Montreal sees its future in smart sensors, artificial intelligence (with video)

Partnerships with a vibrant startup community help Montreal retain its top “intelligent” ranking.

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Doug Duvall

The Quebecois city of Montreal has long been known as a hotbed of creativity -- home of Cirque du Soleil and a hub for companies in the online gaming and special effects industries, not to mention its place as a financial and trade capital.

Creativity played a key role when the city of 2 million (with 4 million regionally) competed against other municipalities globally to win the 2016 title of Intelligent Community of the Year.

And now that commitment to creativity is spurring the city to explore a range of unique new smartphone apps and other startup-generated initiatives that leverage sensors, data collection and analysis, and machine learning to deal with snow removal, ever-increasing traffic and other municipal challenges.

Public Wi-Fi, smart mobility and digital public services are just some of the 70 municipal projects detailed in the city's Smart and Digital City Action Plan, begun in 2015. More than half of the projects are expected to be finished by 2018, though some will take longer.

"Montreal is known as the place 'where Shakespeare meets Moliere.' It's a creativity hub," says Harout Chitilian, the elected official in charge of the city's smart city initiatives and technology. "All these things meshing together make Montreal one of the greatest startup digital ecosystems."

By intent, the government has made that startup ecosystem a key compontent of its smart city push, says Chitilian, who serves as vice president of the city's executive committee, the executive branch of the municipal government that includes Mayor Denis Coderre.

Of the dozens of initiatives currently underway in Montreal, several involve partnerships with the private sector in which the city, Quebec Province and businesses share costs. Those projects range from a high-speed, fiber-optic Scientific Information Network to eight different smart mobility and parking projects.

The principal driver of this partnership is InnoCité MTL, an independent, non-profit tech accelerator that receives both city and business financial support. Housed in the historic Notman House in downtown Montreal, InnoCité MTL has already fostered more than 15 startups in just over a year.

Notman House was alive with activity when Computerworld visited during a cold snap in mid-December, 2016 as part of a three-day tour of this smart city. Here's what we found.

A focus on artificial intelligence

The city government, along with the Province of Quebec and members of the academic community, have put special focus on artificial intelligence. Those efforts meld well with private sector startups that likewise are tapping the power of AI.

One such startup is Infra.AI, which intends to use machine learning and artificial intelligence to scan high resolution images of the city's streets and buildings. "The benefits of AI are numerous," says co-founder François Maillet. "The fact that Montreal is serious about smart city and investing in it, there's a direct and positive impact in the startup community and the R&D. For the city itself, it provides better services to the citizens."

Infra.AI_lidar.jpg Infra.AI

LIDAR images can help municipalities like Montreal monitor city infrastructure to identify such changes in status as detoriating bridges, broken windows or building code violations. 

With digital image information from satellites, low-flying planes and LIDAR-equipped city vehicles, technology under development at Infra.AI will make it possible for Montreal and other cities to provide almost-real-time data on street conditions or the safety of roads and bridges.

That data can be combined with information from traffic video sensors and sensors on buildings, says Maillet, who also co-founded a related startup, MLDB.AI, that is working on a machine-learning database.

The potential applications are far-ranging. A firetruck speeding to a fire might be automatically advised that there's an obstruction in the roadway, allowing it to take another pathway. Or a pothole larger than a foot could be spotted, automatically dispatching a road crew to patch it.  AI can even help identify a sagging highway bridge span, noticing a small drop when compared with the previous scans from days or weeks earlier. 

infraai pattern recognition Infra.AI

Montreal-based Infra.AI is employing pattern recognition intelligence to distinguish a group of pedestrians from vehicles. The software could be used to identify problem locations and develop systems for improved pedestrian safety.

Infra.AI is currently piloting a program that helps identify ailing trees on city streets, a problem plaguing Montreal right now. When the startup's AI system is shown images of healthy trees, it can compare those with recent imagery to identify less-healthy trees with patches and browning leaves that need to be maintained or replaced. 

"When you think of the kind of data [already] coming in from LIDAR and cameras, it's huge. The applications are now becoming possible with AI," says Jean-François Gagné, CEO of Element AI, a Montreal-based incubator dedicated to matching AI startups with larger companies and with government agencies.

Through its Canada First Research Excellence Fund, the Canadian government last year provided about $200 (US) million to three Montreal-based universities for research that Gagné believes will yield sophisticated AI spinoff companies in 2017.

In addtion, both Google and Microsoft have recently made investments in Montreal-based AI.

Mobility apps hit the streets

On a more personal level, another InnoCité MTL startup, Key2Access, is getting ready to test an app to make it safer for disabled people to cross city streets, according to CEO Sophie Aladas. Key2Access's tech is already being piloted in Ottawa, and has been successfully tested there by Richard Marsolais, a man with a vision impairment who is a specialist in independent living for the Canadian National Institute for the Blind

Marsolais and his guide dog, Ashland, along with Motaz Aladas, head engineer for Key2Access (and CEO Sophie's father), demonstrated for Computerworld at a Montreal intersection how a small handheld device or a smartphone could be used to activate a Bluetooth-enabled crosswalk signal, making it safe for a vision-impaired or disabled person to cross. (See Smart Cities: Montreal for video footage of that demonstration.)

Marsolais says it would be helpful to have a handheld activation device to change the signal, instead of relying only on his guide dog or an audible crossing signal, which isn't always easy to hear. In addition, it isn't always clear in which direction it's safe to cross; Key2Access aims to solve that problem by using audible commands or vibrations to direct the user onto the crosswalk in the proper direction.

For Key2Access to function, traffic engineers in Montreal will need to install a receiver at each intersection to receive the wireless signal from the handheld device, Aladas says. The cost will be comparable to enabling a traditional crosswalk button on a pole, Sophie Aladas says. The city is expected to install the gear on at least one intersection in the spring as part of the testing phase.

Taming the traffic tiger

A number of initiatives are in the works to help reduce traffic in Montreal in the next two years, including a tripling of the number of intelligent traffic signals to reach 2,200 units.

Data from the 700 existing smart signals installed over the last two years and from 500 surveillance cameras and Bluetooth sensors already helps prioritize buses traveling the streets to lessen commute times by 15% to 20%, the city's Chitilian says, with more improvements expected. Montreal is also in partnership with Waze, Google's crowdsourcing traffic app, to help syphon off driver data for greater intelligence.

"We know for a fact that adding preferential lights and dedicated bus lanes increases the speed of going from point A to B and makes the service much more efficient. You can have the same amount of buses and workable hours with better service," Chitilian says. 

Sensor data from traffic signals is already being sent to a recently created central command post -- a "decision center," Chitilian calls it -- where technicians pore over dozens of desktop monitors and large wall displays. "The center gives us the ability to have an overall view" of the city, helping if there is an accident or other public safety need, he says.

Montreal also has designated $76 million US to replace 100,000 streetlights in the next five years with more efficient LED lighting that will be equipped with sensor and communications technology to expand the city's ability to manage congestion, pedestrian crowds, accidents and more, according to Chitilian.

Future-forward city planning

With its combination of AI-focused startup innovation, sensor-driven traffic-improvement initiatives and data-driven apps for citizen empowerment, Montreal seems well on its way to furthering its designation as an intelligent city.

"We are trying to build a smart city from the ground up, and are putting in the pillars to do it," Chitilian says. "As politicians, we have to show immediate results, but some of our decisions will have lasting impact beyond our political mandates," he muses.

"We have to make decisions that will look good down the road," Chitilian says. "What we have in Montreal is more than optimism. It is a generational transformation."

Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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