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What’s Next for Smart City Tech, Partnerships in North Carolina

Added to IoTplaybook or last updated on: 07/09/2019

Tom Snyder,executive director of RIoT, the Internet of Things users group based in Raleigh, NC; provides analysis on a recent meeting among North Carolina government officials about smart city technology past, present, and future.

Tom Snyder of RIoT
Tom Snyder, Executive Director, RIoT

Marketers have decided we live in the age of “smart.” Phones are smart phones, watches are smart watches—even trash cans can now be smart trash cans. Thanks to advanced sensor, wireless, and data analytics technologies, it’s possible for almost any product or service to become “smart.”

Even places are upping their IQ — smart cities, smart communities, smart farms. But what does that mean for us, the residents? How does North Carolina measure up in becoming a smart state?

Government leadership from across North Carolina and the US gathered last month in Raleigh’s Union Station to share best practices and lessons learned on their journey to smart. Deconstructed, that term “smart” is simply an umbrella label for a fundamental shift—from an information technology economy to a data driven economy.

No longer will it be good enough for towns and cities (or businesses) to make decisions based on slowly collected information. The web and search and information systems have an inherent latency—a delay between when something happens, when the information is collected, and when action is taken. Data collected a year or month or even a week ago might be too outdated for cities to use to drive efficiencies and services for citizens.

But in a data driven economy, sensors collect data in real time, and artificial intelligence and machine learning enable immediate decision-making. An intersection becomes smart when it controls the traffic light based on immediate traffic data, not data from 10 minutes ago.  Protecting drivers and citizens in flash flood situations requires real-time creek level measurement and storm drain flow, connected directly to smart street signs and applications like Waze. Real-time data and device decision-making are outcomes that the Internet of Things promises. Pretty smart.

THE JOURNEY TO SMARTNESS

Darnell Smith, CIO for Raleigh, opened Tuesday’s forum with a summary of where government is today in the journey to becoming smart. “The term smart city is driving new roles, responsibilities and task forces. This helps us to figure out how to leverage new technology and data. But over time as we figure this out, it operationalizes and becomes business as usual.”

A lot of work remains to make “smart” feel like the new normal (when that “smart” traffic light will just be a traffic light again). Data management and data sharing are critical. Trust is paramount, including how we secure information, protect privacy, and build ethical guidelines around data use.

How are cities building trust?

The Town of Cary has formed a data advisory committee to obtain citizen inputs. Nicole Raimundo, CIO for Cary, believes that every single job will fundamentally change as we have more data and connected systems. “We are on a road tour to every department in city government to engage them in IoT,” she said. “Every team member needs to be part of building new solutions as they each will be impacted.”

Cary turned their central government complex into a living lab for trialing smart city solutions and getting citizen feedback. Cary’s example provides a blueprint being followed by municipalities across the US.

The task is not easy.

FEEDING THE CUSTOMERS

“What I love about working for a city is that there is an unlimited appetite for services [from citizens],” said Jim Alberque, Emerging Technology Manager for the City of Raleigh. “But there is no extra money or time added to the budget to address demand. That creates a hugely interesting challenge.”

Partnership is key to bridging the resource gap. NC communities are opening data sets for public accessibility. This enables citizens and businesses to build civic solutions. RIoT meets monthly with City of Raleigh and other NC cities and towns to prioritize problems that can be solved with “smart”. Cisco is coordinating a Smart RTP effort, regularly convening local governments to harmonize requirements and efficiently align efforts.

ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT AT STAKE

Building a smart city goes hand in hand with economic development. In the Raleigh example, collaboration efforts are indirectly funded via Raleigh’s Impact Partner Grant program, which provided seed funding to connect startups to smart city pilot studies. Local companies can prove solutions and leverage networks like RIoT and US Ignite – who organized Tuesday’s forum – to scale nationally while building companies and jobs in NC.

Eric Romero, Director of Information Services for Baton Rouge, explained the connection between economic development and data. “We know where poverty exists or property values are low,” he said. “What we really want to do is use data to create solutions that draw people into the community.”

As Baton Rouge started their open data programs and built data governance policies, they reached out to the expected players – New York, Seattle, San Francisco – but also to Raleigh and cities in NC that are leading the way.

Chicago has made great strides in open data and data sharing. Tom Schenk, former Chief Data Officer for Chicago, described how Chicago engages the entrepreneurial and startup community to build open source apps and new city services. The open and collaborative nature allowed other cities around the US to build compatible systems and build additional features. In some cases, such as a volunteer-built application to help citizens find flu shot services, efforts were eventually taken over by the city and sold as a service to other major US cities.

This model follows closely to the work that Raleigh and RIoT are building. In some cases, government will operationalize services built by the entrepreneurial and volunteer ecosystem in the Triangle.  In some cases, new startups will grow to scale services beyond Raleigh.  Without question, the journey to smart creates new public and private sector jobs.

US Ignite confided to the audience that normally, as they hold workshops across the US, there is a broader range of participation geographically. In Tuesday’s session, there was so much demand across North Carolina, and so many programs moving forward in the state, that nearly all the seats were reserved by NC municipalities. The energy in this region is higher than most places. This is an indicator that the state is driving the collaborations and partnerships needed to push North Carolina forward. Smart, indeed.

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