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Smart cities initiatives chart the future of IoT

Cities like Palo Alto have launched IoT initiatives that are designed to improve citizens' lives and curb traffic congestion and water usage.

As the drought in California takes aim at farmland -- inhibiting crop growth, and forcing residents to curb water usage -- cities like Palo Alto are delving into the Internet of Things to see whether they can help solve some of the state' water woes.

Internet-of-Things (IoT)-connected devices offer the promise of measuring things such as heat usage or water consumption to bring about a change in behavior. By using IoT at the water meter level, consumers can gain insight into consumption of water over in real time rather than seeing the data months after the fact. Palo Alto is piloting IoT devices for the smart grid and for parking meters, but CIO Jonathan Reichental said that the city is proceeding carefully. It wants to ensure that it gathers useful data that can help change behavior.

"A few hundred homes have smart meters," Reichental said. "But how useful is real-time energy data? We have to balance the investment with the value you get from it. So far the jury's out. But the data is useful. We send … energy consumption information that we can include on bills to help homeowners understand what their consumption is relative to their neighbors. And that can be an interesting motivation for behavior. We shouldn't go full-in on something until we fully understand it."

Palo Alto is also delving into using IoT sensors in parking meters to ensure that the city receives revenue for parking but also to minimize the city's traffic congestion. According to Reichental, about 30% of traffic in a downtown area is attributable to people looking for parking. If IoT devices could route people to spaces that were truly available, "You could reduce the volume of traffic up to 30%," Reichental said.

Given the immaturity of IoT today, though, Reichental urged caution. While in the future, even traffic lights could be hooked up to one another, to cameras and to each car for more efficient traffic flow, the current state of IoT is far more basic.

"[Today], the different infrastructure items don't really talk to each other," Reichental said. "Once the different infrastructure components of cities begin to talk to each other, send data among each other and have some level of intelligence, cities will become smarter and serve people better."

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