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NYC's Smart Bench Pilot to Give Detailed Sense of Usage Trends in Highbridge Park

The initiative is part of the city’s broader effort to generate data-driven decision-making in its parks department, a move reflected in large and small municipalities nationwide.

When New York City authorities reopened Highbridge Park in June 2015 after nearly 40 years, the $61.8 million restoration proved an immediate hit. With its expansive views of the Harlem River, the stone and steel pedestrian bridge linking Manhattan and the Bronx drew crowds of tourists.

But would locals use the park? There was no easy way to be sure. When it comes to facilities use in public parks, data has traditionally been hard to come by.

“There are different groups that have collected user data in the past, but it has literally been people with clickers and clipboards. These are one-off efforts, very isolated in time,” said NYC Parks Department Director of Data Analytics Jackie Lu. “We want to collect this data in a more granular way and also in a more continuous, ongoing way.”

To that end, the city has signed on as a beta user of Soofa, whose “smart” park benches will be installed in the park to help give planners a detailed sense of usage trends.

Founded as an outgrowth of the MIT Media Lab in 2014, Cambridge, Mass.-based Soofa’s main offering is a solar-powered phone charger embedded in a park bench. It’s a straightforward technology that is meant to serve as a civic amenity.

In its latest iteration, the company takes the smart bench one step further. The Highbridge Park beta — along with test runs in Boston; Oak Park, Ill.; Sunny Isles Beach, Fla.; and elsewhere — will integrate a sensor into the benches that can take track visitor volume in the park.

Specifically, an embedded Wi-Fi scanner will search a 75-meter radius for Wi-Fi-enabled mobile devices, anonymously sensing every enabled device that comes into range. Soofa will be able to collect data on how many devices enter the park and how long they tend to stay. This in turn should give park managers a glimpse into overall usage patterns.

With five solar-powered benches deployed at strategic points along the park, Lu said, it might be possible to gain an understanding not just of how many people come and go, but also their trajectory.

"There is the potential to understand how people are moving through the park,” she said. “If you see the same devices walk by multiple benches, then you start to understand flow through the park.”

The Soofa initiative is part of the city’s broader effort to generate data-driven decision-making in its parks department, a move reflected in large and small municipalities nationwide.

The Park District of Oak Park, Ill., for instance, operates 18 parks serving 52,000 residents, providing nearly 3,000 recreation programs and special events annually. Tracking data on those programs is relatively easy: Planners know how many people register for a given course; they can count heads at an event. Tracking park usage is more problematic, however.

“For any park and recreation department, the No. 1 way people use your services is through your parks, but that is also one of the hardest things to get a handle on in terms of how they are being used," said Bobbi Nance, the park district’s senior manager for strategy and innovation. "There are no entrances or exits. They are public and open."

Park usage data could be helpful in a number of ways. Metrics might help planners to schedule trash collection, or schedule maintenance based on anticipated use levels. “It might tell us how often we need to renew things, how quickly certain parks or certain features might be wearing down,” Nance said.

Data could help justify capital improvements and also guide investments. “They can help us tell a much fuller story of everything that we are providing to the community, not just what is going on inside our physical buildings,” she said.

To that end, Oak Park is installing four of Soofa’s “core” devices: That’s a stripped down version of the technology, a stand-alone unit that offers the charging and monitoring capabilities, without the cost of the bench. The units are positioned to reflect diverse activities, in areas where no staff are regularly stationed, including athletic fields and a sculpture walk.

Nance said the city is investing $14,000 in the project. The city recently completed a decade of parks renewal and didn’t need any bench upgrades, so the ability to get into the beta in a relatively limited way was a big inducement. “That certainly made it much easier than it might have been, if we had had to do something in a much bigger way right from the start,” Nance said.

That ease of entry is not coincidental. Soofa executives espouse a vision they say is attuned to evolving smart-city needs: To deliver smart enhancements that are relatively inexpensive and that show a rapid return on investment.

In past years, cities have looked at smart city initiatives on a grand scale, with vendors promising intricate landscapes of interconnected devices. Lately the ambitions have become more modest. Civic planners are looking for small-scale projects that can deliver in the short term. They want “pilot-scale projects that not only directly benefit the public, but whose success can be measured in weeks and months versus years and decades,” said Soofa Co-founder and CEO Sandra Richter.

Soofa says its $4,900 benches can meet that mark.

“Cities don’t want to go out and do big things. Government is risk-averse. They are looking for something to show that they are innovating but they are looking to do it in these small, tangible ways,” said Soofa Director of Partnerships Edward Krafcik.

By implementing technology to drive decisions, “this can show residents that the city is committed to looking ahead, and not just waiting for something to happen,” Krafcik said. At the same time, the phone-charging capability delivers a level of instant gratification that may help make the expense palatable. “Whenever cities are spending taxpayer dollars, residents want a practical return, and residents see charging phones as an amazing benefit.”

The bench system also meets the demand for provable outcomes, another hallmark of the modern smart city mentality. “Today everything is evidence based," Krafcik said. "Cities want data they can analyze and that they can tie to an outcome, to prove very quickly whether this is a successful or an unsuccessful intervention."

Ideally, the benches could even become a driver of revenue. In one Cambridge, Mass., neighborhood, for instance, planners have used the sensors to count the pace of business at food trucks. The trucks pay rent to the city, which now is using the data to optimize how much rent it charges. “So it all ties back to actual revenue earnings potential for the city,” Krafcik said.

How else might the smart park bench data be used? In New York City, it’s an open question so far.

“As an agency, we are just starting to learn how to leverage and look at our data,” Lu said. Gathering the information will be a first step. “Understanding what we can do with it — that is really going to be the next step. If we can get this specific data at this specific site, how can we use it to inform operational decisions, resource allocation decisions? That is what we are looking to learn.”