Articles

Necessity Dictates One Rapidly Growing Jurisdiction's Smart City Transformation

Atlanta's overwhelming success is behind a substantial push to transform city operations at all levels. From gathering data in new ways to piloting smart streets, officials hope to identify strategies that will help them deal with explosive population growth.

by / October 4, 2016
Atlanta CIO Samir Saini discusses the Smart ATL initiative during the Georgia Digital Government Summit Sept. 30 in Atlanta. Eyragon Eidam/Government Technology

ATLANTA — The greater Atlanta area is experiencing unprecedented population growth, and with that growth comes substantial strain on the city’s largely unprepared infrastructure and public services. 

This increasing pressure to meet the growing public demand has technology leaders looking to smarter infrastructure and actionable data as a means to bridge the widening gap and better serve the city's expanding constituency.

During the Georgia Digital Government Summit* held Sept. 30, Atlanta CIO Samir Saini shared his vision for what the Atlanta of the future will be capable of — not based on a desire to be on the bleeding edge, but out of sheer necessity.

According to Saini’s figures, roughly 50 percent of migration occurring within the United States is centered on the southeastern portions of the country, which is helping to make Atlanta the eighth largest metro area. 

The CIO, who took to the city’s top tech spot in July 2014, told attendees that being smarter as a city, including services, was the only way to meet the population explosion head on. 

“So, big deal, right? Yeah, we’re growing, great,” Saini said. “Well, the big deal is that this growth is already causing, and will continue to cause, challenges around mobility in our city, around public safety, around the environment and ultimately impact economic growth, unless we get ahead of it and start being smart.”

One potentially low-hanging fruit is the approximately 70,000 streetlights in the jurisdiction, none of which are currently connected, Saini said, referring to them as “dumb lights.”

When one goes out, the city relies on the public or a roving worker to spot and report it. In the not-so-distant future, he hopes connected streetlights will not only be able to report outages, but collect valuable information on the environments around them.

“It’s the reverse of how we operate today,” Saini said, adding that in one effort to drive the city forward, a section of the heavily traveled North Avenue will serve as the proving grounds for connected infrastructure. 

The pilot project, a partnership between the city and Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech), has already started collecting real-time data, including lane-level vehicle counts, speed, flow and volume, through embedded cameras and sensors. 

The busy city street will allow city officials to deploy and test solutions on a small scale to “move the needle” in the right direction, Saini said, which ultimately is about leveraging collected data in more meaningful ways.

“It’s not about the tech[nology]," he said. "It’s about the data and the use of data … to make more informed decisions around how we can improve services, engage with citizens, create transparency in government and improve the overall livability of our city and sustain the economic growth that we are seeing."

Coupled with a planned municipal fiber network, Atlanta’s team hopes to improve data collection and the actionable intelligence available to its various partners and external interests.

But it isn’t just the need for smarter infrastructure that has Saini reworking the city’s strategy. The fact that an overwhelming number of newcomers to the municipality and surrounding area are millennials has his team rethinking what the most basic access to government looks like in 2016. 

He argues that while other generations accepted traveling to city hall to fulfill a service or access a form, millennials demand more instant channels to the queue of city services.

“Millennials are definitely moving into the city of Atlanta, and I’m sure the same is happening in the other regions in the area,” he said. “The expectation of these millennials in terms of government services [is something] we have to acknowledge and adjust to.”

*The Georgia Digital Government Summit is produced by the Government Technology events division and the Center for Digital Government, both owned and operated by e.Republic Inc., the same parent company as Government Technology magazine and Govtech.com.

Eyragon Eidam Web Editor

Eyragon Eidam is the Web editor for Government Technology magazine, after previously serving as  assistant news editor and covering such topics as legislation, social media and public safety. He can be reached at eeidam@erepublic.com.