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The Next Great Smart City Challenge: Public Health (Contributed)

As we start to find more success with smart city technology, researchers are now studying how those same technologies can address systemic challenges in health systems and environments around the world.

by Dominie Garcia, Battelle / April 16, 2018

These days, smart city stories are ubiquitous. But few are talking about the way smart city technology can affect public health. 

As current transportation and infrastructure-focused smart city initiatives find success, many researchers now are studying how those same technologies can help address systemic challenges in health and the environment in major cities around the world. In fact, organizations such as the National Science Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation are providing grants to cities to specifically focus on the issues of resiliency, sustainability and public health using technology. 

A key to the recent focus on public health initiatives is the increase in affordability of sensors. High-quality sensors were once too expensive for most cities, but rising demand and improving technology have resulted in the availability of more affordable sensors that are able to collect the detailed data needed to make a public health or sustainability-focused project successful. In fact, according to a recent report from IDTechEx Research, the market for environment sensors is expected to be worth more than $3 billion by 2027.

Additionally, cities and states are becoming more creative when it comes to financing larger-scale smart city projects such as a network of sensors to measure environmental data. Public-private partnerships and alternative financing models, such as social impact-type bonds, cost and revenue share contracts, and pay-for-performance agreements are allowing local governments to tackle more ambitious projects. These innovative models could provide cities and states the ability to more invest in the types of sensors needed for an environment-focused initiative. 

These sensors deliver a treasure trove of data that can be shared and mined to help solve challenges and improve quality of life. According to the World Health Organization, more than 5.5 million people die every year as a result of air pollution, so increased visibility into pollution levels can create timelier and more accurate warnings that can help save lives. Smart and connected systems are also helpful to address health concerns for populations that suffer from asthma. On a smaller scale, data can also be used in more daily city decision-making. For example, data on noise levels might lead to a decision on where to build a school. 

Many cities around the world are already beginning to use sensors to collect environmental data and take action to help improve public health. Barcelona, a global leader in smart cities, installed streetlights that have embedded air quality monitors as part of their Lighting Masterplan. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is working with cities in Central America, where air pollution levels are extremely high, to use sensors to implement systems for air quality warnings, which can help people suffering from asthma and other respiratory illnesses adjust their exposure.

In Chicago, a network of interactive sensors installed around the city as part of the Array of Things project collects real-time environmental data including humidity, cloud cover, noise levels and air quality. The data can be used by the city to develop recommendations that improve sustainability and public health outcomes.  

Washington, D.C., has been using underground sensors to tackle wastewater and runoff challenges. A new smart wastewater pumping system can change its performance in real time based on conditions detected by the sensors to provide more sustainable outcomes. The sensors also provide feedback to pumping station operators that allows for better, more holistic decision-making and outcomes.

Some cities are taking their sensors mobile. Dublin, Ireland, and Oslo, Norway, have both equipped buses and bikes with sensors that allow for a robust mapping of the city’s air quality with fewer sensors than traditional fixed networks.

As these cities show, just as technology is transforming our cities’ transportation and infrastructure systems, so too can it make an impact in the areas of public health and the environment. The hope is that more cities begin follow their lead.

Dominie Garcia leads Battelle’s Smart Cities Program, where she focuses on the organization’s central role in the Smart Columbus project, as well as bringing Battelle’s full suite of capabilities in transportation and mobility, health and environmental sciences, data analytics, and cybersecurity to bear on smart cities projects around the country. She holds a Ph.D. in systems engineering and organizational design from Georgia Tech, as well as an MBA from Babson College and BA from Vassar College.

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