Cities Look to Become Smarter

As big data becomes more available, cities are plugging in to solve many of their problems—both old and new. In 2015, the U.S. Department of Transportation, or DOT, launched the Smart City Challenge. The winner of the challenge, a city that proposed an innovative use of big data to improve urban life, was to receive a $40 million grant to carry out the proposal. Seventy-eight cities applied, and the DOT worked with seven finalists to flesh out their proposals. In the end, Columbus, Ohio, won. Columbus proposed self-driving shuttles that would service a growing retail district in an effort to connect residents to jobs, as well as the use of data to improve health care access to a struggling neighborhood. Through the use of public-private partnerships, Columbus has raised around half a billion dollars for the Smart City initiative. The city has a number of ambitious goals for the use of this money, going far beyond the 2015 DOT application. You can read more about their smart city applications of autonomous vehicles here.

While there was only one initial grant recipient, the DOT used the other applications to publish a report detailing some of the innovative proposals put forward by cities. Something that has influenced the way cities are becoming smarter is the concept of the “Internet of Things.” The Internet of Things is the concept of capitalizing on the connection between the web of devices connected to the Internet. Cities can use this concept to become smarter in various ways, such as sensors installed throughout cities. These sensors and other data collection methods can be used to improve urban life. Kansas City has installed smart streetlights that, in addition to saving energy, help track available parking spaces for residents. Cities also see these sensors as an opportunity to improve public safety measures.

Cities are also capitalizing on citizen-sourced data, most commonly through cell phone data. Waze, a Google-owned traffic app, uses driver data to share traffic and road information with other drivers. Through its Connected Citizens program, Waze offers to share this information with cities at no cost, in exchange for information on things like road closures. Cities, in turn, can use this data to improve traffic engineering and respond to incidents like potholes sooner.

Another innovative use of citizen data can be found on display in Louisville, Kentucky. In 2012, after being named one of the top 20 most challenging cities to live in with asthma, Louisville sought to improve its air quality. AIR Louisville was created, a public-private partnership that distributed “smart” inhalers to Louisville citizens suffering from asthma. Every time an asthma sufferer used their smart inhaler, data was collected. By compiling this data, AIR Louisville was able to create a map of asthma risk, and the City of Louisville created actionable policy items to combat the problem.

For states looking to support the growth of smart cities, the Deloitte Center for Government Insights recently published a report on the financing of these projects. Public-private partnerships are popular for these initiatives as they create opportunity for entrepreneurial investment. Kansas City has invested significantly in smart infrastructure, becoming the first city to install Google Fiber. Now, with free public Wi-Fi and public electronic kiosks, Kansas City is looking for developers to create new ways to utilize its smart infrastructure.

While the innovative projects put forward by these smart city initiatives are exciting, they can raise privacy concerns. Big data is a useful tool, but it also touches the lives of residents in ways that can be concerning. According to Rob Kitchin with the National Institute for Regional and Spatial Analysis, in a 2016 report, much of the data gathered can identify citizens at the personal and household level. While this data can be used to create effective and efficient policies, there is a concern of potential misuse of personal data. Additionally, as more information is gathered the possibility of a data breach becomes more alarming. As cities and states look to become smarter, they will have to grapple with the effect these new policies can have.