Tag Archives: Digital cities

The Democratization of Data

Map showing green coverage in Tysons. Image credit: UVa Today.

Map showing density of green coverage in Tysons. Image credit: UVa Today.

Andrew Mondschein, an assistant professor at the University of Virginia School of Architecture, is studying how the redevelopment of Tysons affects the pedestrian experience. The first step is collecting data. Accordingly, he is dispatching students equipped with sensors, wearable cameras and smartphone apps to monitor temperature, light levels, green cover, noise pollution and carbon monoxide emissions in ever nook and cranny of the what he calls the “archetypal American edge city.”

The goal of Fairfax County planners is to transform the autocentric mix of offices, shopping malls and plate-of-spaghetti road network from the epitome of suburban sprawl into a smart-growth poster of mixed-use development and pedestrian-friendly streets.

tysons_illumination

Map showing intensity of illumination.

“Tysons Corner is on the forefront of transforming suburban places into more urban places and all that entails,” says Mondscheinin an article published in UVa Today. “For city and urban planners, it is exciting, because if we densify suburbs we could reduce driving and emissions, provide more housing and make transit, walking and biking easier and more pleasant – hopefully improving public and environmental health. The Tysons Corner project embodies all of these wonderful goals.”

The data collected by students will provide on-the-ground measures of the pedestrian experience as Tysons evolves.

Map showing temperature variations in Tysons.

Map showing temperature variations in Tysons.

Mondschein says other communities can do the same thing. “With devices like these, communities could self-organize and self-initiate studies that can show what they need in an objective manner, with hard data. That can be arguably more persuasive when speaking to policymakers, fundraisers and politicians.”

(Hat tip: John Blair)

— JAB

The Next Wave of Energy Conservation: Collaborative Business Districts

open_iot

Click for more legible image. Graphic credit: Tridium

by James A. Bacon

As the Obama administration presses forward with its campaign to restructure the U.S. electric industry to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and its friends in the environmental movement have touted the potential for energy conservation to ease the transition to a clean energy economy. One key premise of the EPA’s Clean Power Plan EPA plan is that it should be possible to cut energy demand by 1.5% annually over the next 15 years from what it otherwise would be. The EPA is short on specifics, however. It’s not clear exactly where those energy savings would come from.

As it happens, there is tremendous potential to conserve energy — way beyond weatherizing old houses and installing Energy Star appliances. An entire industry, the building automation industry, has arisen around the opportunity to squeeze energy savings out of office, retail and industrial buildings. Although there are many other applications for building automation, the most tangible Return on Investment comes from reducing electricity consumption from HVAC, lighting, computers and industrial processes.

The industry is charging full-steam ahead with no special incentives from government. Property owners find that installing building automation systems is a competitive use of capital that lowers operating costs. Even more encouraging, the industry could be just scratching the surface of potential savings. Energy conservation could move to a new, higher plateau if property owners began collaborating.

Wayne C. Tighe, vice president of sales for Tridium Inc., a company for which I have done some free-lance work, has written an important paper for ei, a magazine of the National Electrical Manufacturers Association. The next step, he says, is for the industry to move from creating open building systems. in which different devices within a building talk to one another, to open city systems, in which different buildings and municipal infrastructure systems talk to one another.

Tridium provides an open platform, Niagara, that connects dozens of different types of sensors and devices inside buildings. “But we see no logical reason,” writes Tighe, “why connectivity should end at the property line. Our goal is to integrate buildings with each other and with municipal systems.” He continues:

Building automation systems optimize energy consumption of HVAC, lighting, elevators, servers and computers, and other electricity-consuming devices inside buildings and building complexes. But commercial buildings plug into electric grids. Smart grid technologies enable power companies to become defter at managing electric loads. Utilities are experimenting with time-of-day pricing, load shedding, and other strategies to reduce peak electric loads.

The more data that power companies and commercial buildings can share, the more power companies can curtail capital expenditures that get passed on to ratepayers. Sharing energy consumption data also opens the potential for businesses to generate and share their own power in eco-districts — installing solar power, perhaps, or generating electric power and utilizing heat waste.

Tighe describes other benefits from what he calls the “open Internet of Things”: water conservation; conservation of outdoor lighting; improved tracking of employees, visitors and their cars; optimization of space dedicated to parking; and transportation demand management.

From a managerial perspective, implementing building automation in individual buildings is simple —  there’s only one property owner to deal with. Creating functional groups out of the businesses, government entities and non-profit groups across an entire business district, with all their conflicting priorities and financial capabilities, is more complicated. But that’s the future of energy conservation.

Tighe’s article highlights Envision Charlotte, the not-for-profit group that has pulled together 61 of the 64 largest buildings in downtown Charlotte, N.C., to promote sustainability as a competitive economic advantage. I don’t see any comparable activity here in the Old Dominion. We’d better get moving soon, or once again we Virginians will find ourselves eating Tarheel dust.

