Cities trying to make sense of sensor technology

Wed, 2014-06-11 06:00 -- Doug Cooley

Sensors are tiny electronic devices that capture and stream data over linked networks to a computer where software and technicians monitor and analyze it.

Yet sensors are more than that. They also serve as the poster child for the smart city movement. Sensor-based applications epitomize the sophisticated technology solutions that promise to help cities with better and smarter management of traffic congestion, transit, parking, environmental monitoring, waste collection, water systems, public safety and more.

And more and more cities are buying into that promise. Navigant Research forecasts that cities around the world will spend $20 billion on sensor technology by 2020.

To see how the emerging world of sensor-based applications is starting to play out, check out the recent five-part GovTech series. The series examines the benefits and risks cities face when trying to incorporate sensors and analytics software into their operations. Here are a few interesting takeaways:

  • Cities are experimenting with how to best implement sensor technologies. A handful of global cities are charging full speed ahead with sensor technology, including Rio de Janeiro, Singapore, London, Seoul, Chicago and Santander in Spain. These showcase cities have deployed vast networks of sensors and linked them to large operations centers. But the benefits of pervasively using sensors are not entirely clear. So some cities are instead adopting a more judicious approach, leveraging data from existing infrastructure and non-smart sources (such as pressure meters) and using sensors to fill the data gaps. Cities are also finding opportunities to deploy sensors inside of existing infrastructure such as street lights.
  • Cities face some unique challenges with sensor-based projects. Foremost here is calculating the payoff. When city budgets are tight, quantifying the benefits is sometimes tricky.  And there are other concerns to consider. Cities need to recognize that sensor-based solutions rely on vulnerable Internet connections. The also raise privacy concerns. Then there’s the risk that analytics applied to sensor-gathered data may carry too much weight in how cities are governed.  Sensor implementations can foster thinking that all aspects of city life can be measured and viewed as technical problems and therefore addressed with technical solutions.
  • Cities may benefit from the work of urban data labs. Researchers at a handful of universities have come alongside large-scale real life smart city projects to study the impacts of digital technologies on urban living.  For resource-strapped cities, the “urban informatics” derived from this research may provide alternative ways for city leaders to implement sensor technologies that cost less cost than industry solutions.
  • Cities may want to replace installed sensors with mobile sensors. This is especially true when trying to capture valuable data to monitor traffic and the environment. For example, GovTech points out that Chicago has placed GPS devices on city-owned vehicles, automatically making them traffic monitoring stations.

The final installment in the GovTech series lays down six principles for city leaders to keep in mind when moving toward sensor-based solutions. A key point: It’s less about choosing the right technology, and more about summoning the political will, naming the pain points your sensor deployments will address, and properly engaging citizens and the business community.