It’s perhaps fitting that the Smart Cities Connect Conference and Expo– held in Austin last week, and collocated with the US Ignite Application Summit – wrapped on the eve of a (very) long 4th of July weekend. Because rethinking the running and management of our cities–with the help of new technology and data tools– is a good way to honor this country’s birthday. If sorting out the key smart cities issues means looking beyond past accomplishments and entering some uncharted waters at the confluence of deep technical, political, and demographic tides, all the more reason to jump in feet first. And jump in we did last week in Austin, with a major conference exploring the use of technology, policy, data, and more to help cities become more efficient, secure, and sustainable–while improving the quality of life of its citizens and visitors.

Interestingly, Austin, TX, got a preview of sorts of the June Smart Cities Connect Conference, earlier this year at SXSW Interactive, with a very good one-day Smart Cities event on Sunday March 12th, the SMART CITY DAY @ SXSW. That event featured a series of lightning talks from mayors, city technology officers, and solution providers, who were tasked with showing what they are doing, and what works for smart cities solutions. That event caught my attention as a refreshing change of pace from typical conferences with their typical panel sessions– as the presenters were challenged to explain, solo, and succinctly, what was at the top of their smart cities agendas and what specifically they were doing to make things happen. 


"Cities can't be bubbles preserving the past, they must be incubators ushering in the future", said Austin mayor Steve Adler when he welcomed the Smart Cities Connect attendees to the event. Adler was referring to Austin’s current effort to re-zone the city with a more flexible and smart cities-friendly form-based code built around “transects”, that is drawing some resistance from neighborhood preservationists, even as a variety of city officials, vendors, and other stakeholders implement separate smart cities initiatives in one of the fastest growing cities in the U.S.– and one of the most prominent technology magnet cities worldwide.
 

Fast forward to last week– the smart cities ante was upped on every level. The Smart Cities Connect Conference and Expo/US Ignite Application Summit saw 1800 attendees converge in Austin, from 27 countries. 300 cities were represented (with city officials from mayors to data, policy and tech executives). There were 25 live application demos. And the expo section of the event featured 150 exhibitors, including 50 startups & innovators pitching their emerging tech solutions for cities. Beyond the impressive numbers I was struck by the unique mix of analytical sessions, formal presentations, panel discussions, demos of technology solutions, demos of prototype solutions such as robots and transparent (digitally) cars. The atmosphere was a creative and lively cross between a government conference, a tech expo, and high level university/research facility dive into future technology. All that is a testament to two things: good planning by Smart Cities Connect, the conference organizer, and the heavy participation of U.S. Ignite, the nonprofit organization that according to their mission statement “helps to accelerate new wired and wireless networking advances from research to prototype to full-scale smart community and interconnected national deployments.”

But don’t be distracted by that stated “wired and wireless networking” focus in the mission statement of US Ignite. In Austin last week, the organization showed how they are nurturing some amazing projects that go way beyond transmission platforms– drawn from among US Ignite’s over 100 application prototypes in the areas of public safety, healthcare, education, energy, transportation, and advanced manufacturing. On hand at the conference, representing just some of US Ignite’s great work: key creators and users of an application that enables STEM students in a rural community in Tennessee to learn biology in new, immersive ways by viewing microorganisms under a 4k microscope online, and remotely operating the microscope in real-time and simultaneously holding high-definition video conferences with world-class university researchers; real-time see-through technology for connected autonomous that can provide a vehicle with a real-time augmented view of a traffic scene normally blocked by surrounding vehicles; a system where a robot can automatically identify and track surrounding objects and people, as a building block of 3D robotic, collaborative wireless-networked augmented vision; and a streaming inter-city VR application.

The panel sessions and presentations in the conference track delved into every manner of smart city initiative. Many experts on both the municipal and solution provider sides gave presentations on technology trends– smart Kiosks using digital signage and other display technology, the Internet of Things (IoT), autonomous vehicles, and more, with sessions that included:
• How to Design a Smart City – IoT Technology Based
• Urban Mobility - Transforming Smart Cities
• City Spotlights: Networks & Data
• Urban Mobility on Demand
• Public Safety and Smart Cities – The Urban Area City of Tomorrow
• Using Data Science and Fog Computing to Accelerate Smarter Cities Use Cases
• Streaming Analytics: Transforming Local Government Operations
• Enhancing the role of higher education institutions in your smart community
• Immersive Virtual Reality Field Trip to a Solar Plant with a Live-Streamed Remote Teacher
And many more.

A common theme at the conference– and the most common ongoing theme in smart cities conversations nationwide– was data: big data, aggregated data, open data, privacy issues in data, data storage– because wrangling data is the prime concern in smart cities. Not the only concern, but it’s usually seen as the starting point, the DNA, of all smart cities applications. I won't say too much the focus, as data holds the key to many solutions– but there needs to be more focus on data visualization or citizen-facing interactive tools that could, in the former case, help city officials "sell" ideas to their constituencies (including internal ones), or with the latter, put the data they do have and control to work on the ground.

Data in all the ambitious, big-D iterations are tricky things to wrap a business model or any other kind of model around. Because in smart cities initiatives you face the same conundrums you face in any industry: either you don’t have enough resources to gather, store, share, and analyze all the data that’s the basis of what you are promising, or you have so much, or such different kinds of data, that no one knows how to analyze or manage it. In smart cities, add to that dynamic the perennial budgetary challenges all governments face– both qualitative and quantitative, as funding issues take on added political dimensions– the latter manifest themselves in the form of timing issues even when you do have adequate budget. In this context, top smart cities players (including city governments) are trying to build new smart city data gathering and management models– a task that even Fortune 500 companies are vexed by: what to do with all the data they collect (like retailers' POS data), because the task is huge. Even the U.S. government does not have the bandwidth to analyze all the data they collect.

