Smart cities are here today -- and getting smarter

Big Data, mobile, sensors, social media are already in use, but security and privacy are issues.

City of Atlanta 158714591

Smart cities aren't a science fiction, far-off-in-the-future concept. They're here today, with municipal governments already using technologies that include wireless networks, big data/analytics, mobile applications, Web portals, social media, sensors/tracking products and other tools.

These smart city efforts have lofty goals: Enhancing the quality of life for citizens, improving government processes and reducing energy consumption, among others. Indeed, cities are already seeing some tangible benefits.

But creating a smart city comes with daunting challenges, including the need to provide effective data security and privacy, and to ensure that myriad departments work in harmony.

What makes a city smart? As with any buzz term, the definition varies. But in general, it refers to using information and communications technologies to deliver sustainable economic development and a higher quality of life, while engaging citizens and effectively managing natural resources.

Making cities smarter will become increasingly important. For the first time ever, the majority of the world's population resides in a city, and this proportion continues to grow, according to the World Health Organization, the coordinating authority for health within the United Nations.

A hundred years ago, two out of every 10 people lived in an urban area, the organization says. As recently as 1990, less than 40% of the global population lived in a city -- but by 2010 more than half of all people lived in an urban area. By 2050, the proportion of city dwellers is expected to rise to 70%.

As many city populations continue to grow, here's what five U.S. cities are doing to help manage it all:

Scottsdale, Ariz.

The city of Scottsdale, Ariz., has several initiatives underway.

One is MyScottsdale, a mobile application the city deployed in the summer of 2013 that allows citizens to report cracked sidewalks, broken street lights and traffic lights, road and sewer issues, graffiti and other problems in the community.

MyScottsdale app
MyScottsdale allows citizens to report graffiti, cracked sidewalks, broken street lights and traffic lights, road and sewer issues and other problems in the community.

Developed by App-Order, a company that specializes in applications for municipalities, MyScottsdale runs on Android and iOS devices and allows users to choose from a list of problem categories and make a report. Citizens can take pictures of a subject, such as a flooded street, add a description and then email the report into a call center that then routes it to the appropriate department.

In addition to citizens, other users of MyScottsdale include city crews working in the field, such as firefighters, police and transportation workers, who use the app to help identify and quickly resolve problems such as safety hazards. City workers can send and receive information on their devices using a secure wireless network that covers the entire city.

"The world is becoming much more mobile; so many people have smartphones, and we're trying to capitalize on that to enhance services for citizens," says Brad Hartig, CIO of Scottsdale. Through the app, the city has received dozens of reports of problems including graffiti, city code and zoning issues, street and alley concerns, and traffic signs and signals.

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