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A guiding light

The mayor of Schenectady is committed to smart city infrastructure, and believes technology is vital to his city’s future growth and development

Mayor McCarthy
Mayor McCarthy

‘Lead, follow or get out of my way’, a famous slogan from an old Chrysler commercial, and one quoted by Mayor Gary McCarthy of Schenectady, during an exclusive interview with SmartCitiesWorld.


The slogan reference was in response to a question about President Elect Trump’s commitment to the smart city movement championed thus far by President Obama’s White House.


For Mayor McCarthy, continuing the priority drive to smartness is vital, not only for the future growth and wellbeing of his city but for the United States as a whole. “I would hope President Elect Trump continues on that path because it’s clearly an area that the US could take a lead in,” he says.


Situated in Schenectady County, New York, Schenectady comes from a Mohawk word meaning ‘beyond the pines’. Founded on the south side of the Mohawk River by Dutch colonists in the 17th century, innovation and technology are woven into the city’s heritage.


In 1887 Thomas Edison relocated his Edison Machine Works to Schenectady, and in 1892 the city became the HQ of the General Electric Company. The American Locomotive Company, a major player in the manufacture of steam engines before the development of diesel technology also hailed from here.


Gary McCarthy has been mayor of Schenectady since 2011. A seasoned public servant, he spent 30 years as the chief investigator in the Schenectady district attorney’s office and prior to becoming mayor, served on Schenectady’s city council as president.


For mayor McCarthy embarking on a smart city programme is a natural path. “It’s the nature of local government today where you’re always looking for ways to do things in a more cost-effective manner and still be able to deliver services with the high level of expectations which residents and communities have,” he says.


Schenectady’s goal is to become an integrated, connected city. Working with IT giant Cisco, it has implemented an Internet of Things (IoT) wireless network that connects people, data, processes and things.


A number of initiatives based on an outdoor city-owned wi-fi network that handles numerous tasks simultaneously have been launched. For example, the police can now download in-car video to station servers whilst on patrol in the time it takes for traffic lights to complete one cycle. In the past, they had to physically go into the station and complete the download manually wasting time and taking patrol vehicles off the road.


Connected lighting has been very successful. Initially, an intelligent LED lighting system was deployed in the downtown area in front of City Hall, plus a couple of blocks around the Lower Union Street area but the plan now is to extend this across the whole town.


The connected lighting system has made an immediate impact. Conversion to LED plus the ability to dim lights automatically when and where required, has resulted in significant cost and energy savings. The ability to automatically detect defective lights has transformed maintenance practice, improved efficiency and added to cost savings.


“Initially we were looking for a 50 per cent saving in our utility costs, and early data shows that we are running 60-65 per cent in savings,” says Mayor McCarthy.


In Schenectady, connected lighting poles also house cameras for deterrence purposes helping the police fight crime and providing citizens with a view of their streets to help them feel safer at night. Cameras are also are useful for documentation. Says the mayor: “I always say to my colleagues about the potential of those cameras. You look at all the real- time data, all the information but taking one picture per month with a HD camera over a three, four to five-year period, that becomes your pavement management plan.


“Today we have to send someone out, they do a visual inspection, they put a numeric valuator to the quality of street surface, you have to key that and then process it. The ability to do all this in an automated fashion is growing with the deployment of these smart lighting fixtures.”


The cameras can also work as a valuable promotional tool. Schenectady runs a very popular Sunday farmers’ market that is outside for seven to eight months of the year. Plans for it to be held inside for the colder months will helped next year by using webcams to show the public what’s happening inside at the market, to attract more visitors and help to build on the market’s successful nature.


Temperature sensors on the lighting poles also help with sand, salting and snowploughing. Coupled with weather information, these sensors help determine what specific areas of the city require snowploughs or road surface treatments.


At the beginning of this year, Schenectady appointed a smart city commission chaired by former GE’s chief technology officer Mark Little who has assembled a diverse group of community and regional leaders. The commission is collaborating with Cisco, GE and other vendors to take the city to the next level of smart city living.


The town has embarked upon an electric vehicle programme, purchasing a small fleet of electric vehicles for city hall employees such as code enforcement officers. It has also been awarded a grant to deploy electric charging stations. This will not only reduce the city’s carbon footprint but will slash costs by half.


Schenectady is currently involved in the next phase microgrid energy project centred through Proctors Theatre. Thanks to state funding, the downtown-based theatre will be expanding its heating and cooling systems for nearby businesses and organisations to cut down on energy costs.


Proctors’ Marquee Power currently provides heat and air conditioning for about 30 local businesses and organisations and has the potential to provide power for customers. Generated from underground water pipes, this is clean and affordable energy which saves in the region of $300,000 per year.


Last year, Schenectady was awarded $100,000 in state funding as part of its proposal to establish a microgrid, a standalone energy system that can operate separately from the main grid. This proposal taps into Proctors’ Marquee Power and would increase power distribution to the city mission, Salvation Army, county jail, county sheriff’s department, public library plus the fire and police stations.


The city is also working with local software company Transfinder, a national provider of school bus route systems. Here it is looking to apply that same technology for vehicle maintenance and scheduling, as well as fine tune waste collection routes, code enforcement officer routes and patrol routes used by police.


Schenectady has a vision of where the technology could further take this dynamic town. “We’d like to be a regional and national leader in the deployment of smart city technology and really be an incubator in the testing and fine tune these emerging technologies,” he says.


The next phase of smart city development is looking to build upon the initial Cisco-based infrastructure deployment and innovative delivery of municipal services: the broader potential such as smart healthcare starts to beckon.


Nurturing a new eco system and working with the business community to help boost innovation is high on the agenda. “The next round of technology is five times faster than any other adoption. If you don’t do things fast now, we’re going to lose an opportunity to pick upon competitive opportunities and job creation loss. You want to have the opportunities available. It’s an on-going educational process.”


To Mayor McCarthy, the mayoral role is a vital and critical part of the smart city agenda. “You have to be a leader and try to put your community in its best way to take advantage of those things that are evolving,” he says.


Union street in the downtown area of Schenectady
Union street in the downtown area of Schenectady

Cisco’s data sharing platform


At Smart City Expo World Congress 2016 (SCEWC16) in November Cisco showcased a cloud service demonstrating how city leaders can work with real-time city data.


Through the cloud, Cisco’s Smart+Connected Digital Platform collects data from a host of connected devices and systems including third party sensors and street cameras.


Insights from this data aids city departments and agencies make decisions about how to improve operational efficiencies, increase revenue, and reduce costs across all municipal services such as parking, environmental sensing, waste management and all other usual suspects.


The platform is able to integrate data sets to give whole vision decision-making. For example, in addition to seeing data collected from street cameras, traffic agency staff can access environmental sensor data collected by a different department. Combining these multiple data sets produces a wider solution to reduce pollution and traffic congestion while also improving incident response time. City officials can also choose to make specific data available to city residents, visitors and businesses.


If you liked this, you might wish to read the following:


Light Fantastic
When lights are networked, equipped with sensors and linked to management software, their ubiquity makes them good candidates to form the basis of much wider-ranging smart city applications.

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