New technologies help smart cities (and travelers) find their way

Fri, 2015-03-27 06:00 -- Kevin Ebi

From instantaneous business information to solutions that put data in the fog and pull insights out, Council partners demonstrated a variety of technologies at the Smart Cities Now event in Charlotte, NC -- technologies that are already paying off for cities around the world. Scroll down for solutions and efforts worth a closer look:

Where are you going? RideScout knows
Getting around unfamiliar cities can be a challenge. Every city's transit system is unique and there are many different options for getting from one point to the next. The burden has typically been on the visitor to identify all of the various options and research them independently to plot their best route.

Council Lead Partner Mercedez-Benz is addressing that challenge with RideScout, one app that combines all transportation options into a single interface. The app covers various forms of mass transit -- including buses, trains and light rail -- as well as taxis, rideshares, biking, driving, carpooling and others.

The app’s suggestions are specific to the time of day you’re traveling. It can also send alerts if there is a disruption with what’s normally the best option.

The company also talked about Car2Go, its car-sharing service that’s in more than 30 cities across the U.S. and Europe. It’s unique in that customers don't have to return the vehicle to the place where they borrowed it, and they only pay for the time they are actually driving it.

Electric buses — without power lines
One of the biggest sources of a city’s pollution involves the burning of fossil fuels. Council Associate Partner ABB is helping clear the air with technologies that allow some of the biggest polluters to switch to cleaner sources of energy at least some of the time.

Cargo ships docking in Rotterdam in the Netherlands can now use shore power when they’re in port instead of continuing to burn their engines. ABB built a shore-to-ship power system that has cut emissions by 98% while ships are at power, in addition to reducing noise and vibrations from their engines.

In Geneva, ABB helped get electrical buses running without needing to string power lines over the roadway. Its system there uses flash charging stations, which rapidly charge buses at key stops and the end of the bus lines.

Self-healing electrical grid
Big, disruptive storms seem to be more and more common. Between aging infrastructure and storms that seem to be more severe, there have been nearly 200 weather events in the U.S. over the past 25 years that have done at least $1 billion in damage.

S&C Electric, a Council Lead Partner, is helping with technology that can isolate problems in the electrical grid and when possible routes power around the blockages. 

One of its self-healing grids in Tennessee has reduced outage time by 60%. That has had a dramatic payoff for the utility, which has cut outage-related overtime and collected $1.4 million in revenue that would have been lost when the power was out.

Power customers are also happier, which is a challenge for utilities. Several utilities pointed out during the forum that customer expectations have never been higher. It used to be their primary concern was food in the freezer and they would tolerate outages of two days before they started to get antsy. Now, it's about electronics and more are starting to get irate after just 12 hours.

Every device on the Internet
More devices are connected to the Internet than ever before, but one day every device could be connected. That's the vision of Council Lead Partner GE.

Already, consumers can buy thermostats and LEDs that they can manage via the Internet. That allows them to control their homes even when they aren't at home.

There are big benefits for cities too. The trend enables home automation scenarios that conserve energy, easing the burden on utilities.

But cities can also benefit from Internet-connected devices of their own, which are easier to manage, reducing operational costs. One example is streetlights. Advanced lighting systems let cities know immediately when lights aren't functioning properly. Cities can also tweak the timing and lighting levels remotely. This can prove useful during special events, allowing cities to brighten the lights to improve security and dim them to normal levels after the event is over -- all without needing to visit the light itself.

Foggy data isn't such a bad thing
Smart cities are data driven and more data is always better. But that data doesn't all need to go to the same place.

Council Lead Partner Cisco talked about its effort to build a data fog – a place between the point where data is collected and the all-encompassing cloud. The amount of data that can be collected is unlimited; the size of the cloud and the pipeline to and from it is not.

Data volume is already huge. Today utilities process 1.8 billion data points each day. An airliner generates 20 terabytes of data every hour it's in the air.

“Consider the gravity of all that data,” said Gordon Feller, director of Urban Innovation at Cisco Systems and co-founder of Meeting of the Minds. “The weight of it is so vast that moving it all into a data center for action is becoming increasingly impossible.”

A new intermediary layer allows data to be processed and analyzed at the edge of the network in what Cisco calls the fog. From there, only a subset of that data, such as results or insights, needs to be delivered to the full cloud.

Data silos may not be bad, either
Silos are almost always a dirty word in smart cities, but Wonderware, a subsidiary of Council Lead Partner Schneider Electric, says they may not be so bad with data. It's a different approach to tackling the data overload problem.

The idea is this: People at different levels of the city need different levels of data. Staff of a department may need and benefit from very granular data from every device and sensor. City administrators, however, don't need that level of detail; they need insights they can act on to request and allocate resources or shift priorities.

With Wonderware, the data is processed in each individual silo. Each silo then sends an aggregated subset of its data to a common platform that city administrators use. By allowing data silos to exist, it eases the integration of the city's departments into a common platform. And by processing data in those silos, it prevents administrators from being overwhelmed by a level of data that they can't really use.

"It's much more manageable," said Rudy Engert, Wonderware’s business development manager for water and infrastructure. “It's not a data tsunami.”

Real-time, comprehensive economic information
Even on popular business-review websites in very big cities, the data isn't immediate. If a business closes, someone has to notice and then take the time to enter that information on the site.

Council Lead Partner MasterCard is working to provide more immediate information using data from its payment systems. It collects data in every transaction, including the business name, the type of business and the date and time. So if a traveler was looking for a restaurant, it may be possible one day to use MasterCard's data to make that search easier. The search software may be able to query the transaction database and return only restaurants where there have been recent transactions, sparing the traveler from dead ends.

Already MasterCard's data is proving useful to cities. It can tell cities where their travelers are coming from, which helps their tourism agencies to focus their efforts. It can also track spending before, during and after a big storm, which can help with emergency response planning.


Kevin Ebi is a staff writer and social media coordinator for the Council. Follow @smartccouncil on Twitter.