Philly gets an 'Internet of Things' boost from $200K Knight grant

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A PPA parking kiosk in Center City. A new grant allows the city to ponder what would happen when more than one frustrated driver gets an alert on a phone-based parking app and starts racing to a precious open spot.

Before cities jump headfirst into the “Internet of Things” revolution, wouldn’t it be smart if civic guardians took a pause to gauge the needs and concerns of the population? Really thought through the consequences of remotely monitored and “real time” controllable-everything in a city’s purview — from citizens nabbed on security cameras, to street lamps and traffic signals, to the flow of water from the taps?

That’s the impetus behind $200,000 study grants the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation doled out Friday morning to Philadelphia and five other municipalities. “We’re buying the cities some time and advice to think these things through, trade notes, see what the real opportunities are and what the problems are,” said John S. Bracken, Knight Foundation vice president for technology innovation.

And that’s fine by Philadelphia’s chief technology officer, Charles Brennan, and program manager Ellen Hwang, who pitched the foundation for the funds to develop a “smart-city roadmap” that will take the pulse of stakeholders —  “community groups, parents, educators, government agencies, religious organizations, the legal community” — before investing heavily in smart technology and systems.

“We’re deluged with proposals from outside vendors to smarten up this and that,” Brennan said in an interview in advance of the announcement. “On Friday morning, for example, a hearing called by City Councilman David Oh is weighing pilot proposals for a smart-parking program which could work with either cameras or embedded-in-the-street sensors to find and alert drivers to open spaces.”

Though such a program could be very helpful “in reducing driver anxiety,  pollution and congestion in neighborhoods like South Philadelphia, where residents drive around a lot at night looking for a spot, it’s not without its downsides,” Brennan said. “Digging up the streets to put in sensors stresses the already overworked Streets Department." Vendors who promise to “do a pilot for free” inevitably want to be paid, “which runs counter with our open bidding process,” or they sometimes skip town, “as just happened with that smart paid-parking app provider.”

And what would happen when more than one frustrated driver gets an alert on a phone-based parking app and starts racing to that precious open spot?

Tech improvements “have always been controversial,” noted the Knight Foundation’s Bracken. “Thoreau said, ‘We won’t ride on the railroads, the railroads will ride upon us.’ … Of late, we’ve been hearing about unsecured ["Internet of Thing"] devices, like baby-monitor cameras, that can be taken over to wreak havoc, take down the internet. Tech is a tool that can be used well or in ways that doesn’t advance society.”

Towns heavy with tech-tuned companies — such as Boston and San Jose — have been early in with smart-city stuff, he added. Ditto locations with severe water-conservation concerns. Also taking a lead are municipalities willing and able to make partnerships with private concerns — as Denver is doing with Panasonic to demonstrate renewably sourced electric substations and solar panel-equipped LED streetlamps that can go off the grid.

In Philadelphia, the Streets Department has begun a pilot program to convert quartz street lamps to LED illuminators, said Hwang, while Philadelphia Gas Works “just hired a company to put in advanced meter-reading systems. The city’s Water Department is about to select a supplier for advanced meters as well.”

Unlike those radio-transmitter-equipped meters the Water Department put in several years ago, read by an agent driving by your house every few months, the new monitors wirelessly transmit information to distant computers in real time. “Much better,” said Brennan.

On the face of it, Philly’s CTO is not so big on sensor-equipped street lamps that auto-dim when nobody’s walking or driving down the street.

“That’s more for rural areas. We want to keep the lights on, all the time,” he said. But better energy management of municipal buildings “is something we could certainly get behind, if the systems are proven secure.”

Keeping hackers at bay “is critical,” said Brennan, “just as it is with the city’s computers.”

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