Newark, Pittsburgh, Memphis: Data initiatives making cities smarter and safer

Technologies are helping municipalities deliver services more efficiently and, in the process, allowing them to become more transparent and open.

The city of Pittsburgh recently launched a public-facing app called Burgh’s Eye View, which provides city data on crime as well as 311 requests, building permits, code violations, and maps. The new app responds to Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto's call to make municipal data open to citizens.

Mayor Peduto “felt transparency was something the city needed," explains Laura Meixell, chief data officer in Pittsburgh's Department of Innovation and Performance.

Our citizens needed a better understanding of where their money was going and how the city was performing its duties. Open data was the way to do that, and the way to engage with the broader tech community and encourage people to get involved in civic technology.

Laura MeixellAnalytics & Strategy, Pittsburgh's Department of Innovation and Performance

Pittsburgh is not alone. Cities around the country have launched similar digital initiatives as officials recognize the need to bring transparency to government. Many such projects are centered on transportation and energy-related initiatives, while others aim to stimulate economic development by improving access to data.

“Like any complex technology, cities are assembled from component technologies, and they must be architected to be open and receptive to tomorrow’s disruptive technologies,’’ notes Lux Research in its 2015 report "Cities as Technologies: Using Data and Analytics to Grow from Smart to Brilliant."

One of the main drivers for the transformation is that two-thirds of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050, according to Machina Research. The smart city movement is about using technology to drive public-sector efficiency while enhancing environmental sustainability and economic prosperity.

Smart city leaders for Newark, Pittsburgh, and Memphis

Partnerships driving digital projects

Given tight budgets in many cities, digital transformation projects often result from public-private partnerships. That’s what happened in Newark, N.J., which recently rolled out a digital kiosk as its first public smart city initiative. The kiosk, which offers free high-speed Wi-Fi and an electronic message board, has been described as a next-generation pay phone. Each kiosk is equipped with sensors, cameras, and an Android-powered Web browser. Eventually, the kiosks could incorporate facial recognition technology to help identify terrorist threats or criminal suspects.

REPORT: The future of public sectors in a citizen-centric digital world

Newark's smart kiosks emerged from the MetroLab@Newark smart city initiative, a partnership between the city, the New Jersey Institute of Technology, the New Jersey Innovation Institute, and several private companies. “This is part of our overall strategy for what the mayor affectionately calls Newark 3.0," says Seth Wainer, CIO in the city’s Office of Information Technology.

We want the neighborhoods and everyone in the city to feel like the city is moving and breathing along with them.

Seth WainerCIO, City of Newark, New Jersey

MetroLab@Newark runs on an open platform that allows the city to test different vendor applications. “We’re optimistic the digital kiosks will be a way for [residents] to find out things that are going on in the city,’’ says Wainer. “What we’re trying to create is a vibrant, meaningful way for residents to interact with each other and city officials.” 

What we’re trying to create is a vibrant, meaningful way for residents to interact with each other and city officials.

The city is looking to deploy 20 kiosks by the end of 2017. Newark’s next digital efforts will probably include a public health app focused on mobile health, with a texting campaign that includes geo-relevant signage, and outdoor sensors that use traffic data to measure air quality.

Finding the city's best fit

There's no single blueprint for smart city initiatives, according to Jeremy Green, principal analyst at Machina Research. It’s up to the individual city to determine the best approach, based on existing resources, issues, and priorities. Having said that, Green identifies three common routes to a smarter city: 

  • An "anchor" route, where the city starts with a primary application and then adds other apps as priorities dictate. “Such cities typically deploy one or more stand-alone applications, ensure that these applications are working properly, and then think about how they might be extended or integrated with each other,’’ Green says. 
  • A "platform" route, in which the city focuses on deploying infrastructure first so that applications can be delivered later. Here the goal is to first get in place the network infrastructure and a common platform for different applications, and then figure out how applications can be added or existing services can be integrated with it.
  • A "beta city" route, in which the city continues to experiment with multiple applications without a finalized plan for how to bring these pilot projects to full operational deployment. “Beta cities accept that the currently available technologies and business models can only be provisional," Green says. "They prioritize hands-on experience over short- or medium-term tangible benefits,’’ 

“A beta approach may deliver more visible, easy wins quickly,’’ Green says. By contrast, an anchor approach might make sense in cities that face a single overriding challenge, like earthquake preparation.

Most cities take more than one approach, Green says. “Either they are hedging their bets or are in the process of changing routes. Several are at such an early stage that they have not yet settled down into one route or another.”

The city of Memphis falls into the latter category. So far the city has deployed an integrated traffic signal network to shorten idle times at intersections, says CIO Brent Nair. Although Memphis is part of the MetroLab Network, Nair won't say how much of an emphasis the city places on digital transformation.

“I can’t say it’s not on the radar and not the priority. I’ll say it depends,” Nair says. He notes that Memphis has a 28 percent poverty rate, and about 48 percent of children lack Internet access in their homes. As a result, Memphis is currently working to increase Internet speed in libraries and community centers.

People and processes still matter 

Pittsburgh's municipal IT department developed Burgh’s Eye View, but smart city initiatives often start in municipal innovation departments rather than IT departments. The latter "are busy enough just keeping the existing systems and infrastructure going,’’ Green observes.

No matter which department launches a digital transformation project, all stakeholders must collaborate for them to succeed. Such projects “cannot be done from the bottom up or top down, but more from the middle,’’ says Arnold.

Without buy-in from middle managers who are most in touch with the day-to-day operations of their department, digital transformation is essentially just digital.

In short, smart cities are about more than just technology. “It’s how you manage your assets and how you do things," says Nair. "We have an opportunity to really look at our processes and procedures and see what we can change and then put technology on top of it to assist it.”

Digital cities: Lessons for leaders

  • In cash-strapped cities, digital initiatives often result from public-private partnerships.
  • There’s no single blueprint for smart city initiatives. It’s up to the individual city to identify the best approach based on existing resources, issues, and priorities.
  • Becoming “smart” isn’t just about technology. It's about using technology to drive public-sector efficiency while enhancing environmental sustainability and economic prosperity.

REPORT: The future of public sectors in a citizen-centric digital world

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