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Bringing the Smart City Vision to Kansas City’s Neglected East Side

With few signs of renewal in the area, officials are hoping investments in transit and technology will move the needle.

by Bill Turque, The Kansas City Star / October 1, 2018

(TNS) — When Cheryl Barnes walks on Prospect Avenue near her Blue Hills home, she sees the vacant lots and boarded storefronts that are a legacy of neglect and disinvestment stretching back decades.

But Barnes, 71, also sees a “blank slate of opportunity waiting to happen.” She’s hoping the slate will show something soon.

Late next year, the new 9-mile MAX bus line will begin service from downtown to 75th and Prospect. Bus Rapid Transit will mean fewer stops, faster trips and spiffy new stations offering real-time travel information.

But Prospect Max will bring more than upgraded bus service.

With it will come an expansion of the “Smart City,” the catch-all moniker for a global movement to run local government more efficiently and equitably by harnessing the power of new technology. Cities from London to Boston to San Francisco to Melbourne are experimenting with new ways to deliver basic services.

Within the next few months, the city will award a consortium of tech companies a contract that could run as long as 30 years to manage the smartening of Prospect and broad swaths beyond.

It will mean smart parking, smart intersections, smart water meters and smart streetlights. Multiple firms responded to the city’s 83-page request for proposals.

“My goal would be to make the entire city smart,” said Mayor Sly James.

Because the city lacks the capital and the expertise to create such an infrastructure, officials expect the private partner to invest at least a half-billion dollars long-term.

It will be a public-private partnership like no other.

Cities have long looked to the private sector to manage and innovate. But the Smart City blueprint, if fully realized, would give corporations an unprecedented role in the delivery of municipal services — and the collection of vast troves of data about the lives of Kansas Citians.

Barnes, president of the Blue Hills Neighborhood Association, said she understand the risks, but her view is: Bring it on.

“I get a little bit nervous about it, but the upside potential is greater than the risk,” she said. “I think it’s a fabulous resource that can make a real difference. The city has focused everywhere but the east side.”

Right now, Kansas City’s smart footprint is a 54-block area anchored by the 2.2-mile downtown streetcar line from the River Market to Union Station — less than 1 percent of the city’s land area.

The Prospect expansion will give the city a chance to prove that the Smart City, endlessly touted as the urban future, can make a difference in a deeply disadvantaged community.

How Smart Cities work

The Prospect expansion is expected to bring free Wi-Fi to bridge the digital divide. ShotSpotter, a system of acoustic sensors that detect gunfire, will be deployed along a corridor that cuts through four ZIP codes with the city’s lowest average life expectancy.

Touchscreen kiosks can post job opportunities. Air quality sensors can hone in on possible hot spots for childhood asthma, a leading cause of school absences. The city estimates that roughly 6,000 schoolchildren live in what will become a “smart” corridor.

“We still have kids that have tablets and they can’t do anything with them when they come home,” James said. “They’ve got to go to the grocery store or the library or something to get Wi-Fi service so they can do the things they need to do online. They shouldn’t have to do that.”

Kansas City entered the smart era during construction of the streetcar line from 2014-16. Tech giant Cisco approached the city with the idea of using the streetcar route as a Smart City proving ground.

As Main Street was torn up, Cisco and a team of companies embedded fiber optic cable, installed hundreds of Wi-Fi access points, sensors and cameras to track vehicular and pedestrian traffic. Interactive kiosks flash the latest word about nearby restaurants or entertainment. “Smart” LED streetlights automatically adjust to save energy and cut down on light pollution.

The business proposition is simple. Tech companies get to test market their latest gadgetry and monetize the data they collect. Log on downtown, for example, and Sprint (which owns the Wi-Fi) collects information on who you are, where you’re from and what you find interesting. It can sell the data to marketers. That’s one reason the private sector picked up most of the $15.7 million cost.

The city, with the help of a local data analysis firm called Xaqt (pronounced “exact”) can augment the torrent of information it already collects to inform policy decisions: resident surveys, 311 call center statistics, crime reports, pet licensing, even Mastercard billings by ZIP code to show how money is being spent.

The array of Smart Cities hardware produces a kind of full-body scan of downtown: real-time information on congested intersections, available parking, or when trash needs to be picked up during events in the Power and Light District.

“The 54 smartest blocks in the country,” said Bob Bennett, the West Point-educated Army veteran of Iraq who uses phrases like “administrative ecosystem” to describe Smart Cities’ melding of public and private. He waxes so rhapsodic about the possibilities, he occasionally breaks into a falsetto voice to declare “AWESOME!!”

The city and its private partners get an added bonus: buzz and brand visibility.

Cisco, Sprint and its corporate partners are associated with something cool and forward-leaning. It has made Kansas City a magnet for tech entrepreneurs and conferences for big think about big data.

Earlier this month, Kansas City was the first U.S. site for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers International Smart Cities Conference. Next week, the Big Data Summit returns to the city, part of the annual Techweek expo.

