
How the City Uses and Shares Smart City Data: Austin’s connected intersection pilot gives the city the ability to create unique decision support scenarios related to the information that the sensors collect, according to JonMichael.
The information about what’s happening at an intersection can be fed to a traffic center controller to make real-time decisions and dynamically change timing plans. It will allow transportation operations engineers to come up with alternate traffic plans based on current conditions, he says.
Words of Wisdom:
You need to have a cultural competency within your policymakers and city management and other staff, especially with supporting partners like police, fire, EMS and the hospital systems.
Assistant Director of Smart Mobility, Austin Transportation Department
Key Smart City Leaders: Tyson Morris, CIO, City of Chattanooga; Kevin Comstock, Director of Intelligent Transportation and Community Innovation, City of Chattanooga
Main Smart City Priorities: Chattanooga, Tenn., has been working on smart city projects since 2018 and has mainly focused on use cases in the transportation and energy sectors, says Kevin Comstock, director of intelligent transportation and community innovation for the city. The city is working with US Ignite and the Chattanooga Smart Community Collaborative, which represents education, research, medical, government and nonprofit organizations in the area, on a project using air quality sensors.
The idea is to use sensors to get more granular information about microclimates throughout the community “to better gauge what our air quality models look like and to help support air quality initiatives here,” Comstock says.
The city is also working on a stormwater project in partnership with the University of Tennessee Chattanooga’s Center for Urban Informatics and Progress and the University of Tennessee Knoxville. The goal is to use sensors to monitor and even mitigate the flooding that occurs in the city, Comstock says.
Chattanooga has found that when it investigates one use case to solve one problem, it finds five other opportunities to solve issues, says CIO Tyson Morris says, including in areas such as public safety, public works, and parks and recreation. The city, he says, is working to get different departments to think about “the art of the possible” when it comes to sharing data.
For example, crowdsourced data and traffic data can be used to pinpoint which area hiking trails have become more congested over the course of the coronavirus pandemic. The city is known for its parks and green spaces, Morris says, and the last thing a resident or visitor would want is to go out and find a trail or park is overcrowded.
Chattanooga is using sensors and traffic data to determine when certain areas are likely to be overcrowded. Source: City of Chattanooga
Similar to the way technology can measure the peak hours of a restaurant or use weather data to determine if trails may be flooded, the city looks for ways to send hikers to more desirable, less crowded locations.
“So, you start to get people thinking about how smart technology or how this data could be leveraged within their different departments,” Morris says.
How the City Uses and Shares Smart City Data: Chattanooga uses edge computing technology to capture data from sensors on infrastructure, such as traffic cameras, and analyze it in real time, Morris says. The city also leverages the fiber infrastructure of utilities supplier EPB to transport smart city data for aggregation.
The city uses Amazon Web Services technology to capture smart city data and then overlays artificial intelligence and pattern recognition software, as well as algorithms the city has built, to send data back to the edge to make smarter decisions. Some data is collected for further analysis, but much of it is analyzed in real time so that actions can be taken, and then it disappears, Morris says.
The city is sharing traffic signal data internally to project traffic demands, according to Comstock, and has been working with Oak Ridge National Laboratory and UTC to develop adaptive-type traffic control systems that can make microadjustments based on traffic flows. That not only benefits commuters but first responders as well.
Chattanooga also is building a digital twin to use real-time and historical data to predict outcomes within the city’s environment, according to Morris.
Ultimately, IT leaders need to make data sharing a priority via policy in city government from the top down, Morris says. “And if you can really get the buy-in and start to see that momentum of where data can obviously make a difference, you’ll start to see it proliferate across other departments,” he says.
Words of Wisdom:
If you start to grasp some policy and get people to engage in the process, you’re going to have more success longer term. Natural relationships will start to develop from that, and data sharing will begin to occur just at an organic level.”
