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Sensors Make Cities Smarter

Call it City 2.0: a metropolis where officials instantly monitor all of the urban environment's constantly changing dynamics--the outside temperature; snow or rainfall; traffic; and perhaps...

Call it City 2.0: a metropolis where officials instantly monitor all of the urban environment's constantly changing dynamics--the outside temperature; snow or rainfall; traffic; and perhaps most importantly, people moving through the streets, flowing from one neighborhood to the next. This system helps officials send resources to the street corner where gangs are converging, manage traffic before it becomes congested, and respond to emergencies seamlessly--automatically--before they're even reported.

It may sound like science fiction, but the idea of a living, sentient city--one in which managers use real-time data to respond to events as they occur--isn't the stuff of fantasy anymore. By creating intricately linked networks of cameras and sensors throughout an urban area, cities in the U.S. and elsewhere are already making great strides toward tracking weather conditions and traffic flow, to name a few, and then using that data to govern more effectively.

The ultimate City 2.0 vision is of a "highly networked, highly metered environment so that an administrator can oversee the inputs and the outputs," says Rob Enderle, a technology analyst with the Enderle Group. Tapping into all this real-time data, he says, means "you can run a city cheaper and have happier and safer citizens." The city, in short, becomes a more efficient place for people to live and work. It also means a government can do more with less.

The reality isn't that far away. Many of the building blocks are familiar, even mundane: sensors that monitor weather conditions and air pollution; smart-grid technology that helps deliver energy more efficiently; cameras that track the flow of pedestrians and automobile traffic; devices that measure and relay snowfall to the public works department; and access to Wi-Fi and cloud computing.

Alone, each of these blocks performs one discrete function for one purpose. But if a city fused all of those different data streams, it could create a place keenly aware of changes in the urban environment. With that awareness, a city could respond rapidly and efficiently where and when needed.

The sentient city is still an emerging idea, and managers will have to address many issues--technological and otherwise--before smart cities can flourish. But as more and more cities implement and refine the tools used to gather and assess all this data, the idea of City 2.0 is a vision that's quickly coming into focus.

The genesis of these ideas is decades old. Enderle likens the vision of sentient cities to the concept of "arcologies," the classic sci-fi notion of megalopolises made up of gargantuan, self-contained structures that house thousands of residents in an all-encapsulating environment. At the arcology dynamic's core is the idea that if you can contain all aspects of a city's life and needs, you can monitor and control what happens there.

While arcologies remain firmly ensconced in the pages of Utopian literature, cities have begun implementing technologies that approach somewhat similar ideals of monitoring the urbanscape as a whole. Traffic-light cameras, for example, are ubiquitous in many places. Some localities have gone further, installing video cameras throughout the city and creating a network of video streams. Chicago is the most prominent U.S. city to outfit itself with such a web of cameras. In 2004, the Windy City installed 250 surveillance cameras at sites thought to be at risk of a terror attack. Those devices were linked to 2,000 other cameras already spread throughout the city and networked into Chicago's emergency dispatch center. Mayor Richard Daley said his goal is to have a camera trained on every single intersection in the city.

Then there are gunshot location systems-a technology that uses audio sensors attached to rooftops and telephone poles to detect when a gun is fired and pinpoint the location. In 1995, Redwood City, Calif., was the first in the nation to test this system, which lets police respond to shots without receiving a 911 call. Today more than 30 U.S. cities, including Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., rely on the same acoustic sensors.

Surveillance cameras and gunshot detection were the first steps toward a fully sensor-equipped city. In more recent years as sensor technology has improved, the focus has broadened from public safety and emergency response to include subtler changes in environment. Matt Welsh, an associate professor of computer science at Harvard University, has spent the past four years designing and building a system of sensors to constantly monitor conditions in Cambridge, Mass. Welsh and his team have worked with the city to disperse nearly 30 sensors around the relatively small town. "We wanted to capture the ephemeral changes in environment," he says. Using the sensor data, Welsh hopes to gain understanding of how the city works on a minute level. He's recently begun looking at air pollution levels in areas with high automobile traffic, for example, and how those levels shift during the course of a day. The information from monitoring those outputs continuously on a city block, he suggests, could be extremely useful in the city's future decision-making.

Meanwhile, other cities are experimenting with monitoring residents' energy use in real time. Pilot programs that let citizens view their individual energy consumption as it's being used are up and running in Houston; Boulder, Colo.; and Dubuque, Iowa.

While the technology for a sentient city is already available, what's missing is the ability to connect all the different data streams to form a comprehensive picture of a city's happenings. Wilmington, N.C., however, is trying. In February, the city and surrounding New Hanover County launched a pilot that could make it the nation's first true smart city. Using cameras and sensors, the city will analyze and respond to everything from traffic congestion and fuel consumption to water quality and sewage capacity.

For the most part, though, cities have yet to make the leap to fusing different kinds of sensor data. "The concept of City 2.0, is that all these things would be networked," Enderle says. "But I don't see anybody doing a great job of connecting all these things together."

As with so many IT projects, the obstacles toward a fully networked sentient city aren't really technological. The issues are much bigger than that, says Mark Cleverley, the director of strategy at IBM's Global Government Industry. "It's about how technology is changing," he says, "but it's also about how society is changing."

It's also about getting a city's agencies to work together to share and analyze sensor data. And that can be a challenge. "The big problem is working through the political structure," Enderle says. "It can be very turf-oriented and very fragmented when it comes to this kind of stuff." And what works for one city may not work for another. Cleverley worked with Stockholm to build a congestion--pricing system that utilized radio--frequency ID tags to track citizens' automobiles throughout the city. Cleverley says there's been widespread acceptance of the program and a general agreement that it's had a dramatic effect on reducing traffic congestion. But when New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg floated the idea of congestion pricing in 2008, it took his citizens a New York minute to rebuke the notion.

Unsurprisingly there are privacy concerns. While most citizens probably don't mind the idea of pole-mounted devices collecting data on rainfall or air pollution, they are likely to be less receptive to the notion of cameras or traffic sensors that follow their movements throughout a city. Those kinds of concerns are not insurmountable, but they must be dealt with, says Cleverley, who notes that Chicago adopted a policy with its vast network of cameras that individuals' faces are, by default, blurred out. Law enforcement officials must go through an approval process, akin to obtaining a warrant, if they want to look for a specific person.

In the end, the collection of sensor data isn't what's important--it's how a city uses that information. "You can deliver better outcomes for society if you think about a city as a system of systems," says Cleverley. "What these technologies do is make it easier to track these systems. What they don't do is guarantee success."

Zach Patton -- Executive Editor. Zach joined GOVERNING as a staff writer in 2004. He received the 2011 Jesse H. Neal Award for Outstanding Journalism
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