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Smart Cities and Public Safety: How Smart Data Keeps Us Safe

July 20, 2020
Smart Cities and the Data That Powers Them Blog Graphic

Smart technology helps to automate the processes of and analyze data from sensors and devices to make our lives easier and more efficient. In our smart homes, this tech synchronizes our lights, speakers, smoke alarms, and even security systems with an app on our phones. 

In commercial properties, it automates locks, door controls, lights, and security systems. And in our smart cities, it ties together data from just about every device you can think of to make operations more efficient and improve our quality of life

Smart cities, to that end, connect the components of smart homes, smart security systems, smart buildings, and even connected cars, to help policymakers and administrators make data-driven decisions for emergency planning and management. This data can help cities improve things like:

  • Public Safety
  • Traffic Congestion
  • Pollution
  • Waste management
  • Civic participation

In this article, we’ll cover what smart cities are, how they leverage data to build safer and more efficient communities, and how they’ve made a difference during COVID-19.

What is a smart city?

A smart city is a municipality that collects data from various services through Internet of Things (IoT) enabled sensors to help inform and improve the livelihoods of its inhabitants. In simpler terms, it’s a city that uses big data to make better decisions about public safety, resource management, and city operations. 

Smart city planners typically use data from traffic and transportation systems, power plants and utilities, waste management, and their public safety system to improve the lives of residents. Smart cities are therefore safer and more efficient cities, thanks to big data.

Some examples of modern smart cities include:

  • Pittsburg, PA
  • Denver, CO
  • Chicago, IL
  • Barcelona, ES
  • Amsterdam, NL

Data sharing and interoperability is critical for smart cities to be successful. Within each smart city, public and private sector partners are joining together to help create the necessary infrastructure within their city to make it “smart.” Whether that looks like the smart irrigation system at Barcelona’s Parc del Centre del Poblenou, or the predictive analytics Chicago uses to control its rat population, smart city infrastructure can take on a variety of different forms.

What makes these cities smart is that data from each individual system is shared with decision makers across the board. Most smart cities are decentralized, meaning there aren’t central planners collecting all the data and making all of the decisions for the entire municipality.

Having access to the same sets of real-time data means independent decision makers can operate with the same sets of facts. This kind of interoperability allows for vertical integration between every facet of a city: from the landscapers and sanitation workers all the way up to the city council.

How do smart cities improve public safety?

In the traditional sense, public safety is how governments (or polities if you want to get really technical) protect their citizens from threats internally and externally. That covers just about everything from crime and fires to invasions and disease. In the US, public safety revolves around the interplay of first responders addressing emergencies as they arise, and government officials planning for larger responses. 

Public safety coalesces around the 911 system, through which citizens can get help in emergencies, report civic concerns like downed power lines or missing persons, and get direct access to their public servants. However, the 911 infrastructure requires a lot of planning, letters, phone calls, and coordination. Smart city infrastructure streamlines these processes, allowing every aspect of the public safety system to access real-time data, especially in emergencies

Going a level deeper, smart cities can leverage data from smart security systems, smart street lights, and even telematics for faster response times and improved crime deterrence. Public safety officials can access camera feeds through apps like Ring’s Neighbors, or through direct data links to security platforms for incident-specific footage. In addition, shooter detection systems like ZeroEyes can improve situational awareness and assist in response to active shooter incidents.

Text-to-911, direct data links to 911, and citizen engagement apps are some of the ways in which smart cities are enabling citizens to access help faster, while helping first responders react more efficiently. In addition, these programs allow for all the different moving parts that contribute to public safety to collaborate with one another.

Smart cities and COVID-19

During the COVID-19 pandemic, New York City, at one point the global epicenter of the virus, made their COVID data open source so anyone could interpret or analyze them. This resulted in the creation of several open source dashboards and reports for everyday people to unravel the impact of the virus by zipcode, borough, age, sex, and more. This data is used to help private citizens and businesses make informed decisions, in addition to helping city officials combat the virus.

Data sharing programs like these are helping cities and states expand their contact tracing capacity, through mobile apps, bluetooth notifications, and more. Although some public health officials are skeptical of tech-driven contact tracing programs, giving individuals additional information via bluetooth warnings can help reinforce public health protocols and advice for containing the virus. 

Another aspect of smart cities that COVID-19 will undoubtedly impact is transportation. New York City is a prime example: they’ve been repurposing street parking in Manhattan for outdoor dining spaces, which many celebrate as a move towards a car-free city. Many other cities used the lockdowns as an opportunity to evaluate and test new smart traffic lights and patterns to help reduce congestion, which will be crucial when cities officially reopen. Reducing congestion reduces pollution and accidents while improving public health.

Smart city technology, especially in light of the pandemic, can help materially improve the public safety and living conditions for millions of people. When the world returns to normal, these systems will help share the latest guidelines, reduce crowding, and above all else, keep people safe. Smart cities are no longer just a far off dream for the future: the infrastructure is being built today with every addition of smart technology.

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