What is the real opportunity for Smart Cities and the Internet of Things?

Last month, the Bloomberg Foundation announced they will be giving $40 million in grants to mid-sized cities to use data to make better decisions. The Smart Cities movement is gaining traction, and this presents a huge opportunity, as well as huge challenges, for cities looking to make better use of data.

Through our work on the Portland Global Smart Cities challenge, we’ve learned a lot about what it takes to create a Smart City. The sensors are available, the data analysis tools exist, but how do you bring it all together to make better decisions?

What is a ‘Smart City’?

A Smart City is a combination of data sensors, networks and decision making processes that enable real-time monitoring and adjustments to civic infrastructure. For example, new LED traffic lights often include traffic sensors, and can be remotely controlled from a central operations center. This means that city managers can both see in real-time where there are traffic issues, and change stop light patterns to better manage the flow of traffic and reduce congestion.

Smart Cities take this concept and expand it to every area of service delivery and performance, from environmental quality to garbage collection. The ability to measure, adapt and improve will dramatically change how cities are designed and operated.

The challenge of Smarter Cities

In the last 5 years, Smart Cities have moved from concept to reality. The emergence of cheap sensors, the so-called Internet of Things, has enabled cities to collect more data than ever before.

  • The first challenge cities run into is gather data from all the new sources. City governments are rarely prepared, from either an IT perspective or a process perspective, to deal with information in near real-time, and adding in thousands of new data sources can quickly overwhelm systems.
  • The second challenge is how to translate data into actions. More data is not necessarily better, particularly when city managers and councils are overwhelmed with the information they already have. Without the tools and processes in place to aggregate, analyze and understand the data, it can quickly become another cost center without a clear return on investment.
  • The final challenge is accommodating the increasing rate of change. As more data becomes available, Cities have the opportunity to make better decisions. This makes the case for gathering even more data, leading to a virtuous cycle of data.

The opportunity for every city to be a smart city

Despite these challenges, every city can be a smart city. And best of all, it doesn’t take a huge amount of investment. There are three easy steps that cities can take to begin the transition to a Smart City.

Step 1: Create a data strategy, or update the one you have.

Even if your city has embraced ‘open data’, being a smart city requires handling an order of magnitude more data. It is critical that you create a plan for how to handle the large amounts of data at all phases of your decision making process, from acquisition through to decision making.

Step 2: Start with a pilot project.

Once you have created a plan for managing your data, start with a pilot project using a narrow set of data. The key objective of your pilot should be to demonstrate end-to-end capability to handle and make use of data. If you can successfully capture, process, analyze and visualize your data, then you can scale by adding new data sources and sensors.

Step 3: Integrate and compare.

The real opportunity for Smart Cities is comparing different data to identify relationships. These relationships are ultimately what informs decision making. For example, discovering the relationship between traffic patterns and hyper-local air pollution means you can improve air-quality by dynamically changing traffic flow. As you build your data management capabilities, the final step is to bring streams of data together to analyze and report on the relationships. This usually involves an investment in some data analysis capability.

Making progress, step-by-step

In our work with Intel, IBI, the Technology Association of Oregon and the City of Portland on the Global Smart Cities challenge, we’ve been through all three steps outlined above with great results and minimal investment.

If you’d like to find out how your city can begin making immediate progress, and take advantage of the new funding opportunities available, contact us for more information.