Chelsea Collier, Editor-at-Large, Smart Cities Connect, moderated the panel Data and the City: Unlocking Big Benefits with (left to right) Mitchell Hensley, Director of Software Strategy and Data Analytics, Sensus; Nathan Giles, Global Cities Operational Transformation - North America Lead at Accenture; Jon Newhard, CEO, Trafficware; and Rob Silverberg, CTO Digital Communities - State and Local Government and Education, Dell EMC Corporation.

 

It’s useful to step back and consider the difference between individual consumer/citizen data, and anonymous, aggregated data. Two different things. The first is mired in privacy issues, especially if governments or cites are the ones doing the data collecting. The second, should be the initial focus of smart city initiatives, as cities and their vendors collectively figure out how to collect and use aggregated data from its citizens and visitors in ways not fraught with privacy traps. The difference is often not fully understood. That being said, the Smart Cities Connect Conference made huge progress in framing the discussion properly– and sorting out the different approaches to the different kinds of data. 

In a special panel of the “CIO Council” that included top city Information/Tech execs Stephen Elkins, CIO City of Austin, Michael Mattmiller, CIO Seattle, Samir Saini, CIO, City of Atlanta, and Miguel Gamiño, CTO, City of New York, data in all its forms was explored.

Samir Saini of Atlanta commented that “with so many vendors out there, there is still a challenge of friction around data: ownership, usage, exchange. We look at the ‘democratization’ of the data issues. We have tough conversations with our vendors– sometimes it’s about ownership’: do we get all the data? And can the vendor use it for other purposes?”

Michael Mattmiller of Seattle echoed those sentiments, while stressing the need for vendors to work with cities to understand the need cases.

“We so appreciate the innovation that tech vendors bring to the smart cities space”, said Mattmiller. “We see a maturing of the market, where solutions are getting to the point where they can be more turnkey. Vendors need to understand the unique aspects of city policy, which is created by elected officials and the community, and therefore is very specific. For example, our transportation department was seeking to understand traffic flow of pedestrians in our city core, and they implemented a traffic monitoring system that uses the addresses from cell phones to measure timing points between blocks in the downtown core. Sounds cool, not invasive, and easier to deploy than cameras. But you just created a surveillance network that is tracking your location. The vendor said ‘oh don't worry, we use encryption, you’re fine…” but that’s not enough, for trust. We had to create an opt out program. And we learned a valuable lesson: we need to know, do we have to create opt out programs; and how the vendor hashes data; and what are the data retention policies; and who has access to the info?”

In the panel session Data and the City: Unlocking Big Benefits, drilling down further into data was the task at hand. Moderator Chelsea Collier, editor-at-large, Smart Cities Connect discussed data issues with Mitchell Hensley, Director of Software Strategy and Data Analytics, Sensus; Nathan Giles, Global Cities Operational Transformation - North America Lead at Accenture; Jon Newhard, CEO, Trafficware; and Rob Silverberg, CTO Digital Communities , State and Local Government and Education, Dell EMC Corporation.

“How do you deal with billions of datapoints?... getting there is the challenge” said Jon Newhard.

Rob Silverberg said that “cities are used to handling data in sequential databases. But now they’re getting new data types– data from social media, and many places. So, do you have the data infrastructure. to deal with that? To store it? And then, they’re challenged to do data analytics, to take different data sets and make sense of it.”

Silverberg noted that some of Dell’s offerings provide a new data architecture platform, and the ability to create “data lakes” to do analytics, to scale-out data for storage, consolidation, and analysis.

Nathan Giles noted that with every customer, there is opportunity for better data ROI. “But first you have to clean up data. And make sure data sets are intact. Sometimes cities do change [processes around data gathering and analysis], in the wrong order. There is a natural order of operation, to be successful, managing the data. And the political considerations of some initiatives make this important– it’s an emerging market, so there are early adapters, but others are scared to death."

One very interesting and growing part of the new data landscape in the smart cities movement: open data. The idea is simple: cities often don’t have the staff and resources to analyze all the data they collect. So nationwide, city-sponsored data “hackathons” are springing up. In these sessions, a city might make some of its data on traffic patterns for example, available to analysts to “hack” and find patterns or trends that can be shared with the community. More than a novelty or a civic PR endeavor, this kind of open data activity holds huge promise for public-private partnerships on a grass roots level, based on citizen engagement. Add those kinds of grass roots efforts to more formal public-private partnerships going on between cities and top tech providers and you have the recipe for some exciting developments that will bring our cities up to speed in the race to solve and manage some of our most vexing challenges.

But don’t think data analysis for smart cities initiatives is not also going on nationwide in a systematic fashion– from the top. It is. One example, of many: in 2013, Chicago won the Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayors Challenge for its plan to combine data from various city departments to create its predictive SmartData Platform. Since then Chicago has proven the value of data analytics with new programs— and is now helping other cities learn from its experience. And Chicago has partnered with Amazon Web Services to package its OpenGrid platform as an app, allowing other cities to replicate it if desired. Cities that have learned from and used the platform include Syracuse NY, Denver, and Raleigh NC.