Building Stronger Communities with the IoT

Urban issues of the 19th century -- overcrowding, sanitation, infectious disease -- gave rise to solutions we take for granted today: city parks, building codes, trash collection and bus or train networks.

Today, residents and governments are turning to the Internet of Things to solve 21st century challenges: vehicle traffic, housing shortages and adapting to climate change. The IoT gives us a platform to improve efficiency and add capacity to make a stronger community with better use of resources.

There’s nothing quite like a snowstorm, or some other emergency, to test a city or a government agency’s ability to deliver services. Inevitably, some roads are last to be plowed. Some area will be last and argue it was underserved.

Big Data and the IoT is an equalizer, argues Prof. Susan Crawford of Harvard Law School. She’s co-author of “The Responsive City” and among a set of academics looking at how data, apps, citizen action and networking affect city living.

“Because technology—the way things are developing these days actually is democratizing access to data and devices in a way that wasn’t true in the past. There were crushing asymmetries of information in the past in the era of redlining and isolating neighborhoods,” she told an interviewer in Detroit. “Now you can actually form a group that persists online and virtually march on City Hall.”

As more people move to cities all over the planet, data-driven reporting replaces anecdotes and the pace of information exchange quickens.

Australia’s largest city by population could double in size within 35 years, so Melbourne officials are hoping the IoT and smart growth will help manage the change.

City governments and agencies are turning to residents and companies to help digest the data – putting community to work when developers build their own apps for transit tracking or repairing potholes. Boston is data-sharing with Waze to reduce congestion and announce road closings to encourage re-routing vehicles via the Waze traffic app. Chicago has an OpenGrid website where anyone can visualize and share data on maps.

London’s Open Data Institute is a non-profit organization that makes datasets publicly available to help residents explore the contents of multiple resources.

In Buffalo, NY for example, Crawford said, city officials tapped data to spot problem areas and get people cooperating. Maps and photos showed areas in need of services and residents shared details. Mapping showed the worst areas and volunteers nearby could offer assistance. Operation Clean Sweep took some of the burden off city workers and accelerated the process.

“Resiliency” is the new goal for many city officials – responding to changes and circumstances from population shift to economic or political change.  Even the best long-range plans can be quickly undermined by weather or other surprises.

And a flood may present a danger for some residents, and opportunity for those with a portable generator or a boat to share. Identifying what data reflects problems to be solved will be a challenge for activists and for officials who have to balance the interests of residents, businesses, property owners and all the people who visit.

What will be connected next? Veniam is a start-up company working on creating an urban mesh Wi-Fi vehicle network that would create its own automated traffic reporting.

BigBelly Solar made trashcans smarter by including a compactor powered by a solar panel. Its newest products are connected via IoT, reporting when they need emptying. And its trashcans now offer Wi-Fi access thanks to growing network capacity.

Last year’s PTC LiveWorx hackathon generated ideas for an opt-in emergency response network for food, water and resources. Another team developed smart street signs with touchless information beacons to protect pedestrians, assist travelers or provide aid to the vision-impaired.

What crucial urban features and benefits are you looking for?

Image by Gabriel Santiago on Unsplash