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Smart City Tech Focuses on Efficiency, Safety, Privacy

Tools like smart streetlights help cities understand what's going on at the ground level, but as solutions advance, officials say they should be easy to stand up and keep public privacy top of mind.

aerial view of a city at night with blue lines and dots connecting over the top
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Ease of deployment may be one area where the urban tech landscape is evolving as cities look to leverage streetlights and even electric transformers to give them deeper insights into what’s happening on the ground. These technology developments come as public leaders also work to ensure individual privacy is not trampled on the road to a smart city.

Many of the questions from city leaders involve how data is transported and stored, said Mike Grigsby, director of business development at Ubicquia, a smart city technology company. Other firms in the space include Aclima, which makes sensors that collect air quality data, and Samsara, an IoT platform that aims to improve urban safety and efficiency.

“Ubiciquia delivers the mechanism. But the data is owned by the city,” Grigsby said. “We don’t hold that data. We don’t own that data. We make sure that’s known up front.”

What also matters to city IT departments is the ease of getting the technology up and running.

“The speed to execution, the simplicity of deployment is literally, after you plug it in, provisioned on the network,” said Grigsby, commenting on the UbiHub, a smart city technology produced by Ubicquia. “It’s ready to go before the bucket truck is even down and secured and ready to drive away.”

UbiHub connects to basic infrastructure like streetlights, making it easy to deploy technology like Wi-Fi, cameras, sensors, license plate readers and other data-collecting technologies. That data informs city officials about what’s happening on a given block or section of town. Understandably, most cities may not activate all of their streetlights with smart city technology on “day one,” Grigsby said.

“Let’s say you decide to deploy 100 hubs. Where are those 100 hubs going to go? What does public works want from pedestrian counting or vehicle counting? What does parks and rec want from safety and security? There’s a lot of different applications around them,” he added.

But it’s not just a deeper understanding of what’s happening on city streets that has officials turning to urban tech. Utilities — whether operated by private companies or municipalities — are looking to smart city technologies for a deeper understanding of power needs and the condition of the equipment that provides that power. The upgrades are particularly helpful as large swaths of consumers switch to electric cars, requiring more innovative grid management on the part of utilities.

Ubicquia has introduced “smart transformers,” devices that help cities or utilities respond faster to irregularities. Like other smart city technologies, the smart transformer allows for more awareness into the transformer environment, which leads to quicker response, officials say.

“You’re creating a better response, a more intelligent response,” said Grigsby.

This article is part of a series looking at the gov tech companies bringing their expertise to areas seeing major growth in the market, which originally appeared in the January/February 2024 issue of Government Technology magazine. Click here to view the full digital edition online.
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.