Cities Getting Smarter: Harnessing IoT Data for Public Good

September 29, 2015 7:00 am PST | Data as a Service
portland oregon trees

A few weeks ago, we explored the potential impact of the Internet of Things (IoT) — the expanding network of digitally connected, sensor-equipped objects that now collect and communicate data.

If you read that post, then you know we advised a down-to-earth approach for tapping into the IoT’s potential. Instead of rushing out to install, say, an enormous network of sensors on every building, streetlamp, and speed bump, it’s better to first choose your objective, take stock of sensor-based objects you already have in place, and then merge their data streams in ways that get the job done.

That said, however, it’s worth checking out the myriad ways various municipalities are harnessing IoT data for the public good — here are a few intriguing forays of late:

Portland, Oregon: Mapping Pollen

One of Portland’s interesting IoT projects over the last few years includes a block-by-block mapping of pollen activity, which allows citizens with tree-specific pollen allergies to plot their best routes.

The data-visualization program is a joint project with Intel Labs, and it works like this: Portland’s Parks and Recreation Urban Forestry Department feeds data from its robust public tree inventory, which is combined with additional public data such as pollination periods for the inventory’s various tree species, wind speeds, wind direction, temperatures, and precipitation.

The front-end data visualization is a digital street map, accessible by mobile device, which indicates tree types and their estimated real-time pollen activity.

Barcelona, Spain: Smart Parking

Last year, Barcelona joined Moscow to become one of the first major cities to deploy a large-scale Fastprk smart-parking system, which allows drivers to head straight to open parking spaces instead of the typically inefficient method most of us use — drive around in circles looking for a vacant spot.  

The networked system, developed by Worldsensing, an IoT-technology company, employs wireless electromagnetic sensors, which are installed in city parking spots. Each sensor monitors its parking spaces occupancy/vacancy status and relays the info to drivers via an app.

The project’s current phase activated 500 Fastprk sensors throughout the city’s busy Les Corts District, and, in addition to parking-space availability, indicates open loading zones and handicapped parking locations. The goal is to not only make things easier for drivers, but also to help reduce traffic density and vehicle emissions.

Amsterdam, Netherlands: Beacons on the Street

Along a designated route called the Amsterdam Beacon Mile, the city is exploring the potential of beacon technology, which consists of small sensors that allow surrounding objects to communicate with passersby by detecting their mobile apps.

For example, several Apple iBeacons serve up restaurant information to pedestrians as they pass the venues, while others send travel facts about historical locales along the route.

Other types of beacons, called LoRaWAN (long-range wide area network) beacons, gather data about the pedestrian traffic, and then make the data open for app developers to explore new beacon applications, such as apps that serve up multilingual directions or activate digital way-finding signs.

Chicago, Illinois: Array of Things

Starting in early 2016, Chicago’s Array of Things researchers expect to begin deploying several networked nodes above Michigan Avenue, with each node designed to collect environmental and human-activity data for public benefit.

Think of this experimental program as a city fitness tracker: the nodes’ sensors will monitor everything from temperature and humidity to ozone and air quality, not to mention sound volume, road and sidewalk temperatures, and pedestrian traffic.

The potential applications are captivating. Sensors tracking air quality could eventually inform the healthiest walking routes. Sidewalk and road temperature data could inform cost-efficient snowplow and salting responses during snowstorms. Pedestrian-traffic data could guide people to the safest, populated after-hours walking routes.

Songdo, South Korea: A Fully Connected City  

Along the lines of Chicago’s Array of Things, but on much larger scale, is Songdo, South Korea. One of the first smart cities built from scratch, Songdo aims to be a fully connected city that harnesses most aspects of its municipal infrastructure to form a vast network of data-driven automation.

Most of the city’s sensor-based data is processed through a centralized hub, which not only collects incoming data, but also redirects it for positive outcomes. Cars, for example, are equipped with RFID (radio frequency identification) tags that relay their locations to the hub, which monitors traffic flows then adjusts traffic-signal behavior to ease congestion where needed.

Other innovations include streetlamps that adjust their brightness (or switch off) based on pedestrian-detection data, homes equipped with energy-consumption sensors to regulate city-wide power use, and a vast data-driven water system that manages water flows so that clean water automatically travels to faucets and treated gray water reaches irrigation destinations.


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