Today’s Internet of Things (IoT) innovations aren’t a fluke – they’re the future. Every day, cheaply manufactured sensors are being placed underground, into buildings and into people’s pockets –and government is finding that the arrangement suits its needs nicely. From tasks as small as shaving a few seconds off a person’s commute or finding a parking space to saving the lives of lost hikers, IoT technology is changing how governments serve their citizens.
Boston and Los Angeles, for instance, forged data-sharing partnerships with traffic app Waze to better understand their roadways and offer citizens new services from the city and the company alike. Smart parking meters in San Francisco bring citizens parking information in real time. A traffic light app serving Contra Costa County, Calif., fights distracted driving by connecting drivers’ smartphones to roadway infrastructure. And thousands of RFID markers planted in the dirt across the nation provide government agencies with new opportunities to track and understand the land over which they preside.
Using smart and connected technology to deliver community services is a growth industry, said Ruthbea Yesner Clarke, research director of Smart Cities Strategies at IDC.
“I think we will see more and more of these sorts of relationships between cities and service providers who also function in the IoT landscape as information gatherers – Waze, Uber, Inrix, to name a few in transportation, Big Belly and Soofa in infrastructure," she said. "This is largely because cities need this type of information, but implementing the sensors, cameras and mobile apps themselves for broad-scale coverage can be cost prohibitive. And they lack the resources to manage the devices and the resulting data. I think the pattern will be to attach more and more sensors to certain objects like trash bins, park benches, cars and public buses, and street lights.”
In San Francisco, sensors already have found their way into all 29,000 of the city’s parking meters. The connected meters let the city change the price of parking based on the current demand, while providing drivers with real-time information about parking in their vicinity. City officials say the meters reduced the number of parking citations issued and met the demands of a tech-savvy populace that wants to use smartphones to do things like pay for parking and receive notifications.
Technology offered by private vendors today is so neatly packaged and user-friendly that governments often find little reason to build something themselves. The city of Boston partnered with Waze to better understand where traffic jams occur and how long it takes drivers to get from place to place. The city has other IoT devices, too, like smart trash cans. But IoT isn’t about making headlines, said Boston CIO Jascha Franklin-Hodge, it’s about investing in technologies that make government more efficient while delivering new services to residents.
Los Angeles also entered a data-sharing agreement with Waze earlier this year that turns app users into real-time traffic sensors. The city will use the data collected to guide infrastructure upgrades, while providing information about road closures and traffic patterns via the Waze app. In addition, the city is using the data-sharing agreement to bolster other initiatives, like a hit-and-run reduction program and eventual integration into its 311 system.
Along with new sensors being installed and distributed around the nation are some 700,000 passive sensors denoting government sites and the boundaries of federal lands. A new system called Inframarker turns passive markers into interactive tags that officials can use to track assets and communicate with nearby devices like smartphones. Systems like Inframarker also forge opportunities for public safety integration. Sensors can be used to detect potential landslides, conditions that lead to bridge collapse, or spot wayward hikers.
Walnut Creek, Calif., is home to one of the state's most progressive IoT projects – an app that alerts drivers when the traffic light is going to change from red to green. The city worked with EnLighten, a technology startup, and the Contra Costa County Transportation Authority to deploy the service.
The Transportation Authority also installed sensors at parking spaces at the county's intermodal transportation hub, enabling a number of smart functions there, said Randy Iwasaki, executive director of the authority.
“We have LED lights, we have light dimming technology, so if nobody’s at the intermodal center at 2 o’clock in the morning, the lights dim,” he explained. “We have copper theft wire sensors as well, because there’s a lot of people stealing copper.”
The center has signs that display parking availability and six electric vehicle charging stations that are monitored by software and connected to the sensors in those parking spaces. The idea of greater connectivity between people and the infrastructure they use daily is very exciting, Iwasaki said, because it opens opportunities for new functionality.
Today, when someone uses a navigation app on their smartphone to travel somewhere in a city, for instance, the app doesn’t take the user to an open parking space. It takes them to the exact address. As these systems become connected – connected vehicles, navigation systems, parking spaces and parking meters – there’s an opportunity to make the method of how people move through their lives more convenient and easier. In the future, Iwasaki said, interconnected systems will allow for seamless automation. The user will enter an address, the car will park, the smartphone will pay for parking. It'll also receive a notification when the meter expires and pay again.
“Historically, public agencies like ours, we don’t build anything, so we’ve always gone to the private sector to build our infrastructure projects,” Iwasaki said. “That partnership has parlayed into other data-gathering partnerships that the agency doesn’t have the resources or the experience to do."
Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.