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How Kansas City is turning Main Street into a model for digital downtowns

2018-07-30

A streetcar to be delivered to Kansas City is offloaded from its trailer on Wednesday, Feb 3, 2016. The city has used the installation of a streetcar as a way to install a smart city network downtown. [Photo:Getty Images/Kansas City Star]


The next stage of smart city technology may start with finding a parking space.


Kansas City, Missouri, unveiled the latest update to its nascent Smart City Initiative, a new public data portal that lets anybody view traffic data and find open parking spots along the city's downtown streetcar line. The simplistic graphics and capabilities of this new public dashboard certainly haven’t been lifted from some fantastical, Jetson’s-esque future. But this new open data platform signifies a step forward for municipal data collection, and blocky display aside, may offer a road map for cities looking to reap the rewards of data-informed decision-making.


"This is the first of its kind system in the country, perhaps the world," says Bob Bennett, Kansas City's Chief Innovation Officer, who had been a leader in the city's effort to create a smart corridor downtown. "It's a platform that's now open to the public, as well as citizen entrepreneurs."


A 2.2-mile smart district that runs along the city's streetcar line, this digitally enabled downtown neighborhood offers a sneak peek at how administrators across the country may begin to conceive of and construct next-generation infrastructure. Along with 25 digital kiosks that offer public web access, curated local content, and a public Wi-Fi network, a set of LED streetlights and sensors monitor human and vehicular traffic as well as demographic data, providing information Bennett and his colleagues are beginning to incorporate into city operations.


Finding a parking spot is nice, but not life-changing. But with the tech backbone KC has installed downtown, a whole host of more efficient, cost-savings services are possible.


"I can look at the city much more holistically now," says Bennett. "We're getting closer to seeing the entire data set of the city, not just what people submit. It's been a game changer."


The Smart City Open Access dashboards lets residents see traffic patterns along the city's streetcar line. [Photo:curbed.com]

Digging into the data


KC's smart district began to take shape in 2013, when the city started formulating plans to install a $100 million streetcar line. Cisco, the IT and networking giant, approached the city in 2014 to see if they could team up and include smart city technology in whatever renovations and redevelopments accompany the new downtown transit system. KC agreed, and over the next few years, a $15.7 million system of sensors and information kiosks, funded by a public-private partnership between Cisco, Sprint, and the city, was designed and deployed on Main Street along the streetcar line. Kansas City had entered the Department of Transportation’s Smart Cities challenge with hopes to create a larger smart city network, and while it lost out to Columbus, Ohio, many of the ideas from the competition have lived on in this new effort.


The network collects data from video cameras mounted within smart streetlights, which tally car and pedestrian traffic, as well as the information kiosk and Wi-Fi access points, which compile web search data and population flow (all video data is processed and overwritten to avoid fears of surveillance, and web activity is anonymized, to protect privacy).


Right now, data collection and analysis mainly focuses on traffic patterns. Users can check in and see which spots along the streetcar line are open, see intersections with heavy traffic or gridlock, and even lock back over a 24-hour period to view the peaks and valleys of traffic throughout the corridor. With an accompanying app, driver can pull out their phone, plan ahead and find a spot without spending extra time circling downtown.


It's a useful tool, but developers are already looking beyond real-time data (and while there are apps that provide traffic and parking data, making data collection and sharing public has big advantages). According to Chris Crosby, CEO of XAQT, the data analytics firm that designed the Smart City Dashboard and helps analyze data for Cisco and Kansas City, the next step is predictive analytics. Can you help drivers figure out the best time to leave home and where to park? How can the sensor network be expanded to provide even more useful data, and how can they help plan better urban transportation networks?



The dashboard allows users to scout out open parking spots downtown in real-time.[Photo:curbed.com]


Bennett is already trying to figure out how to create a larger network effects and streamline city services. He wants to include sensor installation in all future public works projects; as long as they’re tearing up and redoing the streets, might as well make them more useful. Soon, the video sensors will start measuring bicycle traffic, in part to help inform the expansion of the city's bikeshare system.


The next planned expansion will be in a residential area along Prospect Avenue in an underserved part of the city, where KC public transit will start operating a bus rapid transit line. This way, Bennett will not only have comparative data on different transportation systems, but city officials will be able to measure the value of providing free residential Wi-Fi to an entire neighborhood. As the system continues to expand, Bennett anticipates more than 180,000 residents will gain public Wi-Fi access over the next 18 months.


Building the network effect


Eventually, as the sensor system grows, city services will become smarter. Bennett has already set up information dashboards for city officials to provide customized reports drawn from the thousands of data sets the city collects on an annual basis without sensors. As more of the city’s data feed becomes real-time, the entire concept of city services changes: sensors can alert a garbage to truck alter its route to pick up trash at venues such as the Sprint Center arena, saving time and money on fuel costs. Algorithms will become some of the city's most valuable resources, creating a multiplier effect for the municipal workforce. Connectivity is a utility, Bennett has said; now, it can also drive efficiency.


The network effect created by the system will extend far beyond city hall. Since the network is built on an open platform accessible by outside programmers and developers, smart city investment gives the city's tech scene a big boost. According to Aaron Deacon, managing director of KC Digital Drive, a local non-profit supporting the tech sector, many firms and startups are responding to the opportunities this investment provides.


"We now have the chance to experiment with new technology and infrastructure," he says. "There are a lot of emerging IoT opportunities around city deployments and data. The city and the academic community are both looking at new ways to use the data, and everyone is looking how to get engaged with all the new opportunities presented by real-time data."


Eventually, Bennett believes smarter cities can help tackle more entrenched issues. Can you use real-time info and sociological data, such as unemployment rates and reading scores, to do predictive policing? Does a rise in temperature presage increased street traffic and crime, and require additional patrols? City administrators also recognizes the myriad privacy issues that come with this kind of technology, and have already introduced a policy to govern data usage.


Perhaps the most important network effect of these kinds of initiatives is that there's no telling what connections may come to light from collecting more data; new intersections and opportunities may spring from unexpected places.


"This isn't an IT job," Bennett says. "I'm not a data analyst, or a transportation or infrastructure specialist. What I do for a living is get people from disparate backgrounds together to see if there is a shared struggle or an opportunity for collaboration."