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Why utilities and cities make powerful partnerships

A pioneering initiative between Georgia Power, the City of Atlanta and a team of technology partners, is showing the way to what’s next in smart cities and demonstrating the power of public-private partnerships. Austin Ashe, Current by GE, tells SmartCitiesWorld more about this ground-breaking project.


This article is in partnership with Current by GE.


Georgia Power, which is a subsidiary of Southern Company, and a cohort of technical partners comprising Current by GE, AT&T and Intel, are transforming Atlanta’s street lighting into a connected digital infrastructure to deliver new types of data in real-time.


The story so far


Current’s CityIQ sensor nodes have been installed on 200 streetlights in five locations across Atlanta. Each node houses multiple sensors, including optical sensors powered by computer vision analytics as well as acoustic and environmental sensors. They feature Intel’s CPU (central processing unit), 0.5-terabyte hard-drive storage, a communications modem, and Bluetooth, USB and Power Over Ethernet (PoE) ports.


An AT&T SIM card transmits the data via LTE and Intel silicon and IoT technology sits inside the intelligent nodes to help extract metadata. Edge processing supports high-volume, -veracity and -velocity datasets which have not been available before, such as traffic, pedestrian, bicycle, parking and more, to enable almost limitless use cases.


Utility companies are looking to diversify their revenue streams and have the opportunity to become a more strategic partner to cities.


The nodes are extensible through over-the-air upgrades, allowing the platform to be updated much like a smartphone.


SmartCitiesWorld talks to Austin Ashe, General Manager of Intelligent Cities at Current by GE, about this emerging model and the growing role of utility companies in smart cities.


SCW: What are the benefits of this new approach to gathering and using data?


AA: The City of Atlanta is using the data for better insights into issues such as how road construction, lane/street closures, one-way streets and roundabouts impact traffic flow, as well as to gain a better understanding of dangerous intersections, near-misses, bicycle paths and curb utilisation.


Information about how bicycles and cars are moving around the city can already be captured.


Now, Atlanta is exploring the use of the CityIQ system to collect better and real-time data, including computer-vision-generated data.


Georgia Power and the Atlanta Police Foundation are also piloting the ShotSpotter application on CityIQ. ShotSpotter technology can pinpoint the exact location where a gunshot has been fired.


Alerts will notify police of possible gunfire within 30-45 seconds, and give the precise location, normally within 20 feet. The City is already seeing a lot of useful data being generated through the ShotSpotter programme.


Because CityIQ is an open platform, it allows cities such as Atlanta to focus on their unique challenges. It maximises the ability for the data being extracted to deliver insights and outcomes that can make a difference. Since both citizens and city officials have access to the same real-time data, there is no limit to the use cases that can be solved.


SCW: The project in Atlanta is interesting because the CurrentIQ platform is delivered via the utility company, Georgia Power, as a service to the City of Atlanta. Is this a trend that you’re seeing and what’s driving it?


AA: It is estimated that over half of the street lights in the US are owned by utility companies. The rest are owned by cities.


Utility companies are looking to diversify their revenue streams and have the opportunity to become a more strategic partner to cities. We are seeing a growing interest in a model whereby the utility company pays for the capital expenditure (CapEx) and the annual operating budget (OpEx), and then monetises it through a monthly or annual service fee to the city.


This approach reduces the City’s CapEx and allows them to use their OpEx more innovatively.


SCW: What are the benefits of this model for both parties?


AA: This approach reduces the City’s CapEx and allows them to use their OpEx more innovatively – they would typically pay for a service such as this via the operating budget, which is often a shared resource between multiple departments.


This approach makes the ongoing monthly fee easier to account for and manage, and means that no single department has to pay all at once.


Some utilities are positioning technology such as CityIQ as a ‘rate case’. Through this highly regulated mechanism, utilities can make a case for some charges to be passed on to consumers via utility rates as long as they can demonstrate that they benefit all citizens. If this case is successfully made, it could significantly accelerate the adoption of connected digital infrastructure.


Another important benefit of the utilities model is the leadership that utility companies can provide. City administrations change over time as part of a natural cycle. Utilities can create continuity and stability throughout those transitions.


SCW: This is a new area for utilities and companies like Georgia Power are demonstrating what’s possible. As we see this scale up, do you think all deployments will take a similar approach, or how might it differ?


AA: It will look a little different in each case because every city has its own DNA. However, some common themes will emerge.


I think an open platform and real-time data will be a requirement going forward – this goes way beyond wireless control of the street lighting and a few limited sensor applications. Some cities and utilities will be slower to adopt the broader platform approach initially but that could end up being expensive when they need to re-buy as new use cases emerge.


It’s clear from the work in Atlanta, too, that close collaboration is key. You can’t just stand up a smart city using technology; you have to work at it. A designated liaison to the city is required within the utility and vice versa.


Those two peers can then work together on the roadmap and ensure it’s developed with sustainability in mind. Without this leadership, cities and utilities won’t drive the change they require.


SCW: How do you see the trends around cities and utilities developing from here?


AA: We certainly see increased demand for new sets of data. A bicycle detector which captures bike speed, count and direction, was released recently on CityIQ and is available via API to developers. Cities are also curious about other types of things that are moving around their blocks – from scooters to wheelchairs. Shopping carts can be potential detectors of homelessness and homeless migration, for example. This data can ensure care and attention are available at the right time and in the right places.


An open platform and real-time data will be a requirement going forward.


Police departments are asking for higher-resolution cameras too – 4K as standard, for instance. As 5G starts to emerge, cities and utilities are going to expect that their data is transmitted via those high bandwidths.


Another interesting area will be monetisation. The first phase is installing the sensor platform and the applications, and understanding more about the city and its citizens. In the future, there will be a lot more value that can be unlocked from the data, including potential monetisation.


There are issues for cities and utilities to work out around the financial model, data ownership etc. but the possibilities are promising for both parties.


Insurance companies, for example, may be interested in buying video data related to car accidents to assist with settlements. Automotive companies want more granular data on vehicles that are moving through the city – not just how many but the type and the balance of trucks, cars and pedestrians, etc as well as what those patterns look like day-by-day, block-by block. They would likely pay for that data.


We expect more utilities and cities to explore this approach and scale it up.


Georgia Power, for example, controls over a million assets. There are many different cities and territories where they could roll out the CityIQ service and start getting more data, delivering benefits and leading the way to show what this future model will look like.


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