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Chicago Startup Takes On Public Asset Management

Tracking micro changes in the built environment can be a costly proposition, but CityScan, a Chicago startup is using mobile terrestrial technology to build a system to do just that.

Cities are losing millions of dollars every year to illegal billboards, unpermitted construction, and inefficient maintenance of public assets.

The problem is inherently about scale — how can a city with limited enforcement and maintenance staff track and monitor every billboard, every construction site, and every inch of public infrastructure? They simply can’t; it is cost prohibitive to track micro changes in the built environment.

Now imagine an up-to-date, interactive 3D rendering of a city accurate down to the centimeter. And what if you could interface that rendering with construction permits, billboard licenses, and zoning restrictions to find gaps in enforcement?

CityScan, a startup out of Chicago and a regional winner of the city’s Challenge Cup, is using mobile terrestrial LiDAR to build just such a system.

LiDAR-equipped cars transverse cities, cataloguing the built environment with engineering-quality accuracy (a terabyte of data per 8-hour drive). Back at headquarters, analysts armed with proprietary software algorithms comb the data for illegal signs, intelligently matching city license information to the 3D rendering. In its 2012 survey, CityScan found thousands of Chicago's billboards were improperly licensed or outright unlicensed. David Guttman, co-founder and CEO of CityScan, estimates the city loses $5-10 million in potential license fees on these signs.

CityScan’s sales pitch is revenue recovery, but the technology’s real value is how it helps cities work better, faster, and cheaper by streaming objective, real-time priorities to decision-makers.

“Enforcement is complaint driven in every large city in the US. Our technology allows it to be problem driven,” says Guttman. In NYC, CityScan tested its technology comparing construction assets on the ground versus construction permits on a mile-and-a-half stretch of Queens Boulevard. 40% of the construction equipment was unpermitted, including an unsafe 6-story scaffold on a nursing home. In neighborhoods where residents can’t or won’t call 311 to report illegal construction activity, this innovation is critical to making sure all residents receive the same level of service.

Beyond enforcement and revenue recovery, there is potential for forward thinking organizations to use mobile terrestrial LiDAR to target infrastructure maintenance. Many agencies and utility companies face an asset management problem: how do we intelligently target repairs across an extensive infrastructure in a low-cost way?

In Chicago, ComEd provides electricity to 3.8 million customers and manages 90,000 miles of power lines in an 11,400-square-mile territory. CityScan is piloting mobile LiDAR to measure the tilt of power poles, inventory company and 3rd party equipment on the polls, assess wire sag, and identify tree encroachment. With this information, ComEd can make informed decisions about where to focus resources to protect Chicago’s electricity infrastructure.

For many cities, street infrastructure is the biggest asset. On the west coast, a mid-sized city is planning a comprehensive sidewalk assessment. The original plan was to spend $1 million to have engineering students walk the entire sidewalk network, evaluating damage by hand. The process would have taken up to a year. With mobile terrestrial LiDAR, the city could have results in a month and with precise damage data like how deep a sidewalk crack is down to the centimeter.

The applications are almost endless — indeed, almost every city approached by the company suggests new and innovative applications: from identifying illegal building conversions and overcrowding by counting doorbells and mailboxes, to post-disaster damage assessments, to comprehensive fire risk assessments combining external LiDAR scans with city records. 

Interfacing mobile terrestrial LiDAR with municipal data is the newest innovation in proactive enforcement and infrastructure management. This innovation enables cities to cut costs, recover lost revenues, and deliver services proactively.

This story originally appeared on Data-Smart City Solutions.