Director of Intelligent Transportation and Community Innovation, City of Chattanooga
Key Smart City Leaders: David Edinger, CIO, City and County of Denver; Paul Kresser, Chief Data Officer, City and County of Denver; James Lindauer, Application Architect, City and County of Denver
Main Smart City Priorities: While Denver has been working on smart city projects since 2016, its focus has shifted to how the city can better leverage, collect, organize and classify data and then make it available within the government and to the public, says Paul Kresser, chief data officer for the city and county of Denver
One of Denver’s core smart city initiatives right now is the Love My Air program, run out of the Denver Department of Public Health, which leverages sensors to measure air quality, a key quality-of-life issue for residents given that there is a large oil refinery located just north of the city. The air quality sensor data is available to local school leaders, who can then use the data to make decisions about whether schoolchildren should be let out for recess, for example, Kresser says.
Denver’s Department of Transportation Infrastructure is also running several initiatives aimed at detecting bikers and pedestrians in traffic intersections and extending light times to ensure their safety, according to Kresser.
How the City Uses and Shares Smart City Data: Over the past several years, Denver has worked to assimilate Internet of Things data into its overall data collection and management, though IoT devices are on a separate network, says James Lindauer, an application architect for the city and county of Denver.
Denver uses Microsoft’s Power BI as well as Snowflake’s cloud data warehouse or hub to manage and analyze its data. “We looked at this kind of holistically, because what we didn’t want to create was basically siloed software components that don’t talk to each other,” Lindauer says. That has required significant collaboration inside Denver’s Technology Services unit, as well as with city departments and external entities.
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The data warehouse is very good at handling structured and semistructured data, according to Lindauer. Denver has set up a process that allows government users to submit data requests to the city’s data team. The request is then analyzed, and the data classification is determined (for example, whether it includes any personally identifiable information) to ensure Denver is complying with regulatory controls around data. Denver applies role-based access controls over all of its data sets, making certain data sets available either to large groups or specific sets of users.
“What that allows us to do is to make sure that we have some control and structure, and we know who has access to what data and we go through a formal process,” Lindauer says.
Kresser notes that if smart city data “isn’t governed, if it isn’t classified appropriately, if there isn’t good metadata associated with it, and if there isn’t a data steward or an owner assigned to it, then it gets lost, it remains in a silo, it doesn’t stay current, and people lose faith or trust in that data.”
In the third quarter of 2022, Denver is going to start work implementing a data catalog for the data hub, Kresser says. That will enable data analysts in other city departments to scour the hub via plain text searches and identify data sets, see who the data steward for a particular data set is and view all the metadata associated with it, according to Kresser.
Denver’s long-term goal with the data catalog is to make it a self-service, automated workflow, according to Lindauer. Users will also ideally be able to know the last time data sets were updated and how often they are updated.
The catalog is also going to have AI capabilities that will suggest when different data sets would benefit from being joined together.
“That is what’s really going to kind of enable the analytic explosion we’re expecting,” Kresser adds.
Words of Wisdom:
It’s really about trying to create the culture that embraces data as the starting point for how the city makes decisions. I repeat that often. I want data to be the starting point. Data should directly guide what we should do as a city.”
Chief Data Officer, City and County of Denver
Key Smart City Leaders: Randy Foshee, Director, Little Rock IT Department, City of Little Rock; Marquis Willis, Performance and Innovation Coordinator, City of Little Rock
Main Smart City Priorities: For Little Rock, Ark., using smart city data revolves around improving the quality of life for residents.
In February, Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr. declared a public health emergency following a rise in violent crime in the city. The declaration allowed the city to receive certain funds to go into the communities and help decrease crime, according to Marquis Willis, performance and innovation coordinator for the city.
“Data helps drive this,” he says. “There’s empirical evidence that shows us that when we invest in communities that have had historical disadvantages, you reduce crime significantly.”
The city analyzed data on who was committing the crimes, the location of crimes and the demographics of the communities. “Now we can reinvest in those communities to hopefully reduce crime,” Willis says.
Little Rock also is focused on ways to get rid of certain vacant and uninhabitable buildings. “Data helps us to determine the needs in certain areas and to make positive changes,” Willis says.
For example, Little Rock has areas that are food deserts, defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as “areas where people have limited access to a variety of healthy and affordable food.”
If the data reveals that some of those areas “coincide with the places where we have vacant structures, there’s an opportunity for us to maybe repurpose some of those spaces and simultaneously get rid of some of those food deserts,” Willis says. “Looking at the data, we can see where those two things are in alignment.”
