Houston partners with Microsoft to improve school safety with sensors

The Aldine Independent School District in Houston is now piloting internet-connected environmental sensors through a partnership with Microsoft that city officials say will improve emergency response.

The district began testing the technology — which include cameras and sensors for sound, temperature and air quality — in May. Summer Xiao, Houston’s deputy chief information officer, told StateScoop the project is in support of Mayor Sylvester Turner’s mission to make Houston “the smartest city in the world.”

“Houston has always been in the forefront of new things, even though it is not traditionally [thought] of as tech. But we are a city full of smart people and it’s really about taking the technologists out there and really implementing it. This pilot project with Aldine [Independent School District] is really a way of saying there’s a lot of theories and ideas out there, but Houston is one of the first cities to actually put it in practice through this partnership with Microsoft,” Xiao said.

The technology companies Insight and BeSafe Technologies are also involved in the project, generating digital maps of two of the district’s school campuses, marking the locations of critical items like fire extinguishers and electrical switch boards.

Eventually, sensors will also track the status of various functions throughout the school, such as whether certain lights are on or off. A mobile app will allow teachers and administrators to monitor these sensors, watch live video feeds and send alerts. 

Becoming the smartest city in the world, she says in a video interview with StateScoop, will be enabled by collaboration across organizational bounds to tap resources the city doesn’t have.

“Because our resources are constrained, it brings the best minds and the best talents through this partnership to make some of these things happen,” she said.

The city’s smart-city goal also starts with building a strong technological foundation, Xiao said.

“We’re building foundational smart city technology, like modernizing applications and moving to Azure and IoT and network, but then there’s the technology of sensors,” she said. “But the sensors won’t provide a lot of value if you don’t have foundational technology to support it, so our initiative and strategy is really this holistic view.”

Xiao on her top priorities:

“Right now some of our top priorities and project is defined by the mayor’s mission and the IT strategy, which first and foremost includes modernizing our infrastructure.”

Xiao on collaboration:

“There is a collaboration … the City of Houston facilitated, which is smart buildings, putting [internet of things] sensors inside of school buildings and those IoT sensors enable smart LED lights inside of shcool buildings, which will alert schools when there’s emergencies.

Xiao on Houston’s smart city efforts:

“It is the mayor’s strategic initiative to be the smartest city in the world, because we have the smartest people in the world, right? [Because] you can’t have a smart city without smart people and we’ve really taken a holistic initiative when it comes to smart cities.”

These videos were recorded at the Smart Cities New York conference in May 2019.