IE 11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Will Streetlamps Become Information Hubs for Cities?

New technology makes it possible to turn ordinary streetlamps into data-gathering networks. But is it too much of a good thing?

North America has more than 1 billion street lights. Known as high-intensity discharge lights, they consume lots of energy, contain mercury vapor and most of them are owned by municipalities. Because of energy and maintenance costs, cities have begun turning to LED technology, which lasts longer than ordinary street lights, consumes less energy and doesn’t contain as many hazardous byproducts. San Diego, Detroit, Las Cruces, N.M., and Sequim, Wash., are some of the latest cities to install LED lights.

But LEDs can do more than just save costs. They also can be a platform for a host of technologies that can monitor what is going on in the vicinity of the light pole. Link these so-called intelligent street lights into a network, and you have the makings of a smart city, say experts.

“We’re marrying the Internet with advanced Web services and low-cost miniature electronics, and delivering it as a new service to cities,” said Hugh Martin, CEO of Sensity Systems. Intelligent street lamps can monitor weather, pollution, seismic activity, act as security systems and monitor traffic and parking, according to Martin.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey recently announced a pilot project, which started in October 2013, that is testing 171 smart LEDs that will act as sophisticated lighting controls and security cameras in one of the airport’s terminals. The cameras are intended to monitor foot traffic in certain areas, as well as keep an eye on unattended baggage. They are also expected to be used for security purposes. Las Vegas is also installing intelligent LED lights that can not only broadcast music, but also record sounds in the vicinity.

Manufacturers of intelligent street lights have emphasized that cities have an opportunity to jumpstart themselves as smart urban centers. Packed with sensors and cameras, this cutting edge technology is capable of controlling the energy costs of street lights, which can consume as much as one-third of a municipality’s energy costs. They can also help tell drivers where parking spaces are available, monitor pollution and could act as information hubs for consumers looking for the latest sales at local retail outlets in the vicinity of the light poles. “There’s a lot of interest among cities in these intelligent lights,” said Martin.

Intelligent LEDS are part of a broader trend in smart city technologies that has taken hold globally. Cities in Spain, Brazil and Southeast Asia have begun to adapt networks of sensor-based technology to monitor and manage everything from water usage to transportation. By 2020, cities around the world are expected to spend $20 billion on sensor technology, according to Navigant Research, a Chicago-based consulting firm.

Retrofitting street lights with LEDs can cost from $200 to $2,000, according to Martin. But they save up to 70 percent of the energy used for traditional lighting. They also last for more than 10 years, compared to just a few years for today's current lighting technology. Network costs are another $150, but Martin says that overall, the payback on smart streetlights is 2-3 years. And then there's the benefits that come with all the sensors that can be added on.

But not everyone is thrilled with the capabilities of smart LEDs. Streetlights that can capture nearby conversations, read license plates and record video of people, conjure up visions of Big Brother for privacy advocates. Fred H. Cate, director of the Center for Applied Cybersecurity Research at Indiana University, told The New York Times that the potential for misuse with this kind of technology was “terrifying.”

At Newark’s Liberty International Airport, video footage taken from the LED cameras will be used by the Port Authority for monitoring and security purposes, and would only be shared with other law enforcement agencies that are conducting authorized investigations. Security is one of the key attributes of smart street lights, according to Martin.

How the technology is implemented can make the difference between public acceptance or rejection of it, said Alan Shark, executive director of the Public Technology Institute, an organization that advises local governments on the use of technology. “Transparency is really important,” said Shark. “The public wants a safe environment, but local officials need to make the public aware they are in a surveillance area."

Just as important is how long cities plan to store any security or surveillance data captured by the smart LEDs. “Six months? Maybe. Anything longer than that raises a red flag,” says Shark.

With more than 20 years of experience covering state and local government, Tod previously was the editor of Public CIO, e.Republic’s award-winning publication for information technology executives in the public sector. He is now a senior editor for Government Technology and a columnist at Governing magazine.