North Carolina Cities Use Data to Improve Quality of Life

Whether monitoring traffic counts, water and air quality or water lines for leaks, sensors and other evolving technologies are increasingly being used by the Triangle cities and nationwide to make more informed, real-time decisions.

by Kathryn Trogdon, The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.) / June 8, 2017
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(TNS) -- When thousands of UNC-Chapel Hill students flooded Franklin Street after the men’s basketball national championship game in April, Chapel Hill town staff were watching.

Using data amassed by cameras and sensors that track traffic, they were able to strategically place fire crews and emergency medical personnel to keep the students – celebrating with bonfires in the middle of the street – as safe as possible.

“We had a fabulous celebration that was very safe and celebratory but also had very few incidents,” Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger said Tuesday. “So those sensors help us make real-time decisions.”

Whether monitoring traffic counts, water and air quality or water lines for leaks, sensors and other evolving technologies are increasingly being used by cities in the Triangle and nationwide to make more informed, real-time decisions.

Local government, industry and university leaders discussed these techniques at the first Triangle Smart Cities Summit on Tuesday. The event, hosted by N.C. State University and the City of Raleigh, focused on sharing technology and data to tackle regional problems in the future.

“That’s not only a Raleigh issue, it’s a regional issue,” Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane said. “So it’s incredibly important, I think, that we plan as a region.”

But what is a smart city?

Alan Rebar, NCSU’s vice chancellor for research innovation and economic development, defined a smart city as “one that taps technology to infuse understanding of and build a solution for a variety of issues facing modern cities and communities.”

“So smart cities have the ability to connect, monitor and analyze incredible amounts of data and use that information to make smarter decisions,” he said.

These type of projects already are underway in places such as Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill and Cary, where staff are beginning to use a plethora of information to make more data-driven decisions that improve the lives of residents.

In Cary, for example, sensors on water meters can detect if there is a leak to let the homeowner know long before they would normally receive an elevated bill. In Raleigh, solid waste trucks have sensors to track their locations.

And Chapel Hill is experimenting with scanning parking lots to track empty spaces and let drivers know where parking is available in real time.

Cities also are working toward using sensors to autonomously shift traffic signal times depending on traffic flow.

“In Durham, we are working with DOT to put in a new high-speed fiber network that is going to enable us to have much more automated traffic management systems and much less relying on a bunch of guys sitting in a room with TV screens all over the place,” Durham City Manager Tom Bonfield said. “I suspect there are many opportunities that we haven’t even thought about yet.”

These cities also are making their data available to the public through open portals. They are creating dashboards with more focused information, such as garbage collection data or 911 response times, to allow residents to see what their municipalities are doing.

“The citizens like it, too,” Hemminger said. “It makes them feel more connected to their cities.”

N.C. State University, UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke University researchers are imagining new ways to make cities run more effectively using data. NCSU researchers are working on developing technologies to support 3-D city planning and personal rapid transit vehicles.

To boost these efforts, Raleigh and N.C. State joined MetroLab Network, a partnership of cities and universities focused on bringing data, analytics and innovation to city government.

“The complex tasks ahead are just too daunting for any municipality to do on their own,” McFarlane said. “I firmly believe that smart, connected communities, enabled by amazing technological advances, will be critical to providing services and support to sustain healthy and happy communities for all of our citizens.”

©2017 The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.