Sapsiwai - Fotolia

Smart city technology could spark innovative projects

Smart city projects could help municipal governments operate more efficiently and improve quality of life for residents, but data access, privacy and security are still hurdles to overcome.

Smart city projects, powered by devices connected to the Internet of Things (IoT) and advanced analytics tools, have the potential to fundamentally change the way municipal governments function. But for initiatives to be successful, cities will need to address issues such as data accessibility and privacy and security.

Speaking at the 2016 IoT Data Analytics & Visualization conference, Palo Alto, Calif., CIO Jonathan Reichental said smart city technology enabled by the IoT could help government officials improve everything from traffic management to climate change resilience.

"The Internet of Things is going to play a really big role in creating the cities of the future," he said.

For example, Reichental is applying smart city technology to Palo Alto's transportation needs. The city is putting sensors in traffic lights that can tell when cars are starting to back up at an intersection. The sensors send this data back to a cloud data store, where it runs through an algorithm that decides when the lights should change. Eventually, the city wants to push the data analysis to the edge at the sensor itself, embedding algorithms that compute on data as it is generated.

If we don't change the game, if we don't reinvent how cities operate, we're all in trouble.
Jonathan ReichentalCIO for the City of Palto Alto, Calif.

Reichental said the city also is in the early stages of thinking about how to put sensors in water systems to identify leaky pipes. He said a relatively large percentage of water is lost in this way, which is particularly troubling as California confronts a historic drought. He said as climate change worsens in the years ahead, addressing these issues through smart city projects will become even more important.

"If we don't change the game, if we don't reinvent how cities operate, we're all in trouble," Reichental said.

Unleashing data leads to innovation

Muncipal governments are among the largest collectors of data in the U.S. Providing private citizens and businesses with access to this data could lead to quicker innovation than if cities try to develop their own smart city technology, according to Eyal Amir, CEO and chief data officer at parking finder app developer Parknav.

"At the end, it boils down to how many hands can access the data, and can [cities] provide that data in easy-to-consume forms," Amir said during a discussion panel at the conference, which was held in Palo Alto.

He said that cities, despite the mountains of data they collect, have limited resources to analyze this data to develop new insights about the city and to develop applications that leverage these insights. He advocated opening up city data to private developers who have far greater resources. He noted that the cities of Seattle and Chicago have set up online portals, giving people outside of government access to government databases. And the federal government's site provides access to public databases. But Amir would like to see more of this.

"There are places where the private sector can step in," Amir said. "Cities need to be ready to receive this help."

Privacy, security critical to public support

As governments liberate the data they hold, though, they need to think about protecting the data from both a privacy and security standpoint. Connecting more devices to the Internet to monitor activities in public spaces could give cities tremendous intelligence into what's happening, but the potential for abusing this data is also considerable.

"It's important for people to feel that they're not being spied upon," said Barend Botha, founder of the research firm IoTDataViz.

Botha agreed with Amir that there's great potential in opening up data sets to the public and applying smart city technology. But he said residents won't get on board with projects if they feel like data about them is being abused or if it intrudes on personal areas of life. He said the best way to build support for smart city and IoT projects is to develop a set of privacy standards and to involve citizens in a project's early stages.

If cities get these issues right, the payoff could be significant. Reichental said he believes smart city technologies eventually will become a trillion dollar industry as sensors are placed in more and more objects and the need for tools to analyze data coming from objects increases. Cities will benefit from this, he thinks, by streamlining processes and becoming more efficient.

"The Internet of Things in a city context will probably be bigger than the Internet was," Reichental said.  

Next Steps

IoT systems lay the foundation for smart city development

Technology channel set to play large role in future of smart cities

Smart cities play role in surging interest in IoT technologies

Dig Deeper on Internet of Things (IoT) Verticals