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Philadelphia Launches Real-Time Smart City Project

The SmartCityPHL project in Philadelphia is a partnership among the city, Comcast and US Ignite that aims to help collect real-time data related to air quality, weather, transportation and more.

A district in Philadelphia is moving forward with a smart city project to gain real-time insights into air quality, weather, transportation modes and more, providing a dynamic understanding of the urban environment.

SmartBlockPHL, part of the larger SmartCityPHL program, is a pilot project and partnership among the city, Comcast, US Ignite and Juganu. It will be deployed in Philadelphia’s Midtown Village with the technology installed on 14 streetlights.

“The goal of this project was to test and validate new sensor-based technologies against legacy methods of collecting the same information,” said Labonno Islam, digital engagement and communications manager for the city's Office of innovation and Technology. “As the city learns more about the quality of data from this project, its teams will develop ways to operationalize it in the future.”

The project is unique in its ability to collect data in real time, and then process it in the cloud.

“This project has been a very productive exercise in assessing and establishing how the city works with new technologies using edge computing, while addressing concerns around the individual privacy of people using the right of way,” said Islam.

US Ignite will serve as a facilitator for stakeholder engagement, while also bringing technology expertise and other resources to the table, "so that the local government in Philadelphia can build its own capacity for further ‘smart city’ development,” said Sarah Archer-Days, a spokesperson for US Ignite.

Comcast will provide the technology to equip the streetlights to collect metadata in real time, while ensuring the privacy and autonomy of the residents and others moving through the area, say officials, adding no personal identifiable information will be collected.

US Ignite provided data privacy expertise to help Philadelphia craft an approach to data management and trust-building within the neighborhood, said Lee Davenport, director of community development for US Ignite.

“We will also support the city as they uncover insights from the pilot project to determine whether and where smart streetlights can deliver value for Philadelphia in the future,” Davenport added.

It’s not entirely clear how the data will be used or what operational changes it may lead to. These are some of the issues to be explored.

“The city’s SmartCityPHL team is still working on cleaning up and validating the data and will have more updates in the coming months,” said Islam.

Data privacy is never far from the concerns around any smart city project. And the SmartCityPHL project will explore opportunities to both address these concerns while still moving forward with the improvements to city life that can come from data collection, said Davenport.

“People are rightly very sensitive to the potential for surveillance and misuse of data,” Davenport added. “However, it is worth spending the time to address privacy concerns and find ways to move forward effectively and transparently because data about our environment is critical to affecting change.”

It’s believed the data collected will help the city respond more effectively to emergencies, and also better understand the on-the-ground conditions of the neighborhood with respect to environmental quality and overall safety and movement.

“What is the air quality in a particular neighborhood and does that link to public health concerns? If there are public health concerns, how does that correlate to local housing stock, and potentially to issues of equity in the city? Are there natural gathering points for pedestrians, and could those spaces by improved, or could space be better utilized?” said Davenport, offering a range of questions and issues the project could shine new light on.
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 Yreka, Calif.