Sensors-on-lampposts have become a smart city cliché, the go-to image of urban technology in action. But these projects have a Bigfoot quality about them: often discussed, seldom seen.
San Diego officials are going front and center with what they describe as the largest such deployment to date. By the end of the year, they expect to have 3,200 multi-sensor pods attached to poles all around the city: pods that can listen for gunshots, count cars, monitor air temperature and potentially carry out a wide range of other tasks.
“It’s all about using the coolest technology tools for the city,” Mayor Kevin Faulconer told Government Technology. “How can we take a smart approach to improve the lives of residents? That’s the bottom line. These sensors will make parking, traffic, city infrastructure better.”
In addition to deploying the sensors and a GE platform to manage the influx of data, the city also will be upgrading 25 percent of its outdoor lighting with new LED technology. The 14,000 new light fixtures are expected to save $2.4 million in annual energy costs, money the city will use to fully offset the $30 million investment in sensors and analytic capabilities. If the numbers pan out as predicted, the nation’s biggest lamppost-sensor project on record will be, effectively, free.
San Diego’s project is not the only such large-scale deployment. The southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, for example, recently executed a massive effort using LED lighting and diverse smart technologies. Among domestic efforts, however, this project by the eighth-largest city in the U.S. is exceptionally expansive.
More than just an aggregation of street-side sensors, GE says its CityIQ nodes represent an IoT platform. “We are repurposing the existing street lighting infrastructure and transforming it into digital infrastructure," said GE General Manager of Intelligent Cities Austin Ashe. "We think of it as a digital engine, something that can weave a thread through every street and sidewalk of the city to extract extremely valuable metadata."
The pods, which will begin appearing this summer, will be rigged out with a range of capabilities. They will be able to detect environmental factors like temperature, humidity and pressure. They will register vibrations, magnetic fields and sounds. Optical sensors will watch traffic, parking and pedestrian activity. “All these things are working together to create a real-time data set,” he said.
Analytics at the edge will compress the data and strip it of some detail in order to keep it anonymous. “You want to extract just the meaningful events out of it,” Ashe said, adding that reducing the data to high-level metadata lessens the data traffic load, and perhaps more importantly, helps ease privacy concerns. Some residents may find the sight of a few thousand data-collection pods to be a little unnerving, and organizers are eager to reassure the public.
“We aren’t looking at faces or license plates,” as Ashe put it. Still, the pods will be scooping up an awful lot of information. What to do with all this data? That’s where the real fun starts.
San Diego officials have given GE some specific instruction regarding the forthcoming data deluge.
“First and foremost, they want the parking data. That is critical. It is pretty well-known that approximately 30 percent of all congestion in a city is caused by people looking for parking spaces," Ashe said. "So if you can get real-time data on where there are cars being parked, and you can put that on an app and put it on someone’s mobile device, that is a huge new community service."
A close corollary to parking: traffic. The smart pods should be able to count cars, to clock their speeds and monitor their direction. Unlike traditional traffic-count techniques, the pods will be able to deliver this data in real time to enable on-the-fly adjustments, such as changing the timing of traffic lights.
Such capabilities could enhance pedestrian safety as well. “We know that bicycles travel in packs, in places that may or may not be safe. So we want to use real-time data to try to prevent accidents from happening,” Ashe said. “If we have a sensor that can predict when a pedestrian or a bicycle is in a crosswalk, maybe we can get that data in the hands of someone to help them make a quick decision.”
But all of this is just the tip of the iceberg. GE and the city also are making all this data available to the public with APIs, so that anyone with a knack for programming can step up and offer their own tools based on the new information.
“If local technology developers can create apps and software off the data, maybe they will show how traffic flows more efficiently, or maybe are there other neighborhood issues out there that we don’t even know about,” Faulconer said. “This is all about getting the data out there and letting people use it to improve people’s lives.”
Opening up the data “is where it gets really interesting,” Ashe said. “Any university student or entrepreneur, anyone in the entire community will have access to this through APIs and through simple coding techniques. So the entire community can start building apps on this data.”
Planners say that by opening up the data, they may be more easily able to overcome citizens’ concerns about a Big Brother-type network being deployed on literally every street corner. “We are able to tell people: This metadata is for you. It is for you to consume. That helps to close that gap,” Ashe said.
The city’s long-term history with the tech industry also could help to speed acceptance of the new data collection and processing tools.
“We are a city of innovation. That is part of our DNA,” Faulconer said. “Let’s use that strength that we have right here in our own back yard and demonstrate to others that this is how you can do it. IoT is not something to be feared. It is something to be embraced.”
Ultimately, planners say, the tangible outcomes of this effort will be what build public support.
“When people see the benefits that come out of this data, it is going to far outweigh these considerations about Big Brother,” Ashe said. “The first time someone drives downtown and finds a parking spot in two minutes, they are just going to be glad to have that data.”
A seasoned journalist with 20+ years' experience, Adam Stone covers education, technology, government and the military, along with diverse other topics. His work has appeared in dozens of general and niche publications nationwide.
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