Cool 'smart city' stuff you can do in Boston (and didn't know you could)
The city of Boston has unveiled plenty of apps to serve residents' biggest pain points. It's also late enough in the smart city game that some of the things it's rolled out have already flopped. Need to pay a parking ticket? Sorry. There was an app for that, until the city realized how easily the street sensors could be gamed by cars pulling stunts like wedging themselves in to avoid the sensors. But, hey, Boston's surrounded by water on three sides, and it isn’t growing in land mass, so for the love of Fenway Park, go rent a bike for a few hours! There is an app for that!
Need to report a pothole? Well, there was an app for that, too, called Street Bump. However, the city's civic infrastructure group, New Urban Mechanics, decided it was redundant with its excellent BOS:311 app, a means to get your non-emergency complaints straight into the city workflow system and to the right person. Want to know where your child’s school bus is? Ding ding ding—good choice! We have you covered: There is an app for that!
Cities that open up their data to the public can make life a lot more convenient for residents. Here are some cool smart city things you can do now in the city of Boston. Act fast, before we figure out how to break them.
1. Ditch your car. Grab a bike!
You don't want to drive in Boston. Our drivers are rabid ferrets who'd rather lunge for your jugular than cede the right of way. Don't take my word for it. Check out Allstate’s 2017 America’s Best Drivers Report. It ranked Boston dead last in its best drivers list of 200 cities. Again. On average, Boston drivers make a claim every 3.6 years, according to the report. It's the third year in a row that Boston's been awarded that dubious honor.
Instead of putting yourself through the hair-raising hassle of driving here, rent a bike. As in, Hubway, Boston's public bike share system. Launched in 2011, Hubway spans Boston and the surrounding towns of Brookline, Cambridge, and Somerville, with 185 stations. A mobile app lets you see real-time availability of the system's 1,800 bikes and exactly where they're located. Just use your smartphone to select a bike from any station and take as many short rides as you like, as long as your pass and membership are active.
Bikes can be rented by the day or hour. A 24-hour pass is $8, a month-long pass is $20, and an annual pass is $99. The first 30 minutes is included in the cost of every ride. When you're done, return your bike to any station. Slide the bike firmly into an empty dock and wait for the green light to make sure it's locked, then off you go to explore the city without worrying about the cost of parking or parking tickets.
2. Where's my school bus?
There are loads of "Where's my bus?" apps for public buses, but Boston has one specifically for its public school students. This is important: Some years, we get so much snow, we could lose the little ones! But seriously, it is important to know when your children's bus will show up and when it's delayed, for both comfort and safety in adverse weather. Thus, in Boston, where the school buses have GPS, parents have a mobile web app that offers real-time tracking of school buses so they can see where vehicles are and when buses are running late. It's called Where's My School Bus?
3. Tell City Hall what's bugging you
Launched in 2009, the BOS:311 app—initially dubbed Citizens Connect—is a mobile app that empowers residents to help take care of their communities. This award-winning app lets you report non-emergency issues with the city directly from a smartphone. Think potholes, broken street signs, vandalism, nonfunctioning street lights, and more. Such reports get sent to the city’s work order management system, which then routes the report to the right person in City Hall.
Boston's smart city civic research and development team is at New Urban Mechanics. Nigel Jacob, its cofounder, says BOS:311 is the city's most successful foray into smart city technology to date. It is, in fact, the city's primary way of learning what's of concern to people.
BOS:311 has become a testing ground for other municipal technologies. A few years ago, for example, Jacob's team was experimenting with the Street Bump app. The idea was that the smartphone app would collect signatures of potholes when people drove around town in their cars carrying their smartphones. As Wired described it, the idea was that drivers could fire up Street Bump before they started their trips and set their smartphones on the dashboard or in a cup holder. The app would then use the phone’s motion-detection accelerometer to sense when a bump was hit. GPS would record the location, and the phone would transmit it to a remote server.