For civic boosters, it’s a selling point to attract people and jobs. On its homepage, the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce boasts that the city is rated by national publications “as one of the 50 Smart Places to Live!”

What that exactly means, the chamber doesn’t say.

Ask Bennett how Smart Cities has actually improved the quality of life in Kansas City so far, he pointed first to the free Wi-Fi, which has drawn 2.7 million visitors. People headed downtown can link to Xaqt and check available parking. Then there is improved traffic light timing that has cut an average of 37 seconds from the average car trip through the Main Street corridor.

Beyond that, Smart Cities is more of a promise than a game changer. That’s why city officials elected to turn Smart Cities east.

Prospect is ready

Prospect Avenue is so closely identified with crime and poverty that Councilman Jermaine Reed was excoriated by residents when he suggested in 2011 that the street be renamed for Dr. Martin Luther King.

From the 71 bus — the regular service that will be supplanted by the MAX — there are few signs of renewal. One of them, the 4-month-old Sun Fresh market at 31st Street, a $17 million investment, was left with shattered, bullet-riddled doors from a Sept. 3 shooting.

Take away the Lucille Bluford branch of the Kansas City Public library and Research Medical Center and the streetscape is dominated by car washes, discount cellphone stores and auto lots. “Bad credit? Need a car? You know the deal....” says the front of one business near Swope Parkway.

City officials are hoping the MAX, in tandem with Smart City, can kindle the kind of development beginning on Troost, which also has bus rapid transit.

Bobby Layton, a library technology assistant who has worked at the Bluford branch for 18 years, lamented that the Smart Cities won’t come with an extension of the streetcar. Voters rejected two eastward expansions in 2014.

“That would have been awesome,” he said. “It would get more people here.”

From his desk at the library, Layton, 41, has watched the violence and distress escalate. Shotspotter may be a start, but it won’t change things by itself.

“People have to feel safe,” he said.

Alphapointe sits at the southern terminus of the bus route at 75th Street. The nonprofit is the country’s third largest employer of the blind. Its 220 workers make drug containers for the Veterans Administration and office supplies for the GSA and the Department of Defense.

The sprawling campus, once the site of Fairyland, the city’s whites-only amusement park, is also cut off. While the KCATA provides para transit, vice president Gina Gowin said her clients need more of a connection to the rest of the city.

“We don’t want to be an island here,” said Gowin, who wants to see Smart Cities install GPS beacons that can speak through smartphones.

“It’s great that blind can get out the door and ride the bus,” but to venture further on public transit, they need more infrastructure.

“Let’s be the most technically accessible city,” she said.

Keeping your data secure

Can a city be smart and still keep its citizens’ personal lives secure? Some academics and civil libertarians warn that local governments need to work carefully though long-term questions about privacy and accountability.

“We intuitively know there’s a lot of information out there about us already,” said Kendra Smith, associate director at Stanford University’s Center for Population Sciences, who has written critically about Smart Cities. “We’re handing over a really detailed blueprint of our lives. There’s a lot of opportunity for abuse there.

“The onus is really on the citizens and local government to be super-critical of what they’re inviting into the city.”

Officials point to privacy policies that hold the city, its contractors and vendors to strict standards for stripping data of information that could identify an individual. They say that in time, local government will be able to deliver the kind of customer service residents receive from Amazon or Apple without turning their world into a dystopian techno-nightmare.

“The 21st century is going to be a data-driven century, and so citizens expect that infrastructure to exist,” Bennett said. “People expect that same service from us and we have to make sure we’re partnering with companies that can help us provide those services.”

Take water meters. The successful bidder for the city contract will be expected to deploy Advanced Metering Infrastructure to track residential water use. Every 15 minutes or so, monitors would send the city data about how much water a household is consuming.

“Over time, it learns your lifestyle,” Bennett said.

If someone’s water use seems out-of-line with previous patterns of consumption — say, suddenly 100 gallons a day instead of the usual 10, the system could send out an “anomaly alert.”

“Instead of waiting for a neighbor to call you, you’re alerted,” he said.

But even some intellectual architects of the Smart Cities movement are concerned about accountability if something goes wrong. A hack, a systems failure, a cyberterrorist attack, are always possible.

“You’re really putting your finger on the third rail. Who is responsible over time when something doesn’t work?” said Gordon Feller, a former Cisco executive and founder of Meeting of the Minds, a San Francisco nonprofit that consults with cities on infrastructure, sustainability and other issues.

Bennett said the city will remain accountable.

“We will never be put out of business because we control the right-of-way, we control the permitting,” he said.

“They had running water in ancient Rome. The city managed the aquaducts,” he said. “Thirty years from now, we will still be delivering water as a city.”

As for privacy, it doesn’t seem to worry Robert Brown, who’s 31 and unemployed. He recently sat in the bus shelter at 75th and Prospect on a sweltering late summer afternoon.

He said the free Wi-Fi “would definitely be nice,” and the Shotspotter as well.

“I have nothing to hide,” Brown said of security concerns. “Only people with something to hide would have to worry about it.”

©2018 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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