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IoT: Smart Cities

By Paul Fitzgerald for America's Backbone Weekly

Your city is about to get a lot smarter, and it's all thanks to a technological trend called the Internet of Things (IoT). The IoT refers to the increasing connectivity of devices in society. Where the mobile revolution saw an influx of Smartphone and Tablet users, the IoT is characterized by things like smart appliances, vehicles and buildings, which are connected to computers, mobile devices and human users via the Internet. Smart cities harness the communicative power of the Internet and combine it with an influx of data that is collected with remote sensor technologies and user interaction. The greatest benefit of smart cities is the efficiency that can be achieved by the intelligent operation of infrastructure. For example, imagine streetlights that power down and save energy when there are no vehicles or pedestrians on the road. It's a revolutionary breakthrough at a time when America's cities are facing fiscal challenges along with population growth, pollution and volatile energy costs.

Smarter cities have healthier citizens

Thanks to remote sensors and data aggregation, city managers are now able to monitor and react to environmental data like never before. The Array of Things (AoT) project in Chicago is a great example of a city-wide initiative that is helping keep people safe. Remote sensors scattered around the city are monitoring weather and climate data, allowing for unprecedented detection of urban flooding and air pollution. Early detection of flooding helps responders minimize water damage and prevent unhealthy mold growth. Around-the-clock air quality data can be used to create advisories so that citizens will know when it is best to stay indoors. Other IoT devices, such as smart parking meters, can also have a positive effect on air quality. Because these meters allow drivers to find empty spots, cars spend much less time circling the block and generating air pollution. Smart transit is also encouraging people to drive less because the accurate GPS tracking of buses, trains and streetcars lets passengers know exactly when they're coming, eliminating long and uncertain waits at bus and train stops.

Water management is another area that is benefiting from the IoT. By linking systems that monitor weather and those that control rainwater storage, city managers are now better able to accurately predict and control water levels, which helps them minimize the preemptive raw sewage dumps that are prevalent with traditional infrastructure. OptiRTC, a company from Boston, has developed a system in which storm water channels are retrofitted with remote sensors that are linked to a cloud computing platform. The software analyzes storage capacity and weather forecasting, and enables city planners to determine whether there is enough room in wastewater reservoirs to handle a given weather event. If they know that storm water basins aren't in danger of overflowing, they won't make preemptive dumps into local waterways, and this leads to a healthier environment.

Smarter cites save money

In addition to making citizens healthier, smart cities are also more economically efficient. The IoT is helping keep labor costs down in key areas, such as waste management. Smart garbage bins, such as those from Big Belly, a company from Needham, Massachusetts, monitor garbage levels and share their data with city managers who can plan collection routes more efficiently. In the old days, drivers had to travel to every bin in the city just to make sure there was no overflow. Now, only the bins that are full are collected, ensuring efficient use of driver labor and fuel.

License plate recognition software is now appearing in parking enforcement vehicles. AutoVu from Gentec allows an enforcement officer to drive the streets and scan for offending vehicles without ever leaving the car. License plate data is crosschecked with a parking database, and violations are automatically reported to enforcement staff who can zero right in on offenders without having to inspect other vehicles.

More savings are coming. In the future, driverless transit systems could save cities millions of dollars in labor costs. It's estimated that in the Washington D.C. area, driverless trains alone could save the city $92 million annually.


Smart cities have economic benefits, can help the environment and can help keep people healthy. If that isn't enough, there's also the convenience factor. For instance, smart parking meters let drivers pay for parking with their Smartphones. However, there are challenges associated with smart cities as well. The same parking meter that offers convenience to drivers is also a potential security risk. It could be hacked and cost its city millions of dollars. Smart systems, such as garbage bins, cost more than traditional systems. While they may pay for themselves over the long haul, there are up front expenditures (smart garbage bins can cost $4000-$5000 apiece). Finally, while the automation of certain tasks can save money, it can also cost jobs. Driverless trains may sound great on paper, but the reality is a lot of drivers would be put out of work. The overall savings, convenience and environmental benefits may make smart cities worthwhile, but city leaders will need to carefully consider the disadvantages and make the necessary adjustments as our cities evolve.

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