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Smart Cities on the Rise: Access to Data is Transforming the Way Cities Function

Smart Cities: Data Transforms How Cities Function

City officials across the country are increasingly gaining access to more and more data about income, crime, traffic patterns, health and safety issues, and parking issues, and transforming the way cities function.  The use of data by mayors and other officials to improve city operations is on the rise and will continue to see big changes says Stephen Goldsmith, a professor of government and director of Innovations in Government Program at Harvard Kennedy School. He recently told the Wall Street Journal that “in terms of city governance, we are at one of the most consequential periods in the last century.”

City governments are now able to collect and use more and more data, thanks to a number of technological changes. These advances include:

  • The growth in cloud computing, which lowers the cost of storing data.
  • New innovations in machine learning, to help in the analysis of data.
  • The Internet of Things, and increase in use of sensors to track a variety of information, from crime statistics to traffic patterns.
  • The widespread use of smartphone apps and mobile devices to help city workers keep track of problems and feed this information back to city hall.

The rise in data collection has led to a concern about privacy for citizens.  Even though most cities have policies to protect their citizens’ privacy, the use of sensors, videos, and other technology make it relatively easy for tech-savvy users to figure out many details about an individual’s life.

City officials have used data to anticipate and solve a variety of problems.

  • Although the number of deaths by fire has declined in recent years, there were still 2,685 deaths in 2015. The use of a smoke detector is crucial in preventing fire related deaths and injury. The city of New Orleans identified vulnerable areas in the city where homes most likely lacked smoke detectors and posed the greatest risk for fire fatalities by using data collected on these neighborhoods. The fire department has since installed about 18,000 fire detectors in homes since 2015.
  • Cities are using sensors through the Internet of Things, to keep track of such things as leaky water pipes, electric meter use, parking meter violations, and traffic patterns. Sensors can even be used to count foot traffic to assist entrepreneurs who are looking to open up a retail business.
  • Building code inspectors are now better able to use smartphone apps and mobile devices to identify, photograph and document where blighted properties are located in the city.

Cities are also able to collect data and solve problems related to air quality control, inspections of restaurants with greatest risk for the spread of food-borne illnesses, and garbage collection and management.

Source: Wall Street Journal, “The Rise of the Smart City,” April 16, 2017, Michael Totty

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