Boston’s move to embrace the Internet of Things and other smart city technologies in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 represents the future of how governments can use tech for public safety purposes, according to Deb Socia, executive director of the nonprofit Next Century Cities.
Socia’s organization — which represents 133 cities and counties to help them get more access to affordable, high-speed internet — tracks how improved connectivity can enhance local government operations, and she sees the Massachusetts city as a shining example of how officials can use technology to respond to tragedy. At a panel discussion at the Internet Education Foundation’s “State of the Net — Wireless” event, Socia detailed how differently the city secured the Boston Marathon on Monday, versus the tactics it used three years ago.
“Immediately after the bombing, people were able to find their families, share video, track what was happening in the moment on Twitter, all thanks to the internet,” Socia said. “The city figured out, ‘We need to be coordinating this next time.’”
Indeed, Socia noted that the city started using a “dashboard” to pull together information from sensors, cameras and other devices around the city to better monitor the event the next year, and has built on that platform in the ensuing years.
“The key has been them finding a way to communicate beyond the small silos that often exist in cities,” Socia said. “But it’s the kind of thing we’ll see more and more of. Cities are really being innovators in regards to this.”
Daniel Correa, senior adviser for innovation policy at the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, heartily agreed with that sentiment. As one of the leaders of the Obama administration’s efforts to spur the development of smart city technologies, he’s found that the governments that have been most successful in using this technology have been ones with “a mayor, city manager or someone else who can work across departments” to emphasize the importance of the Internet of Things.
“Someone needs to have a vision,” Correa said. “It helps to have somebody dedicated to thinking about it.”
[Read more: White House pushes for smart cities engagement]
Jeff Brueggeman, vice president for global public policy at AT&T, noted that strong partnerships with the private sector can help officials who are thinking about the IoT, but that trying to get companies interested in working with a specific city can pose a “chicken and the egg” conundrum.
“It can be tough, but if you get the right set of government officials and private sector representatives in the same room, you can make real progress,” Brueggeman said.
Brueggeman added that the federal government plays an important role in bridging the gap between the public and private sectors, and Correa is optimistic that his office will be able to help lead that charge going forward.
Similarly, he pointed to the administration’s “Metrolab Network,” an effort to pair 20 cities with local universities to work on smart city technologies, as a way that the feds can encourage collaboration on the issue.
Since establishing the network in September, Correa said several of those partnerships have already produced some interesting results.
He specifically pointed to the effort in South Bend, Indiana, where the city was able to team up with researchers at the University of Notre Dame to deploy a series of sensors to help the government better control its sewer system. He was equally optimistic about Carnegie Mellon University’s work with Pittsburgh officials to test out “smart traffic lights” in the city’s busiest areas during rush hour.
“In the initial pilots, they saw reductions in commute times during rush hour of more than 25 percent,” Correa said. “Now the question with all of these projects is how do we scale them up and link them together?”
However, all of the panelists acknowledged that the realities of the political process can slow the progress of even the most innovative projects. Socia noted that even forward-thinking cities can struggle with developing broadband infrastructure, lamenting that it often becomes a “hot potato issue” for policymakers.
“Broadband is nonpartisan and never partisan at the local level, but it can happen at other levels,” Socia said. “If you live in a state where you can’t make local choices about your telecom policy, that becomes problematic.”
Yet Brueggeman believes that once public officials can show the value of this type of technology, whether it helps cut down on traffic in Pittsburgh or keeps people safer in Boston, people will start demanding its adoption.
“We have to think about ways to make it politically valuable, and show the cost reduction benefits or its other applications,” Brueggeman said.
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