How the City Uses and Shares Smart City Data: One of the major efforts Little Rock is engaged in when it comes to smart cities is focus on data governance and performance. “We’re using open data portals like Socrata and Asana to gauge our performance based on the measures that we set internally and the timeframe in which we complete tasks and projects,” Willis says.
Words of Wisdom:
We want to improve our performance measures, our transparency and visibility as it relates to data, making informed decisions based on data and information.”
Performance and Innovation Coordinator, City of Little Rock
Key Smart City Leaders: Paul Cameron, CIO, City of Minneapolis
Main Smart City Priorities: In 2020, Minneapolis launched the Minneapolis DataSource, the first part of a larger strategy designed to knit together all of the city’s data sources.
DataSource pulls data from various city service agencies, including those dealing with elections, housing, health, community safety, outdoor air quality, city workforce demographics, and vacant and condemned properties.
Minneapolis CIO Paul Cameron says he looks at smart city initiatives “from a broad perspective that is primarily tied to our data and analytics work.”
In 2020, Minneapolis launched the Minneapolis DataSource to collect and present smart city data. Source: City of Minneapolis
The city’s IT department has three core goals around this work, Cameron says. Those are to provide a platform to share dashboards, maps and visualizations; collaborate to build data-driven city departments; and provide a data and analytic center of expertise for the enterprise.
How the City Uses and Shares Smart City Data:
Minneapolis has centralized SQL Server databases that it uses to store data from systems across city government. For reporting and analytics, the city uses a variety of tools, including software from Tableau, IBM Cognos and Esri. The centralized databases have controlled access and are used to populate dashboards found at the Minneapolis DataSource as well as the city’s open data portal.
The data and analytics team within the city’s IT department “works to make sure data from different systems are joined together and made available in a user-friendly fashion to employees across all city departments while enforcing data privacy,” Cameron says.
Minnesota works to “apply appropriate security controls to its data, which helps build trust with the departments,” he adds. “Over the past few years, we have seen departments invest in data analysts to further this work.”
One of the more significant problems the city runs into is shadow IT systems, which are difficult to incorporate into central data repositories and can have substantial data quality issues. “There isn’t an easy solution to solve this problem,” Cameron says, but breaking down silos between departments and enabling them to achieve small wins “is the most effective way to have found to start to replace these systems.”
Words of Wisdom:
As far as breaking down silos, that starts with working collaboratively with departments to help them better understand their data. This helps build a sense of ownership and lets them see the value of their data as it applies to their strategic goals.”
CIO, City of Minneapolis
Key Smart City Leaders: Sindhu Menon, former CIO, City of Raleigh
Main Smart City Priorities: Raleigh, N.C., is working on a variety of smart city projects that leverage data to improve city services, according to Sindhu Menon, the city’s former CIO, who left her role in April to become the CIO of Harris County, Texas.
One is a proof-of-concept project around traffic congestion management that leverages the city’s traffic cameras. “We wanted to use real-time data, machine learning and artificial intelligence to build a proof of concept that could identify vehicles and detect vehicle movement and patterns,” Menon says.
“This project has provided an opportunity to scale up the camera use from manual viewing to automated intelligence solutions,” she adds. “Live video feeds from these cameras are fed into pre-trained computer vision models to detect vehicles as metadata and made available to other city systems to assist in making informed traffic management decisions.”
The city’s geographic information systems (GIS) team has also built an intelligent digital twin pilot in the Esri GIS platform, Menon says. The twin “enabled the city to develop an existing conditions model and capabilities to model potential future conditions,” she notes. “It shows the current building development of the city and can generate a future development scenario modeled from a procedure-based rule engine built on the city’s Unified Development Ordinance and zoning rules. Detailed BIM models can be dropped into the digital twin to reflect developer designs and current process submittals.”
Raleigh also is testing capabilities to generate future planning metrics such as housing units, office square footage, vehicle trips and jobs. The city can use the digital twin as an input to other spatial models including sun exposure, shadow analysis, flood modelling and line of sight analysis, Menon says.
The City of Raleigh has invested significantly in digital twin technology to perform modelling. Source: NC GIS Conference
The city is working on proofs of concept “that are replicable across various areas and address the accessibility issues in areas of Raleigh that are underserved,” Menon says. Raleigh is partnering with the state of North Carolina, North Carolina State University and other public/private partners to address digital equity and accessibility gaps, according to Menon.
