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New Orleans Wants to Be a Smart City, But at What Cost?

From gunshot detection to data collection, officials want to see technology playing a bigger role in the city’s decision-making process. But where to invest and how to pay for it remain unknown.

(TNS) — Taking cues from other U.S. cities that have dabbled in “smart” technology, a City Council committee agreed Wednesday to explore whether New Orleans could support the kind of data collection that would inform its decisions on energy, public safety and transit.

The council’s Utility Committee unanimously passed a resolution asking its legal and technical advisers to examine what technologies could be deployed locally and at what cost.

Officials said the effort could involve everything from gunshot sensors that would help police locate crime sites to crowd-control technology that would direct traffic at major city events.

The committee also urged Entergy New Orleans, the city’s electricity utility, to detail within two months new ways to modernize its grid. That effort has already begun, with Entergy proposing to install "smart meters" that customers can use to gauge and price their electricity use by 2021.

The committee voted after a panel of experts, including former U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, briefed the members on the benefits of the move.

“New Orleans stands at the edge of a technological frontier,” Councilman Jason Williams, the Utility Committee chairman, said before the vote. “And how we respond will either make us a true 21st century city or leave us in the wake of this advanced technology as a backwater laggard. The choice is ours.”

In a nutshell, a “smart city” uses data gathered about its citizens to guide decisions on how to provide services. Amsterdam, for example, uses more than 170 data-driven applications to help shape policy on public transit options, energy use and public safety.

Implementing the technology can be expensive, however. Cities around the world are expected to invest about $41 trillion over the next two decades to make their infrastructure "smart," according to the Smart America Challenge, a White House Presidential Innovation Fellow Project.

While the U.S. Department of Transportation offered up to $40 million in 2015 for municipalities hoping to smarten up their transit systems, New Orleans did not win any of the funding. The city was hoping to install a fiber-optic network throughout the Central Business District and other busy neighborhoods that would have allowed smart sensors, cameras and the like to monitor activity.

While it's not clear what technologies the council will approve, or what they will cost, the smart meters initiative alone is expected to cost Entergy customers $75 million. However, benefits that Entergy receives under the tax cut law President Donald Trump signed in December could offset some of those costs, said Clint Vince, the council's chief adviser on regulating Entergy.

As for the other components of a “smart” plan, Williams and Moniz, who served in the Obama administration, said the city would likely need public and private funding to realize them.

The plan can be phased in over time, Moniz told the council, though he added that moving as quickly as possible would be key, if New Orleans wants to attract the technology jobs such initiatives generate.

“It is a competitive issue because there are economic advantages, and issues of attracting high-tech talent, high skills-based talent and economic development,” he said. “And that’s all going to be helped by a city that is in the vanguard of ... providing this platform by which businesses will find ways to make money.”

The committee's decision is expected to be ratified by the full council.

©2018 The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.