Sensors and the City infographic

As Santander, Rio and other cities have demonstrated, sensor-based solutions have the potential to impact a broad range of urban issues, from traffic and transportation to energy, public safety and the environment. Less understood is the value of some of the other projects that have been rolled out around the world. For example, one of Santander’s test-bed projects involves sensors embedded in the city’s gardens to detect soil humidity and enable more efficient watering of the grass, flowers and plants.

But as Jennifer Belissent, a principal analyst with Forrester Research pointed out, unemployment in Spain is more than 25 percent and for the country’s young adults, the rate exceeds 50 percent. “Do we really need water sensors in the city park when it may be more cost efficient and socially more important to give the person a job to do the same work?” she asked.

Finding a working business model to justify a sensor-based project has proven elusive, according to Belissent. Technology can be a very cool thing, and there are some exciting examples involving sensor-based technologies. But showing they can cut costs and impact a city’s budget can be difficult. “The question is whether it is more cost effective to install sensors in both the short and long term, or are there alternatives,” she said.

Similar misgivings about the cost benefits of sensor-based solutions have been raised by others who study the technology. The actual cost of a sensor can be quite low, depending on its features and capabilities, but the full cost of an entire sensor-based solution can be very high for cities. “I’ve seen lots of simple solutions out there that cost a lot of money,” said Charlie Catlett, director of the Urban Center for Computation and Data, a joint initiative of the University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory. He pointed out how the city of Chicago kept some of the costs down by putting a GPS sensor on every city-owned vehicle and then using the stream of data to give residents and commuters real-time information about traffic congestion. Catlett thinks cities could be savvier about creating home-grown solutions, like Chicago’s, when it comes to using sensors.

With city budgets so tight, trying to explain the expected value of a sensor-based project can be a struggle, according to Katharine Frase, chief technology officer of IBM Public Sector. City leaders must be able to either quantify the problem they are solving or quantify the benefit. “There’s always going to be a pain point anytime you do something new,” she said. “Sometimes it calls for leadership at the top to step in and make it happen.”

Cities also have to do what Belissent calls the “boring stuff” of updating their governance models, incorporating shared services across departments and integrating data, all before the sensors get attached to poles or buried under streets. “These are the things that have to be done before doing those more forward-looking sensor projects,” Frase said.

Despite fiscal problems, the future for smart technologies looks bright. By 2020, cities around the world are expected to spend $20 billion just on sensor technology, according to Navigant Consulting, a Chicago-based firm. When you include the entire infrastructure of networks, databases, IT consulting and services, the figure is far higher. IDC Government Insights, an IT research firm, predicts worldwide smart city spending on the Internet of Things will total $265 billion in 2014.

But as more urban communities begin to assemble and deploy sensor-driven applications, critics are already questioning whether cities may end up too reliant on sensors and smart networks that drive not just services but also decision-making. Increasing our dependence on software to run services and operate infrastructure increases the risk that something could go wrong, argues Anthony Townsend, a senior research scientist at New York University and author of Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers and the Quest for a New Utopia. Writing software code is still an art, based on assumptions that can create havoc. Assumptions were built into HealthCare.gov that led the system to crash when too many people logged on to use it. Townsend cites Y2K as an example of a software bug that was buried deep in just about every mainframe computer in the world. That one flaw cost companies and governments more than $300 billion to fix.

Sensor technology relies on the Internet, which has become increasingly vulnerable to hackers. Israel’s water, electricity and banking systems have been the target of numerous hacking attacks. In 2012, the traffic management system for a major artery in the port city of Haifa was hacked, causing traffic problems that lasted for hours.

Another concern is the use of sensors to maximize the efficiency of existing infrastructure: roads, rails, water systems and electrical grids. Trying to squeeze excess capacity out of old systems could cause problems down the road, especially if the software isn’t stable, robust and secure. And if a problem occurs, can a sensor-based water system shut down properly or does it fail catastrophically? Is there a digital backup in case of failure? Recent events are not reassuring. When hurricanes Katrina and Sandy struck, the cellular phone networks overloaded and crashed. Boston’s wireless phone system also shut down from overuse immediately following the Marathon bombing in 2013.

Sensors that can listen, watch and identify by reading vehicle license plates and smartphone GPS coordinates also raise privacy issues. In Europe, strict laws require providers to receive permission from users before they can use personal data, such as location, addresses and the like. Santander Mayor de la Serna said residents have not reacted negatively to the sensors in his city that collect information, which is actually aggregated and kept anonymous anyway. But others aren’t so sure. Fred Cate, director of the Center for Applied Cybersecurity Research at Indiana University, told The New York Times that the potential for misuse of sensors that can capture nearby conversations, read license plates and record video of people is high.

Rob Kitchin, director of the National Institute of Regional and Spatial Analysis at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth, said interconnected networks of sensors also raise concerns about how cities are governed. In an article published in GeoJournal, Kitchin explained that as cities increasingly rely on data streams from sensors and analytical software to interpret what the data means, there’s a presumption that “all aspects of city life can be measured and monitored and treated as technical problems, which can be addressed through technical solutions.”

An algorithmic approach to city governance seemly ensures rational, logical and impartial decisions. “Moreover,” he added, “it provides city managers with a defense against decisions that raise ethical and accountability concerns by enabling them to say, ‘It’s not me, it’s the data!’”

The worst fear is that a sensor-based smart city could be turned against citizens should the politics shift from a benign democratic form of government to one that’s autocratic. For a more repressive regime, turning public safety and traffic monitoring sensors into surveillance tools might prove hard to resist.

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Tod Newcombe  |  Senior Editor

With more than 20 years of experience covering state and local government, Tod previously was the editor of Public CIO, e.Republic’s award-winning publication for information technology executives in the public sector. He is now a senior editor for Government Technology and a columnist at Governing magazine.