Tempe CIO Mark Wittenburg turned to Arizona State University to help his city get smart about cleaning up graffiti.

Oct 06 2022

Smart Cities Team with Universities to Launch Smart City Projects

Via cloud-based test beds, municipalities leverage applications to tackle challenges from graffiti to parking.

Graffiti breeds graffiti. It’s a reality that prompted city leaders in Tempe, Ariz., to set a goal of reducing it to one instance per four square miles.

“If you don’t clean it up quickly, it attracts more and detracts from the overall appearance of the city,” says Tempe CIO Mark Wittenburg. “But we had a very difficult time reaching our goal, and part of it was just identifying it quickly enough.”

The city needed a novel solution to an age-old problem, so it turned to Arizona State University’s Smart City Cloud Innovation Center (CIC). Together, they devised a plan to dispatch garbage trucks equipped with ASUS high-definition cameras to film city streets, use machine learning to analyze the footage and detect graffiti, then send photos and geolocation tags via Esri geospatial information mapping software to the city’s graffiti team to abate it.

It’s one of many instances in which the city and university have teamed to solve real-world problems. In fact, municipalities around the nation are serving as test beds for smart city initiatives with neighboring colleges, tackling challenges ranging from transportation and public safety to homelessness and natural disasters.

“ASU’s been a great collaborator,” Wittenburg says.

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How Cities and Universities are Collaborating for Change

Staff, faculty and student interns from the ASU CIC — one of 13 worldwide Cloud Innovation Centers sponsored by Amazon Web Services — walked Tempe officials through Amazon’s “working backwards” process, starting with the customer’s perspective and working backwards toward a solution, and accelerating Wittenburg and his team’s development of machine learning algorithms.

“Now that we’ve learned how to use it, we can program it to do almost anything,” Wittenburg says. “It’s one of those technologies that’s limited just by the imagination.”

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Tempe has benefitted not only from its own partnerships with ASU but from the college’s collaborations with other municipalities. For instance, the CIC used LIDAR aerial imagery uploaded into Esri geospatial mapping software to help the city of Scottsdale, Ariz., track and reduce the water it uses for landscaping. Tempe then leveraged that code to meet its own goal of expanding its tree canopy and shade coverage.

In fact, news of the Scottsdale project spread as far as Durban, South Africa, where officials heard about the water conservation challenge and wound up working on a similar project with the CIC.

Source: Pittsburgh Department of Mobility and Infrastructure

The Role of Cloud Technology in Addressing Community Needs

The CIC’s work is sponsored by ASU and AWS. “There’s no charge to communities,” says CIC General Manager Ryan Hendrix. “We encourage cities to pull down the code.”

The CIC publishes everything it creates as open-source on its website. It’s a vendor- and cloud-agnostic organization, says Hendrix, although it does use many Amazon services, such as Amazon S3 cloud storage; the AWS Lambda coding platform; Amazon’s virtual private cloud; and Sidewalk, which provides a long-range network for Amazon Internet of Things devices.

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The center used Amazon’s chatbot service for two initiatives: to address frequently asked questions for the city of Phoenix’s water services department; and to ease the spike in inquiries to the Crisis Response Network, a Tempe-based nonprofit, about eviction notices during the pandemic. A student intern from the CIC worked with the Crisis Response Network to build the chatbot for its website, reducing calls by thousands.

ASU students do much of the work at the CIC, providing technical assistance and strategic guidance in partnership with municipal experts, says Hendrix. With the experience added to their resumes, many CIC interns go on to work for technology leaders, including Amazon, upon graduation.

“The work we do is not exactly rocket science,” Hendrix says. “It’s just technologies that are available today that often these agencies don’t have the time or the knowledge or the manpower to address.”

Progressing Cities and Public Safety with Smart Technology

Commercial vehicles have a long history of idling at curbs, but the unprecedented growth of pickup/drop-off services — e-commerce sales soared 43 percent in 2020 alone — has created new challenges for cities, including increasing demand for loading zones from the UPS, Grubhub and Uber vehicles that clog streets.

“All of these quick-turnaround deliveries were putting a real strain on our curb spaces,” explains Rylan Seifert, curb management and new mobility policy analyst for Pittsburgh’s Department of Mobility and Infrastructure.

In April, the city launched a pilot of 20 smart loading zones using cameras, automated metering and artificial intelligence. The system tracks use of the zones, boosting their efficiency and easing traffic congestion from vehicles that idle at the curb or drive around in search of parking.

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The yearlong curb optimization pilot, which started with a $100,000 grant from Automotus, a Los Angeles-based curb management software startup, grew into a three-year project thanks to a $3.8 million U.S. Department of Energy grant to develop zero-emissions deliveries in Pittsburgh, Santa Monica and Los Angeles. Pittsburgh is working with a team of partners, including Carnegie Mellon University’s Metro21: Smart Cities Institute, to produce modeling using the data they’re collecting from the smart loading zones and issue recommendations for lowering emissions.

The project also has an economic development component, because it increases parking turnover for restaurants and small businesses, and it helps drivers by sharing real-time data about parking availability. Reducing double-parking provides a public safety benefit, and the loading zones, which use license plate readers to automatically charge vehicles for the time they park, can generate revenue for the city.

“Prior to this, we only had anecdotal information on our pressure points,” Seifert explains. “Now we know how many cars park there per day, how many are double-parked, and how long people park. This is all really important information for analyzing our curb policies to see where there are areas that need to be addressed.”

How Pittsburgh Is Bringing Smart Technology to the People

Pittsburgh’s smart city work with CMU dates back to 2015, when the university began collaborating with former Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and his staff to use the city as a living lab for developing research and technologies to improve the quality of life. Using edge computing and machine learning technologies from Intel, NVIDIA and Microsoft, the project tackled a variety of transportation and environmental challenges, such as near collisions, identifying open parking spaces and road condition monitoring.

“We’re focused on solving real-world problems and doing that through 21st century technology — hence the 21 in our name — that’s developed at Carnegie Mellon,” explains Karen Lightman, executive director of Metro21. “It’s not just a fancy technology that somebody created on a spreadsheet in the lab in a simulated environment.”

Metro21, part of the international MetroLab Network launched through the White House Smart Cities Initiative of 2015, helped to create a model that’s been used around the world. It defines smart cities broadly and has moved beyond the “city as a lab” model to one that is more diverse, inclusive and sustainable.

“It is about how to protect workers in a gig economy. It’s about addressing food insecurity,” Lightman says. “We dabble in everything and the kitchen sink when it comes to smart cities, because they’re complicated. To the naked eye, it’s so simple, and then you get in it, and there are so many pieces. It’s like a game of whack-a-mole.”


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