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Data-driven insights that keep on giving

Austin Ashe, Current by GE, offers a step-by-step approach to help cities become more data-driven.

Austin Ashe, General Manager of Intelligent Cities at Current by GE
Austin Ashe, General Manager of Intelligent Cities at Current by GE

This article is in association with Current by GE.


Internet of Things (IoT) technology is finally giving cities what they need to become truly smart.


The key is reliable, dense data, along with a data culture which encourages city staff to break down the internal silos and engage external developers to create tools and services that make a difference to citizens’ lives.


Cities face many competing challenges and demands. Here’s how to prioritise and create a manageable roadmap that delivers results.

  1. Digitise the infrastructure

To date, cities haven’t had access to reliable, dense data about what is happening in the city. They typically use consultants and hire interns to do point-source studies on street corners when possible, and then they extrapolate out from that for the entire city. That isn’t an effective way to build a plan.


Now, cities have a unique opportunity to use IoT platform technology to measure activity across their entire city and gain valuable real-time data. One of the ways this can be done is by converting ubiquitous infrastructure, such as traditional streetlight poles, into the city’s digital backbone.


Whether cities are looking to build a plan around reducing congestion, eliminating traffic accidents, increasing public safety or boosting environmental awareness, they first need to be able to understand ‘microclimates’ in the city and how they are changing over time.


Cutting-edge machine learning and artificial intelligence technology on the edge allow multi-sensor devices to act as a source of information about what is happening across the city.

  1. Drive a data culture

The next step is to identify all the departments within the city that can leverage this infrastructure, and give them access to the data. From the traffic department to parking, police and economic development, this data can bring new value from day one.


From there, it’s much easier to streamline and simplify the budgeting process because the chances are, each of those departments is looking at adopting a point-source solution. A lot of duplicated resource and spending can be avoided.


Each department can start by collecting accurate data, spotting patterns and trends, then acting. For example, the transportation department may study the data to better understand near-misses to help build out a Vision Zero plan. The next phase might then be optimising traffic signal timing so that it’s dynamic.


If you go one step further, the data can help cities deploy new bike lanes, for example, providing information on the number of bicycles to plan for, the optimal placement, and how they will interact with traffic signals, cars and pedestrians.

Once you have this data, you can become more targeted. Many cities are focused on decreasing greenhouse gas emissions and increasing mobility, for example.


Studies show that 30 per cent of traffic congestion is caused by people circling the block looking for parking spaces.


Studies show that 30 per cent of traffic congestion is caused by people circling the block looking for parking spaces. Using a sensor to identify parking spaces that are available offers a significant advantage in guiding vehicles to open parking spaces and reducing emissions.

  1. Open it out

At the heart of an effective, open IoT platform are accessible, highly secured APIs. They serve as portals to the real-time sensor data. App developers can then harness this data and use it to create applications that drive outcomes to better the lives of the citizens.


Hackathons are one easy and effective way to engage the app developer community and channel their energies into tackling real challenges the city faces.


Example apps that have been developed at GE hackathons include TreetyImprove, which boosts air quality and quality of life by guiding city planners and citizens to decide which trees to plant and where; Emergency Response, an emergency service app to improve emergency response for disasters; and San Diego Smart Analysis, which helps with decisions about parking and traffic space expansion in cities.

Some of the innovative apps were developed in just one weekend, giving a flavour of what’s possible. More mature solutions include CivicSmart, a parking enforcement app which uses parking data to notify parking enforcers about vehicles which are illegally parked. Enforcement staff can do their jobs more efficiently and revenues are increased. Cities also have a better understanding of parking space utilisation.


Genetec Clearance is a collaborative investigation and evidence management tool where information about incidents in the city can be collected, analysed and organised by case number and shared with other partners, removing silos for improved investigations and faster resolutions.


ShotSpotter uses acoustic sensor data to detect real-time gunfire with precise location identification alerts for responders and law enforcement. Law enforcement has a better understanding of gunfire events and can respond in real-time.


The exponential growth of collected sensor data will serve as the ever-strengthening backbone for thousands of future smart city apps. These apps will not only help improve life in the city but also create jobs and even save lives.

  1. Look beyond city walls

While cities have a lot to share with each other, there is an element of competition too because each city is competing for students, businesses and residents, etc.


An IoT platform helps cities to collaborate around common goals while building on their unique features.


An IoT platform helps cities to collaborate around common goals while building on their unique features.


The cities that have adopted our CityIQ platform, for example, now have a really good reason to talk to each other. By using common tools, they can more easily get on the same page and share ideas and successes around city challenges.


The future


We are at a unique time to see smart city adoption take hold. Phase one is simply finding an elegant way of repurposing existing infrastructure.


Phase two is the world of apps. Just like on our smartphones, in smart cities you’re going to see an extraordinary abundance of applications built to run smart city solutions and address all kinds of challenges.


We are at a unique time to see smart city adoption take hold.


Then there’s a phase three, not too far down the road. It’s around the concept of multi-data exchange – instead of the data just going to people who are using the apps, it will also be sent to other pieces of infrastructure or devices directly, such as autonomous cars and drones.


There will be an evolution where we start to understand how this data coming off the sensors can accelerate the adoption of autonomous cars, make them safer to be on the road and ensure they’re complying with regulations, etc.


The possibilities are limitless.


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