Smart cities are here today -- and getting smarter

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

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In December, the Boston Transportation Department launched an initiative designed to proactively improve traffic flow in the city's so-called Innovation District. The program includes the use of electronic Time to Destination message signs provided by All Traffic Solutions, which will access the vendor's cloud-based application called DriveTimes. The signs will provide drivers with accurate, constantly updated travel times to key destinations across multiple routes.

The DriveTimes application integrates specialized traffic data from TomTom, a provider of traffic information and navigation technology, and allows transportation officials to quickly configure the signs and easily modify them if necessary.

The signs will initially be placed at key intersections in the city, where drivers have a choice between multiple routes to get to the same destination. "We're just now refining the exact locations and messages" for the signs, says Chris Osgood, co-chairman of the Mayor's Office of New Urban Mechanics.

The goals are to reduce traffic snarls and help get travelers to their destinations faster; the city will monitor the impact the signage has on those goals through driver surveys, Osgood says.

Boston smart parking
Boston's Parker mobile app gives commuters up-to-the-minute information about available, on-street parking spaces.

Also part of the Innovation District traffic management initiative is the installation of 330 Smart Parking sensors in the neighborhood. The sensors work with Streetline's free Parker mobile app to provide drivers with real-time data about available on-street parking spaces. The city expects the sensors to reduce traffic congestion caused by drivers circling around looking for open parking spots.

Another effort involving technology to enhance quality of life in Boston is Street Bump, a program started in 2012 and aimed at helping residents improve neighborhood streets. As users drive, a mobile application running on a smartphone collects data about the smoothness of the ride, and that data provides the city with real-time information that it uses to fix problems and plan long-term investments in road construction.

Drivers use Street Bump to record "bumps" that are identified and located via the app and its built-in GPS. Data is uploaded to a server for analysis, and likely road problems are submitted to the city so they get fixed or classified as known obstacles. Its biggest impact has been identifying the fact that the biggest bumps in the city roads are caused by sunken manhole covers, Osgood says. "Through Street Bump and in collaboration with utility companies, we've fixed [more than] 1,250 of these cases," he says.

The Mayor's Office of New Urban Mechanics designed and developed the app in partnership with software provider Connected Bits and crowdsourcing venture InnoCentive. The app is free to download on iTunes.

Meeting challenges and facing the future

Building smart cities comes with potential challenges, not the least of which is ensuring information security.

"Networks are believed to be one of the least secure parts of the nation -- often built with underfunded budgets by local contractors who have relationships with city officials but little experience with government-level security," says Rob Enderle, principal analyst with Enderle Group. Nor are network attacks always reported, he says.

"This means that one of the first things that needs doing is hardening the network," Enderle says. Otherwise cities risk having "a disaster that will make their smarter effort look pretty stupid in hindsight."

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