Building a smart and equitable city

In conversation with Jeff Merritt

Building a smart and equitable city

When Bill de Blasio was elected New York’s mayor in 2013, he launched the Mayor’s Office of Technology and Innovation to raise the quality of the city’s infrastructure, education system and workforce for the digital era.

The Office’s mission statement was to deploy digital technologies to improve the city’s services, but also to use them to develop its economy and create more opportunities for all New Yorkers. One of its first tasks was introducing free-of-charge kindergartens for all four-year-olds, a central part of the Mayor’s election platform.

The idea was to start education at the age of four rather than five, seen as a game-changer from the point of view of equity. Inequality starts early, according to Jeff Merritt, the Office’s new Director of Innovation, and day-care in cities like New York could cost working parents a fortune.

The challenge that it presented, though, was a data one,’ he says. ‘We needed to find all the eligible four-year-olds, because we had no records of them in our system. Very quickly, we had to identify households with children approaching four, rush out information to their parents, and then enrol 53,000 students when the kindergartens opened in autumn 2014.

We pulled in any data we could get hold of, including birth records and names of people in public programmes who had young children, as well as those who had purchased diapers recently. We analysed all the information in the Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics and built a database in just nine days which call centres used to contact parents. The kindergartens were launched from scratch in just nine months, and have been so successful that the scheme is now being extended to children aged three.

The opening of the kindergartens was followed a year later by the launch of LinkNYC, the conversion of the City’s network of payphones into kiosks which will provide the world’s largest and fastest municipal Wi-Fi network. The 1,200 kiosks which were operating by October 2017 will eventually rise to 7,500, offering free phone calls and high-speed 1GB internet around the clock.

The aim was to provide New Yorkers, rich and poor, with access to a 21st century communications network at no cost to the public purse. In an innovative funding mechanism, the Mayor’s Office put together a consortium of companies which would generate revenue primarily through selling advertisements on the screens of the 10-foot-high kiosks.

“The aim was to provide New Yorkers, rich and poor, with access to a 21st century communications network at no cost”

The revenue was split 50/50, and the city was guar­anteed income of USD 500 million over the next 12 years. And the Mayor’s Office was able to benefit from private sector expertise which knew that gigabyte-speed internet was technically possible and that digital advertising could pay for the multimillion dollar build-out and guarantee revenue on such a scale.

Thanks to his role as New York City’s first Director of Innovation, Jeff Merritt has now moved on to become Head of Internet of Things at The World Economic Forum. But the role of collaborative public/private partnerships remains key in the Mayor’s Office approach to the big technological challenges necessary for the creation of a smart city.

Another such partnership is the City’s new USD 80 million Computer Science for All programme. This guarantees that within the next ten years, every student in public elementary, middle and high school will have access to technology education. The private sector will match every dollar which the City invests in the programme, helping to create the workforce skills which they will need in the future from all sections of New York’s population.

The Mayor’s Office sees the Internet of Things (IoT) playing a central role in developing other smart city initiatives, because it can provide access to the information required for intelligent decision-making. Big infrastructure agen­cies such as water authorities have been using connected devices to collect data for some years, but their use is expanding all the time.

The billions of gallons of water which come into New York City every day from upstate New York, for example, is monitored by sensors to make sure that it is kept clean and uncontaminated to protect the health of New Yorkers. When it reaches consumers, there are meters in their base­ments which used to be read by staff for billing customers. The introduction of wireless meters replaces such visits by sending real-time information on usage and on spikes which can identify leaks and help maintain the system.

Increasingly, the Internet of Things is moving from single connected or smart devices to devices communi­cating with each other, as can be seen from New York’s bus operator, the Metropolitan Transport Authority (MTA). A few years ago, it started putting GPS trackers on the buses, so that passengers could find out when the next one would arrive.

“The Internet of Things is moving from single connected or smart devices to devices communicating with each other”

Smart buses have now been combined with smart lighting, using the wireless remote control of street lights operated by the City’s Department of Transportation. When buses on 15 major routes approach traffic lights, the lights change to give them priority. Called the Select Bus Service, its speeds up the buses, creating a more regular service and cutting journey times by around 20 per cent.

Buses using the new service can run punctually like a mass transit rail system, which encourages people to use them rather than their cars – reducing conges­tion, air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. The Select Bus Service is about to be extended to all five of the City’s boroughs, eventually reaching another half million commuters daily.

The Mayor’s Office believes there is much further to go with the Internet of Things, and has called for innova­tions to prepare for what it calls the Internet of Everything. Industry estimates suggest that the number of connected devices globally will exceed 50 billion by 2020, and market research indicates that consumers will become actively involved in their use.

More than two-thirds say they plan to buy connected technology for their homes by 2019, and nearly half say the same for wearable technology. The number of cars connected to the internet worldwide is forecast to grow from 313 million worldwide in 2013 to nearly 1.1 billion in 2022.

The rise of new digital tools, sensors and connected devices opens the door to an era of more efficient and responsive government driven by real-time data,’ says the Mayor’s Office. ‘When used effectively, these new technol­ogies can produce cost-savings, bolster civic engagement and strengthen public health and safety.

If left unchecked, the expansion of connected devices also carries significant risks, particularly in the areas of privacy and data security. Mitigating this risk requires that government play a hands-on role in establishing consumer protection standards and monitoring the expansion of the Internet of Things.

But the IoT will also create new economic opportu­nities and business developments, centred around the crea­tion, analysis and intelligent use of such data feeds.

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