KC smart-city efforts could save sewers, smooth traffic, fix potholes before they pop

Source: The Kansas City Star on July 22, 2017 | Scott Canon

Standing at the corner of 12th Street and Main, Bob Bennett points across the street, then beyond his left shoulder, over his right.

The place is lousy with sensors — on traffic lights, atop light poles, buried in the pavement.

By his reckoning, Kansas City’s chief innovation officer figures this is the center of the “51 smartest blocks” in the country. All around lie gizmos that never stop collecting bits of information.

Those bits become bytes piling into mountains of data that could, in the city of the near future, ultimately make urban life better at a lower cost to taxpayers.

Smart-city technology might better clear snow in the winter. It could spare sewers from breaking in spring rains, reduce the potholes that snarl your car’s alignment and whittle down the eternities you’re stuck at red lights.

If only someone can make sense of it all.

Bennett, City Hall’s data evangelist, thinks Kansas City’s starting to get it right.

“Every city in America right now has an amazing amount of data. We’ve got even more,” Bennett said. “The trick is putting it together, sharing it across departments, making sense of it. We’re starting to do that.”

He compares modern urban areas to smartphones.

They’re packed with more sensors all the time. What they detect builds an ever richer understanding of their users’ habits and notices when something unusual is going on.

They share what they find with networks, data-sharing pools where artificial intelligence can learn to notice both patterns and problems, finding rhythms in one thing that predict what will happen with another.

For now, the smart city hasn’t produced the killer app that an ordinary resident is likely to notice. Sure, you can use a city website to look at traffic and hunt for a parking spot along the Kansas City streetcar corridor. But it’s not the intuitive, go-here set-up you’re accustomed to on an iPhone.

Instead, the fast-growing internet of things — electronics that draw and feed information across networks — works largely out of view in a smart city to make things work more efficiently.

A White House report issued in February 2016 saw how that internet of things, or IoT, provides “new possibilities for the physical management and the socioeconomic development of cities. Local governments are looking to data and analytics technologies for insight and are creating pilot projects to test ways to improve their services.

“Technologies influence patterns of behavior,” the report continued. “Digital and mobile technologies are making the connections between service providers and users tighter, faster, more personal, and more comprehensive. Sharing-economy business models are emerging that enable more efficient use of physical assets, such as cars or real estate, and provide new sources of income to city residents.”

In parched Fountain Valley, Calif., a network helped the city reduce water consumption by more than 20 percent. In Los Angeles, the city cut its power bill by $8 million by subbing in high-tech lights that some day will better monitor air quality and track traffic patterns. Cincinnati is looking at a high-tech plan to know which trash cans need emptying.

Kansas City, recognized with an award this year for its smart-city progress, has blanketed Main Street along the streetcar line from the River Market to Union Station with sensors.

Although it lost out on a federal grant for a follow-up project, designs are in the works for the 8.5 miles of the planned Prospect MAX rapid bus line. There, the Area Transportation Authority could incorporate touch-screen information kiosks into bus stop shelters and perhaps repeat the free Wi-Fi service available in parts of downtown.

Smart flush

Read more here