Street Bump never made it out of the alpha stage. The city discovered that Street Bump actually didn't give them anything that BOS:311 wasn't already providing. Now, Street Bump is being repurposed to instead use artificial intelligence (AI) to give the city a better road quality index, Jacob says. That's not too shabby, eh? The city is repurposing technology to serve a real need instead of throwing in the towel altogether.
4. Park Boston
Not up for renting a bike? I'm telling you, parking's so tight here that it squeaks. But fine, fine; if you're going to drive, you're going to drive. Thankfully, Boston now has an app that spares you from frantically fishing for change to feed the meter.
You can download the Park Boston app, then set up an account with a payment method. When I set it up, I was pleased to find that the app has a camera that lets you take a photo of a credit card, so you're not standing on the sidewalk juggling a purse and dry cleaning as you type in all those digits. Once an account and payment method is set up, you can start parking.
You enter the zone number into Park Boston, found on signs in the area where you're parking. Then, you punch in your license plate number and select your length of stay. Did the movie get out later than you thought it would? No problem; you can use the app to extend your stay. It gives you a warning 10 minutes before your time is about to expire. Then, you just select "extend stay."
Note that you still have to keep an eye out for parking restrictions, as noted on street signs. But you don't have to worry about the meter. It will say "expired," but the meter maids are outfitted with the means to know you paid.
However, if you do get a ticket, Jacob says you can use the app to take a picture of the ticket and pay it remotely.
5. Twitter-controlled holidays!
We had it in 2016, and we're hoping to do it again this holiday season: In 2016, Boston set up an interactive Christmas tree and a menorah at City Hall. The tree and menorah had LED lights whose colors you could change via smartphone.
City Hall has a cavernous lobby, and it usually has a fittingly big holiday display every December, including a number of Christmas trees. So New Urban Mechanics, the Innovation and Technology office, and Property Management decked the central tree with 720 LED lights connected to three Wi-Fi-enabled Arduinos.
The Arduinos were connected to Twitter’s streaming API so that the Arduinos could identify the latest tweets with the #WickedCoolTree hashtag. The Arduinos also recognized whatever color or pattern of colors the tweet mentioned.
Who said smart cities were all a "pay your water bill online" yawn? Hashtags #wickedcooltree #cityhallmenorah, and depending on your preferences, pink pink pink pink pink pink pink pink pink pink pink pink pink pink pink pink pink pink pink pink pink!
6. Rest your weary butt, charge your drained phone
Have you ever come across one of those public benches at which you can charge your phone? You can thank Boston for that. (Well, they started here, at any rate!)
The free electric juice comes from Soofa benches. They were launched in Boston in 2014, and the company says they're now in nearly 100 cities, charging people's phones while folks sit and relax at parks, bus stops, downtown plazas, and anywhere people tend to gather.
You'd know these recharging park benches if you see them: They look like Daleks out of "Dr. Who." The benches are solar powered, and they're sensor-enabled so as to measure activity in public spaces. They're weatherproof and durable, another thing they have in common with Daleks. On the plus side, Soofas are far less likely to be merciless, pitiless cyborg aliens, demanding total conformity and bleating out, "Exterminate!!"
Did we miss anything smart-cityish?
This listicle is devoted to things you can do now, but Boston's got more cooking. The Imagine Boston capital plan involves critical investments in the city's infrastructure in every Boston neighborhood, guided by Boston's citywide plan, Imagine Boston 2030.
One exciting cyber-initiative is already under way, with tests of autonomous cars. As WBUR reports, the city in April gave approval for Cambridge-based startup NuTonomy to test its autonomous vehicles on roadways in the Seaport District and Fort Point. That will expand the ongoing yearlong pilot program with the company, which has been testing autonomous vehicles inside the Ray Flynn Marine Park since January.
Hopefully, if autonomous vehicle makers' dreams come true, we'll all own the cars. The cars will talk to one another, avoiding collisions and automatically syncing up to drive at optimal speed to avoid traffic snarls.
Will they help with parking headaches? Who knows! Could it get any worse?
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