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San Diego Makes Strong Bet on IoT, Telematics and Apps

The city is in the midst of one of the biggest IoT deployments in North America, involving cameras, microphones and sensors, that will help understand how people move through San Diego's streets.

by / May 22, 2019
Erik Caldwell, deputy chief operating officer for smart and sustainable communities in San Diego, spoke of the city's use of Internet of Things and other technologies during the IoT World conference. Skip Descant/ Government Technology

Standing in a small conference room in the Santa Clara Convention Center, Erik Caldwell, deputy chief operating officer for smart and sustainable communities in San Diego, held up his smartphone.

“The principal means of communication for most things in our lives is the smartphone,” Caldwell told attendees at the Internet of Things World conference in mid-May. “It’s not paper. It’s not even email anymore, in terms of talking to your service providers," he said.

Caldwell was taking the opportunity to stress the various ways the city of San Diego interacts with residents, and how via technology and IoT, a lot of those interactions are starting to resemble the way we interact with an online retailer like Amazon.

“When cities have people email or call a central location about a pothole, it isn’t convenient," he said. "It’s not the way that people want to communicate." That's why the city developed the Get It Done smartphone app, which allows residents to report problems like potholes using the phone’s camera and location positioning, and begin a near real-time conversation with city hall where they can learn if the issue has been addressed, or reported by someone else and when it will be fixed.

In the future, telematics in city fleet vehicles could detect rough road conditions, which would then alert road crews. “I would love, a year from now, if somebody is reporting a pothole on the Get It Done app, and instantly, we report back that we’ve already detected it, and crew is going out today to fix it,” he remarked.

According to Caldwell, San Diego is in the process of the largest urban deployment of IoT nodes in North America, outfitting some 4,200 streetlights with cameras, microphones and other sensors to help the city understand how residents and visitors are moving through the city.

“Not the old way that cities have used for decades, in terms of building academic models,” said Caldwell, "but actually understanding what they did five minutes ago, or 15 minutes ago, or actually see events in real-time.”

In addition, the city is installing telematic devices onto fleets — government vehicles including police cruisers and trash trucks — to get information related to road conditions or how vehicles may be interacting in the urban environment. That data is opening the door to new insights on how residents and visitors use the urban space and move through it. It’s also creating the opportunity — and responsibility — for the city to use the data in ways that makes the city work better for residents.

“What we need to do with that information is take it, digest it, run analytics on it, to help us better run the business,” said Caldwell. “And as we do that and start to make sense of it, that’s where we’re driving those innovations and solutions that’s helping us provide better service.”

With that information comes community concern related to how it’s being collected and used. It’s an opportunity for city officials to develop data privacy and transparency policies, to earn and keep the public’s trust.

“Technology, and especially data, in the hands of government, it creeps some people out. People get concerned,” said Caldwell. 

San Diego's streetlight camera technology is not capable of facial recognition. The cameras also do not tilt, pan or zoom or read license plates, Caldwell pointed out. However, the data collected by the cameras has been used by law enforcement to glean additional evidence related to a serious crime committed in the area.

“We’re not monitoring the system 24/7; we’re being reactive, rather than proactive," said Caldwell. Somebody commits a major crime, a serious crime, and then we go back to see if we have information that may help us figure out who did it. We’re not following somebody down the street waiting for them to commit a crime."

Much of the concern by residents has been related to ensuring that the city is using the data in the way it says it is.

“This is what my smart city looks like today,” said Caldwell. “Those small changes that we’re making to mundane functions of government, making them more palatable than grocery shopping, is what’s changing the world.”

Skip Descant Staff Writer

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 Sacramento.

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