Smart Cities’ Challenge: Bridging Data, In Real Time
“Smart cities” are a technology-driven approach to many previously irretractable urban problems, from alleviating congestion to improving pedestrian safety to enhancing water quality. While tier-1 cities such as San Francisco and Denver may come to mind as leaders in smart city technology deployment, look no further than Chattanooga, Tennessee. This picturesque city, nestled in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, is an example of a smart city employing cutting-edge approaches to improve residents’ lives and mobility.
Panelists are optimistic about the inroads smart cities will be making in transportation and civic life over the coming decade. Comstock sees smart cities paving the way for improved health, energy and mobility, “key areas smart cities can focus on and make tangible improvements over the next five to ten years.”
In the years ahead, Hardiman sees a highly connected city emerging, in which “where officials have data at their fingertips to make decisions. Whether that’s on a big screen, where they can move stuff around, or whether its on laptops, I hope it makes it easier to be a city official, and do their job effectively with the power of data inputs.”
Data is the key, and is now available from a range of sources across cities. Muller says the key to smart city growth will be bringing this data together from different technologies and systems, “and making it useful as a whole big picture.” “Open” is the operative word, he adds. “Data is going to need to be accessible to many different parties, from connected vehicles, to transportation systems, to a person down the street looking at his cell phone.”
Chattanooga has been taking these steps, implementing a centralized hub that monitors real-time information on the health of its transportation network, as well as cameras that detect vehicles — both cars and bicycles — for better operation of traffic signals. The city has also been tying its databases together from sources across both the city and county to compile information about delays, congestion, construction, where parking or transit options are most available, and providing that information to the public in an open architecture format.
Comstock’s team has also been working with academia on a US Department of Transportation connected vehicle program test bed project which provides Chattanooga with one of the first connected vehicle projects in the country. The project is intended to provide connection between freight, transit and emergency vehicles, as well as monitor pollution and self-adjusting signals to compensate for increases in the pollution and other factors. “At the end of the day, businesses want to get their goods or deliver their goods,” says Comstock. “The more robust and smart the system, the more reliable sustainable system or delivery platform, the better off they’re going to be. The economic development piece of that becomes more in play at that point in time.”
Connected vehicles have caught the attention of many smart city planners, but the proliferation if autonomous vehicles is still some time away. “I don’t believe we’re in autonomous vehicles state yet, but we’ll definitely be there over the coming decade,” says Comstock. “We have to have connectivity before we have autonomy. The first generation of autonomous vehicles “are going to deliver pizza, groceries and packages before they ever deliver people,” Comstock cautions. “Until those platforms are discovered and vetted out, a certain safety protocol has been addressed.”
Autonomous vehicles currently have found their place in “very active in heavy industries, especially mining, and things like that, where the environments are more conducive to that technology,” says Muller. “The same technology developed for those industries, specifically the 3D data, 3D LIDAR sensors and 3D radars, are going to be beneficial for smart cities.”
Expect to see increased automation as well across the board, Hardiman says — a point demonstrated by the Covid crisis. “When we have a complete shutdown of the cities because of a pandemic, with the loss of taxes, we realize we need to rely on nonhuman functionality in many ways. Robotics is a potential cure-all to the next pandemic or the next event. We can survive better as a city, as a community, using robotics.”
The key to these efforts is data, and the ability to move it quickly to where it’s needed. “We have an organization within the city government that’s called the Office of Operational Management and Open Data,” Comstock explains. “We look at the resources that we have, the different data sets, different databases, and pull information into a centralized location.” One aspect is development of a LIDAR-based data system “to look at pedestrian safety as a key component of utilizing technology and help solve the problem.”
Another initiative Chattanooga is undertaking is “looking at a predictive crash model — taking and aggregating data from across the city in conjunction with the police department and others, to pull together a roadmap and this general understanding of what our pain points are, and how we can help mitigate some of those things before they become a problem. It’s about proactive thinking about these things, applying them in new ways.”
Even for the smallest-scale project, such as making an intersection or crossing smart, is the large number of components involved,” says Muller. “A lot of different technologies are needed to solve singular problems within a particular intersection.”
Along with open data, another challenge for smart cities is achieving interoperability between cities and government agencies at all levels, Comstock points out. “We recognize that the interoperability between a city like Chattanooga and state departments of transportation or the other agencies that surround us, like Atlanta or Nashville, that implementations performed here need to work in other locations, and people that come in from those locations need to work here,” says Comstock. “There needs to be an Internet of Things approach to how we look at technologies. For example, right now you can use a cell phone. It doesn’t matter who the manufacturer is, or who your carrier is. You can call anyone in the world at any point in time. The agnostic features of that need to be replicated in a smart cities environment.”