Smart Ways for Local and City Governments to Think About IoT




Everyone talks about Smart Cities. It’s a sexy topic.

But much of the business of city and local governments is resolutely unsexy, from pest elimination to storm water handling. And, unlike businesses, these governments must make such improvements while continuing to please their citizens in a complex administrative environment. 

Know who owns the data

A variety of vendors have sprung up to serve the government market. IoT implementations can vary by who finances, installs, monitors, and maintains them, from ownership models to IoT-as-a-service. If a government is not careful, vendors can sell it sensors, then acquire, process, and analyze the data, and then sell the results back, while maintaining the data as a private asset.

A government must draw up clear rules for who owns and has a right to the data before any implementation, balancing the needs and rights of citizens, vendors, and multiple administrative levels within the government entity itself. 

Any solution will be functioning for years, perhaps decades, so serious consideration of data ownership is essential.

Understand the privacy and security implications

IoT implementations face the same security challenges as all large software implementations, but they face additional risks. The hardware is physically out in the world, often in exposed locations, and can be there for years. That hardware is outside normal IT boundaries, and will remain subject to attack and manipulation for its useful life.

Privacy is an additional concern. Sensors, whether on a parking place, a streetlight, or a water pipe, inevitably provide information about the whereabouts and actions of private citizens. Slow privacy erosion is inevitable unless confronted specifically. How will data from the increasing number of sensors be managed, stored, and eventually purged?

Try to minimize discrete implementations

Anyone who has watched a city put down smooth new pavement one week only to see a backhoe out the next week digging trenches through it to get at the pipes, knows how little coordination there can be between various government functions.

Most current IoT implementations are specific to a department or project. There may be several projects going on at the same time, disconnected from each other. This lack of coordination stems from limited and specific funding, with forceful personalities in certain offices, and with the basic decentralized structure of local governments.

Many departments already have software systems incompatible with those of other departments, even those they coordinate closely with. This can result in, for example, fines collected by one department having to be reentered by another to show up as city revenue. 

The problem will never be comprehensively solved. Still, a strong effort to ensure that there is one strong, integrated Smart City rather than a few separate smart city projects that don’t talk to each other will show significant dividends.

Balance short-term vs. long-term planning

The most valuable infrastructure improvements tend to cost a lot in money, effort, and disruption before they pay off. They also usually extend past the terms of any given politician in office. Constituents, meanwhile, tend to vote or lobby for projects that will show benefits quickly.

But people dug subways and built interstate highways, and we still benefit from those projects. Today’s governments will need to treat the largely invisible but hugely significant investment in IoT capability with the same serious devotion to long-term results, while coming up with short-term projects that show quicker benefits.

Consider the benefits of unsexy projects

Every Smart City story discusses parking. But there a large number of other IoT projects either being piloted, or already bringing benefits to citizens.

Waste disposal

Public waste receptacles are usually emptied on a regular schedule. But their use can be irregular, meaning that half-empty receptacles are emptied, or they reach their capacity, resulting in spillover.

Sensor-equipped trash receptacles by companies like Big Belly monitor levels. Local governments can plan efficient collection routes, anticipate where new receptacles would best be located, and develop knowledge of trash-creating behavior patterns.

Rat infestations

Connected to the waste disposal issues is pest infestation, particularly rat. Chicago piloted a predictive model that identified 311 call types that correlated with rat infestations, thus allowing Sanitation to intervene early, and also communicate more effectively with the residents of the affected area.

Sewers and storm water

In many areas sewers are also used for storm drains, which can lead to untreated sewage ending up in waterways. A system that combines weather prediction, use patterns, and peak-load storage can reduce sewage events significantly. Opti is a player in this space.

Washington D.C. is piloting a program using LiDAR and topographic data to determine where trees can best be planted to mitigate storm water.

Be ready for the IoT

Governments should make every effort to be forward compatible. The IoT is coming, and retrofits will much more expensive than installing it right the first time. Whenever there is an infrastructure upgrade, data collection capabilities should be priced in.