How the City Uses and Shares Smart City Data: The mayor’s office, city manager’s office and department directors and staff adopt data in all areas of decision-making, according to Menon, which why there is “a significant demand for data in every department and across many levels.”
Data scientists, GIS analysts, data analysts and smart city analysts “are needed to further expand and make Raleigh a leader in leveraging and working with data,” she says. To bridge that gap, the city is “partnering with universities to develop a pipeline of skilled students in various fields” and the IT department is working with city departments to create additional opportunities internally, Menon says.
While proofs of concept may not always be adopted at the end of a test, they have the potential to reveal new insights about data and processes, Menon says. For example, with access to the city’s traffic camera network, the city’s GIS team “realized that the valuable camera data was limited to certain people and locations and that “the data’s value was siloed.”
The team was able to break down the silo by connecting it to the GIS platform, which enabled a dashboard map view of the cameras across the city and integrated access into viewing the camera feed, according to Menon.
For nongeographic data solutions, Raleigh uses the Microsoft Power BI platform to build dashboards and construct visuals for sharing information, detecting trends and making decisions.
Words of Wisdom:
The city is data-rich across the organization and possesses the analytical technologies to elevate the information to work for us.”
former CIO, City of Raleigh
Key Smart City Leaders: Brian Dillard, Chief Innovation Officer, City of San Antonio; Emily Royall, Smart City Administrator, City of San Antonio; Candelaria Mendoza, Digital Inclusion Administrator, City of San Antonio
Main Smart City Priorities: Although San Antonio’s smart city office has existed since 2018, the city has recently taken a different approach to smart city development that puts people first and prioritizes residents’ needs.
The city is developing a smart city roadmap it aims to release in the fall, according to Emily Royall, San Antonio’s smart city administrator. “We want to really identify what the outcomes are for our residents across all of the projects that we work on,” she says. “How can we build new methods and ways to engage our residents more authentically?”
The city’s key domains of focus are around infrastructure, data and data governance, cybersecurity, inclusive digital services, and public participation.
Chief Innovation Officer Brian Dillard says that after he, Royall and Digital Inclusion Administrator Candelaria Mendoza were hired in late 2018, they went out into the city’s communities to conduct surveys and identify residents’ pain points. “What are their challenges they face day to day, and how can we solve those with smart city solutions rather than what are the cool, smart city solutions that a vendor wants us to deploy?” he says.
The city also rolled out a program called SmartSA Sandbox. The outdoor, festival-style events allow residents to get informed about smart cities in general as well as the city’s upcoming or active smart city projects. The Sandbox events provide demonstrations of smart city technologies and allow residents to provide input on what they would like to see in future projects.
“I think the key to becoming a people-centered smart city is reducing the barriers to access and creating opportunities to collaborate with our residents and doing that in ways that make them feel the most comfortable, in ways that they understand.” Royall says.
San Antonio uses its SmartSA Sandbox events to engage the local community about smart cities. Source: City of San Antonio
That community engagement revealed that residents’ main concerns were around “foundational items” to city life, Dillard says, such as flooding, lighting issues and traffic congestion.
How the City Uses and Shares Smart City Data: San Antonio has a Data Governance Administrative Directive, an executive order issued by the city manager. It asks every department to nominate one or two data stewards to be responsible for complying with all the elements of the policy that focus on data governance, Royall says.
Those data stewards must learn how to classify data and learn what data in their department is classified as open, sensitive or confidential. They also gain the tools to handle all those different types of classifications appropriately, according to Royall.
San Antonio is trying to change the culture around data sharing by getting departments to “think differently about how they use data and also understand the value of data as a service that they provide to our residents through our open data portal,” Royall says. The effort that will likely take a few years to fully develop, but it is underway and backed up with resources and training around data utilization, classification, integrity and analysis.
Dillard says training, trust and technology are the pillars of the cultural shift around data sharing. San Antonio aims to break down silos of information by identifying the benefits for sharing data between agencies. The city works to streamline a department’s ability to upload data and enable different data storage models to filter into its open data platform.
Words of Wisdom:
The technology is the easy part. The technology is there. It’s about people trust and culture change. Those are the hard parts.”
Smart City Administrator, City of San Antonio