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Georgia Tech’s Smart Communities Challenge Inspires City Innovation

Three Georgia cities and a county will participate in this year's Georgia Tech Smart Communities Challenge, which builds on collaborations to develop transportation and transit innovation projects.

by / August 24, 2020
Three Georgia cities and a county will participate in this year's Georgia Tech Smart Communities Challenge to develop transportation and transit innovation projects. Shutterstock/Victor Grow

Innovation projects in transportation and transit were the focus of this year’s Georgia Smart Communities Challenge winners.

The program, which is led by Georgia Tech, selected three cities and a county to participate in this year’s round of funding to advance initiatives to develop pedestrian plans for Clayton County. They include a traffic monitoring and communication system in Valdosta, a data science project in Savannah and a system to more efficiently move transit vehicles in Sandy Springs via traffic signals.

“This year marks one of the most competitive selection processes in that the proposals were stronger and more developed in their smart city plans and work,” said Debra Lam, managing director of Smart Cities and Inclusive Innovation at Georgia Tech. “We think this is due to the national trends as well as the local sharing and experience within Georgia.”

In Sandy Springs, part of the greater Atlanta metro region, transportation officials are in the process of developing a traffic signal priority system to give emergency vehicles the green light. A similar system will be developed for transit vehicles traveling a busy bus route connecting to a rail station serving the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA).

“We’ve talked about ways to collaborate more closely with our regional transit providers for years,” said Kristen Wescott, traffic and transportation unit manager for Sandy Springs.

“This is really about testing things that are already underway and how we might use them more effectively, and also in an integrated way ... not just looking at emergency vehicle response, but also with transit,” she added.

The city wants to include about 12 to 14 signals in the project. However, the final number of signals is still being finalized.

Cities pitch their ideas directly to the Georgia Smart Communities program, often forming multi-sector partnerships with other agencies, jurisdictions, businesses or nonprofits. A team of external and internal judges made up of academics, former government officials, and others from industry are part of the selection process, Lam explained.

“Our main criteria is how the community can use research, technology, and data to make sustainable, community impact,” she added.

Another project will use Georgia Tech’s Geographic Information System to collect sidewalk data in Clayton County. The project will collaborate with local cities, as well as groups like the Rotary Club of Lake Spivey and Clayton County.

In Valdosta, a new traffic monitoring system will connect 128 traffic signals to improve transportation efficiency and safety.

And in Savannah, the university will partner with several city departments like the departments of Information Technology and Housing and Neighborhood Services to develop a city data and analytics platform to better manage blighted buildings and put them on a path for redevelopment.

“A big part of our mission is to help serve the communities in the state of Georgia,” said Michael Hunter, a professor in civil and environmental engineering at Georgia Tech. “A lot of our students actually end up going into either the private or the public sector, and working with these agencies, or at these agencies. So it ends up being a great experience for the students as well.”

Editor’s Note: Comments from Georgia Tech were attributed incorrectly in an earlier version of this story.  

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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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