Is San Diego The First 21st Century American City?
The evolution of the smart city, one app at a time
What’s the difference between a smartphone and a smart city? Not much beyond sheer size. They’re both platforms with sensors that collect large amounts of data — and make that data available to a broad community of developers.
Think of the App Store. Apple puts all iPhone sensor-data APIs on an open platform that’s accessible to the app-development community. A similar opportunity exists now for cities. “The IoT movement is giving cities vast sensor datasets,” says Austin Ashe, general manager at Current, a GE startup dedicated to making cities more intelligent. “If cities make that data available, developers can build thousands of smart city apps that will improve livability and workability. The idea is that everyone has access to the data that a city collects and everyone works together to benefit the entire community.”
Smart Cities 2.0
The smart city is not a new concept. It began, unofficially, back in 2005, when the Clinton Foundation challenged network equipment maker Cisco to make cities more workable, livable and sustainable.
Since then, the smart cities movement has mostly focused on the basics, deploying technology to incrementally improve services like garbage collection and traffic management. It was an effort for city hall to optimize its offerings for citizens. Not as exciting as a new iPhone, perhaps, but measurable improvements for many people.
“Now we’re seeing a shift in what a smart city is,” Ashe says. “We call it ‘Smart Cities 2.0’. At its heart is crowdsourcing — getting the broader community involved and changing the entire citizen-engagement model to the point where cities work hand in hand with citizens and together they make a smart city.”
San Diego is America’s leading example. In March it launched Smart City San Diego, a public-private collaboration that includes the City of San Diego, San Diego Gas & Electric, the University of California, San Diego, CleanTech San Diego and GE to improve the region’s energy independence, encourage residents to use electric vehicles, reduce CO2 emissions and boost economic growth.
As part of the initiative, San Diego launched an open data platform where residents can find data about city operations, including public safety, street repairs, public facilities, code enforcement and business licensing. The platform features open APIs for accessing and using the data.
When this data is made available to developers, they can create apps that perform all sorts of helpful services, like directing drivers to open parking spaces or helping first responders navigate to an emergency. For instance, New York City, which also has an open data platform, has an app that provides detailed information, grades, violations, and Yelp reviews for the 24,000-plus food locations throughout the five boroughs.
Additionally, San Diego recently began deployment of the world’s largest smart-city IoT sensor platform, in partnership with AT&T and GE Current. One of the first steps is the conversion of 14,000 city streetlights to efficient Evolve LED luminaries from Current.
At the same time, the city will install 3,200 GE Current CityIQ sensors that will collect data on everything from open parking spaces to air quality to the traffic flow of vehicles and pedestrians.
Streetlights may seem mundane, but Ashe calls them “some of the most valuable real estate in the city.” They already have a power source. They’re 30 feet in the air, a perfect elevation for data gathering. And they’re everywhere. When they start collecting data and that data is opened up to developers, the sky’s the limit.
“It’s the App Store that unlocked the potential of the iPhone,” Ashe notes. “There are millions of apps today. That exact same dynamic can happen with smart city applications. Anyone can build smart city apps for things like gunshot detection that pinpoints an active shooter and takes videos of the shooter. Or an app that helps food truck drivers see in real-time where there are available parking spaces as well as people walking around, so owners know where to drive their trucks.”
Sensors have long been the more challenging end of the smart city equation. Other cities with open data platforms include Los Angeles, San Jose, New York, Edmonton and Vancouver; yet, these cities have only connected a few systems and their few sensors. Getting sensors deployed is the major hurdle. Ultimately, many cities are needed more scalable sensor platforms and are looking for opportunities to leverage their open data portals.
An App Building Movement for Cities
Of course, the prerequisite to all of it is an open IoT platform and accessible APIs. These serve as portals to the real-time sensor data that cities must offer to developers so that developers can create the apps that enable cities to be truly smart.
Cities now have the capacity to put the power of the data they collect into the hands of the community — especially the developer community — to let developers build the applications they’d like to see in their own lives. The sum of these applications then provides the fabric for the smart city of tomorrow. As more data comes onto the platform, more opportunities to learn and live better emerge.
There are currently over 21 million software developers worldwide and their number is growing. These developers have already shown what can be done with a smartphone when its accumulated data is made available. GE’s ecosystem of application partners varies from large to small businesses, startups, incubators, universities and hobbyists, with “premium” partner developers including the likes of Genetec, Inrix, CivicSmart, ShotSpotter, Breezometer, Scepter Air and Parkodedia. Partners can ingest the sensor data to improve their existing application functionality, and increase the use cases it solves. New developers can also use the data to build apps they think can have an impact on the city (such as apps to find a quiet walk to work , or anything they think could have an impact on themselves and their community.
Though some of the public worry about privacy issues, but Ashe suggests a bigger picture way of thinking. “Big Brother always seems to come up with these types of applications, but I think we have to take a leap of faith and recognize that the generations coming actually want to be connected to everything, from their phones, to their cars, to the buildings they walk into,” he says. “So why not be connected to the streets they travel to make them safer and make life more convenient? The key is making sure the metadata cities collect remains anonymized.”
Cities should prioritize spreading the word to the community of developers, students, entrepreneurs and startups that city data is open for business, he says. The rest should flow naturally. Software development is one of the fastest-growing industries in the world. Of those 21 million developers globally, around 8 million consider themselves hobbyists. They’re developing apps outside their day jobs and, when they do this, many of them are creating apps that they’d like to use to make their own urban lives easier.
“I think we have to take a leap of faith and recognize that the generations coming actually want to be connected to everything, from their phones, to their cars, to the buildings they walk into…” —Austin Ashe
“Developers do what they love,” Ashe says. “They’re high energy and hyper-creative. And the array of topics that can be addressed by the new apps they develop is limited only by the imagination of developers themselves.”
The same can be said for smart cities. They’re limited only by the degree to which they open their minds — and their data. “In the future, everyone will have a smart city app they use to make their lives more livable and workable,” Ashe says. “There are 400 million street lights in the world, and when they all start getting connected with sensors, the world will finally be one community that works together, solves problems together, and grows together.”
Apps built in San Francisco will be used in Africa. A developer in Mexico will build an app that is used in Singapore. City officials will have the ability to scale their services as population continues to grow. It will no longer be about smart cities, it will be about a smart world.
Change is the only constant, so individuals, institutions, and businesses must be Built to Adapt. At Pivotal, we believe change should be expected, embraced and incorporated continuously through development and innovation, because good software is never finished.
Is San Diego the First 21st Century American City? was originally published in Built to Adapt on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.