Smart City: A Journey of Collective Efforts

Bob Bennett, CIO, City of Kansas City, MO
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Bob Bennett, CIO, City of Kansas City, MO

Bob Bennett, CIO, City of Kansas City, MO

The opportunities we seek are as varied as the number of people who walk our streets and live in our dwellings and can include deals to be made, jobs to begin or the development of the next generation. When a city transitions from being a cold, lifeless place to a sentient, living organism that focuses on bringing opportunities to people faster, it becomes a Smart City. We are not there yet. But we can get there….

City leaders who focus on people and opportunities will be the people who achieve the “Smart City” vision – whatever that means for any given city – first. They will get there first because they will start with a vision for what the Smart City will do, and they will likely focus first on what residents or visitors need most. To understand the need, they will use the best descriptive data they have to today to describe the problem. This will enable them to achieve the first critical task in building a Smart City: gain control of the data you have. Most cities can become “smart” using what they have today – 85% of the data we use in Kansas City’s analytical platform come from our open data site. Long before a Chief Innovation Officer or Chief Technology Officer has to make a case for an expensive technology purchase, she or he can describe with authority how a problem has evolved and where gaps exist that a city can fill. In this way, the city begins its transformation. No longer do we fix streets and water pipes based on a street-by-street schedule; we look at trends and anticipate future needs. And we can do this without a single sensor. It’s just a math problem.

 We use our existing data to understand our world better and gain wisdom; we use IoT sensors to fill out data gaps and get predictive 

The next step for the Smart City is to go beyond reporting trends to predicting future needs beyond trends. Simple trend analysis gives city leaders quicker access to the wisdom that the experienced middle level managers in your customer facing departments already have. The 15 percent of the data city leaders know they need (based on the gaps from trend analysis) can be gained through targeted procurement of IoT sensors and analysis systems that address the specific need they are trying to meet. At this point, the city can actively participate in the lives of its occupants. In our case in Kansas City, we had to iterate through our learning. We received a good amount of traffic flow data from 178 sensors deployed along 2.2 miles of Main Street before we had a well-defined use case. We were struggling with multiple options when our Public Works director asked us, “if you guys could predict potholes, you could fundamentally change how we allocate a severe shortage of road maintenance funds.” With that focus, we combined the street use data from the sensors with existing weather data, street condition data, and about 12 other data sets we already maintained. Today, we predict with about 90% probability when and where a pothole will occur, and we are able to preemptively conduct road repairs that last for 20 years vice the 2-3 years a traditional pothole repair lasts. Meanwhile, our residents can plan for street closures and we avoid claims for pothole-caused damage to vehicles. And we have doubled the number of linear miles we can maintain in a year.

As cities reap the benefits of increased ROI (in the case of potholes) or improved perceptions of safety (in the case of public safety) or increased economic development (attributed to “smart corridors”), it becomes more common sensical for city councils to approve “Smart City” projects. Cities maintain trust by solving specific issues or problems, and the cities decrease the decision cycle time required to meet a requirement. If an issue can be solved with preventative maintenance or security, a mayor can possibly nip a crisis in the bud. In the end, government becomes boring, efficient, and effective.

Taking the Smart City journey is a collective effort. We have been fortunate to form a team around Cisco equipment and a Sprint network; these large firms have great capacity to take risks the city would otherwise be unable to underwrite. Our data collection, normalization, storage, assessment and dissemination challenges expanded exponentially as we proceeded; Amazon Web Services helped us overcome those challenges. We included startup firms including Xaqt and Smart City Media, who dreamt big and developed an analytics platform that predicts issues and a communication platform that pays for itself through ad sales. We engaged ThinkBig Partners, a commercial firm that draws from multiple sources and focuses on Smart City technology, and we included KC Digital Drive, a non-profit that keeps the region engaged and focuses development on the underserved community. The diverse nature of our team also keeps us accountable one to the other – when twelve eyes examine a problem, they can keep one set of eyes from getting distracted. Kansas City is on the Smart City journey focused on solving real problems for real people. We use our existing data to understand our world better and gain wisdom; we use IoT sensors to fill out data gaps and get predictive. The Smart City future is coming, and we are going to get there.

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