New York gets smarter, one tech trial at a time (with video)

Wi-Fi kiosks, smart park benches and sensors that detect gunshots are just a few of the technologies the Big Apple has on tap.

Smart city technology beta projects and pilot programs are gaining ground in New York City. Walk around the Big Apple, as Computerworld did recently, and you encounter everything from free public Wi-Fi to smart park benches and even sophisticated listening devices that can detect gunshots to allow a quick police response.

Much of this wide-ranging tech focus goes back to 2014 when Mayor Bill de Blasio appointed the city's first Chief Technology Officer. He picked private sector tech veteran Minerva Tantoco for the role. During her tenure, she made a practice of pushing for small tech trials that could be modified and adjusted before being expanded.

"Taking a page from the CTO playbook is the concept of using pilots and prototypes," Tantoco said in a video interview with Computerworld recorded at City Hall in June of 2016. "The way you do that is create small tests of tech before you take them citywide. That actually has the effect of 'de-risking' the project on a wide scale," she said. "It's a fairly common tech approach, but not so common in government. So this is where some my private sector experience is being brought to the public sector role."

nyc cto miguel gamino jr courtesy photo

New York CTO Miquel Gamiño Jr. 

Tantoco served nearly two years in her city CTO post before departing Aug. 31, 2016 to return to the private sector as senior advisor of Future\Perfect Ventures, a woman-run tech venture capital firm. On Oct. 25, De Blasio named her replacement, Miguel Gamiño Jr., a former CIO for both San Francisco and El Paso, Texas, and co-founder of the Council of Global City CIOs

As CTO, Gamiño works with all city agencies to further New York's smart city and internet of things initiatives and has taken the lead on city's broadband program, which was previously led by the counsel to the mayor.

To find out more about New York's smart city prowess, Computerworld strolled the sidewalks of Manhattan over two days. Here's what we found.

Free Wi-Fi on city streets

One of the most ambitious tech projects underway in New York, LinkNYC is intended to replace the city's 7,500 eyesore pay phones on city sidewalks with permanent Link kiosks. The kiosks, slated to be installed in all five city boroughs over eight years, provide fast, free Wi-Fi, device charging and a tablet computer for accessing city services, maps and directions. Free public internet calls are also possible from the units, and there's also a red 911 button that can be pushed to call emergency services.

linknyc NYC Mayor's Office

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio tried out a LinkNYC Wi-Fi kiosk soon after test units were rolled out.

A team of city leaders helped shape the project in 2015, which is now under franchise by a consortium called CityBridge that includes telecommunications heavyweight Qualcomm, among others. CityBridge won a 12-year franchise from the city to build the kiosks on the footprint of thousands of former phone booths. The organization is investing more than $200 million to install fiber optic cable for the kiosks, which are funded by revenue from advertising -- large, full-color displays on the sides of the kiosks.

Among a number of challenges identified by the New York Times and others, some critics have questioned the privacy of personal data of users of the machines. There is a guarantee to users that any personal identifiable data they enter into the tablet will be encrypted and that user data won't be sold to third parties. (LinkNYC does collect some user data to monitor how well the system is working and determine how many people are using it, primarily to be able to sell ads.)

More than 450 kiosks were installed by Dec. 1, 2016 in Manhattan, Queens and the Bronx. The project rollout fell behind a midsummer goal of 500 kiosk installations, partly because access was hindered to manholes and other under-street locations for fiber optic cable, according to a LinkNYC spokeswoman.

However, the total goal of more than 7,000 kiosks is still envisioned, and the beta project is moving ahead. LinkNYC says its core mission is to provide free phone calls and free, fast Wi-Fi, adding that a team is investigating adding new features such as a direct portal to a voter registration form.

City leaders from around the world are watching how LinkNYC unfolds. That's because free public Wi-Fi has a spotty record -- at least in some large cities. Barcelona promotes its free Wi-Fi at beaches and other gathering spots, but maintaining outdoor equipment and keeping speeds fast enough for users has clearly been a challenge. Seattle and Mountain View, Calif., offered free Wi-Fi as early as 2005, then backed off due to high costs or limited wireless capacity. 

Smart park benches

One of the more charming uses of smart tech in New York is being tested with several park benches installed in High Bridge Park at 175th and Amsterdam in Manhattan. The solar-powered benches, designed by Soofa, a startup with connections to the MIT Media Lab, allow park visitors to charge a smartphone or other device while resting, socializing or sunbathing.

soofa smart city bench Changing Environments Inc.

The Soofa smart park bench.

The smart benches also allow park officials to count Wi-Fi-enabled devices as they pass by, which allows them to estimate foot traffic and in turn determine if more security or trash removal might be needed in an area of a park.

Assuaging citizen concerns, the Soofa pilot incorporates a set of internet of things guidelines created by the city which govern privacy and security concerns for new devices.

Faster bus rides

Meanwhile, for frantic commuters, New York is testing smart bus technology to speed up their rides. The Traffic Signal Priority project, along a bus line in busy lower Manhattan, allows buses equipped with GPS to connect into the existing traffic signal control network. When a bus is stopped for a red light, for example, the system can shorten the amount of time the light is red to allow the bus to move ahead, or the system can extend the green time for an approaching bus.

The technology, first piloted in 2012, appears to be taking hold. Results from 2016 showed a savings in bus commute time of up to 20%, and as of January 2017, the city has four bus corridors equipped with the prioritization technology, according to a New York City Department of Transportation spokeswoman. An additional three corridors are under study, and six more are being considered for future operations, she adds.

The system also could help reduce the number of single-occupant vehicles on the city's congested streets, according to Doug Newcomb, an analyst and president of C3 Group. Since New York has more than 5,700 buses operating 2,800 miles of routes used for 2.5 million bus rides every day, a 20% savings over an expanded base of riders could make a significant dent in congestion.

What's more, in perhaps a decade, many cities like New York could be deploying high-occupancy driverless buses along those same routes, further reducing congestion, Newcomb says.

Identifying individual gunshots

One of New York's more unusual and recent tech projects is designed to help fight crime. ShotSpotter relies on sophisticated rooftop listening sensors and software to identify the acoustic fingerprint of gunfire. (A 2015 city document, Building a Smart + Equitable City, describes the project on page 18.)

Three sensors are used to triangulate a gunshot sound and report the location of the gunshot, within 27 yards, to the nearest police precinct in about one minute. (For more on how the technology works, see Cool cop tech: 5 new technologies helping police fight crime.)

After a year-long test over 15 square miles in the Bronx and Brooklyn, police found that 73% of the shots detected by ShotSpotter had not been reported by citizens, sometimes, perhaps, because they didn't recognize the noise as a gunshot. Police found the initial test effective in helping them respond to crimes faster; the technology has been expanded to 24 square miles, including in upper Manhattan.

What the future holds . . .

New York City has many other smart initiatives in the test phase -- including technologies to more efficiently use water, dispose of trash, protect the air and make it easier to find and use city services.

For now, city officials only laugh when asked whether New York will allow flying, driverless cars over Manhattan skyscrapers. But stay tuned: At the rate at which New York is adopting smart city technology, flying cars might yet be on the docket and in the air.


Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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