“Hacking for Good” Comes to Virginia

Andrew Hyder with Code for America describes the "hack for good" movement spreading across the U.S.

Andrew Hyder with Code for America describes the “hack for good” movement spreading across the U.S.

by James A. Bacon

Michael Kolbe experienced first-hand the power of data-driven election campaigning while working on the 2012 Obama re-election team. He went on to take a job as a strategy analyst for Health Diagnostic Laboratory in Richmond but didn’t discard his idealism. Hoping to harness the power of data to solve social problems, he joined others to bring the burgeoning civic hacking movement to Richmond last year.

His first “hackathon” fizzled, Kolbe concedes. The goal was to create a “where’s my school bus” app for the City of Richmond schools, adapting open code developed elsewhere. Despite initial enthusiasm, school officials “went radio silent” and Kolbe and his compatriots didn’t have a strong enough team to push the project through. “It just fell apart.”

Learning from that inauspicious beginning, Kolbe tried again. The results of his efforts could be seen Saturday in Code for RVA’s code-a-thon held at INM United’s warehouse-chic office building in Richmond’s Scott’s Addition. This time, more than 60 participants worked on a half-dozen projects to make local government data more accessible and useful to citizens.

This time Kolbe had time to build an organization and line up sponsors and alliances. The Richmond hack-a-thon was held as part of a national CodeAcross event organized in dozens of cities across the United States by San Francisco-based Code for America. Code for America dispatched a team to help organize the Richmond event. Socrata, a Seattle-based open-data company, created a portal to which the Richmond hackers could add their data. Code for RVA also found a local champion for its open-government projects in Andreas Addison, a self-described “civic innovator” for the City of Richmond.

“This meeting wouldn’t have happened two years ago,” said Addison, who has led the effort to bring data analytics to City of Richmond decision making. “Things are changing.”

Even the governor’s office is getting on board. Zaki Barzinji, deputy director for intergovernmental affairs in Governor Terry McAuliffe’s policy shop, said the administration hopes to work with Code for America, Virginia universities, state agencies and local Code for America “brigades” like Code for RVA to organize a statewide conclave with the goal of driving open data and cultural change in state government.

Most of the projects undertaken Saturday were simple, aiming to make existing data more accessible to the public. One team worked on creating RVA Answers, a Web resource providing answers to most frequently asked questions. Another team tackled the goal of making data about city boards & commissions more readily available, including information on how to apply for a position. Yet another group worked on improving the display of city crime data.

The most ambitious project, long in the works, is an initiative to address the spread of STIs (socially transmitted infections), especially among the city’s poor and young. The city has pulled together a multi-disciplinary team to organize and analyze existing data, supplemented by insight gleaned by interviewing poor people and shadowing government health workers. The mission is to encourage people to get tested for STIs and to direct them to locations in their neighborhoods where they can do it.

This initiative will not likely wither on the vine — Danny Avula, deputy director of the city health department, is pushing the project forward. “A lot of people in government don’t get it,” Avula said, speaking of the use of data analytics. “But there are advocates now.”

Open data sounds great in the abstract, but civic hackers often face indifference or resistance. When the McAuliffe administration launched its open data portal last year, said Barzinji, it encountered a tendency among state agencies to keep their data to themselves.  The administration started small, asking each agency to share at least one data set. Once the value of public data can be demonstrated, he said, he expects the agencies to loosen up.

Never under-estimate the role of simple bureaucratic inertia. Mike Walls, IT strategy manager for the City of Richmond, noted that government IT departments are focused on the core mission of “just keeping the lights on.” Top priorities are making sure payroll is met, bills are paid and basic functions work. “You can’t have the network go down. You can’t have the emergency dispatching software crash. It creates a very cautious mindset.”

In his experience, Walls said, IT bureaucrats aren’t opposed to releasing data to the public as much as they are overwhelmed by their existing responsibilities. They see the task of opening up data as more work. “When your day job grinds you down, it’s hard to find the enthusiasm.”

Another issue, said Walls, is that data can’t just be dumped willy nilly into public databases. When data reveals information about individuals, public access may raise privacy issues. Often there are technical issues as well. Data is typically compiled to the standard of “good enough for the intended purpose,” not for a purpose someone might dream up later. As a consequence, mashing up, say, land use data calibrated to difference levels of accuracy might lead to absurd results like fire hydrants appearing in the middle of a street.

But civic tech advocates expressed optimism that the obstacles can be overcome. Small victories lead to larger victories. Said Barzinji: “First what we need is the proof of concept.” Then the push for legislation and executive action can follow.

Anticipating the Demise of the Parking Meter

pay_by_phoneAs the City of Charlottesville ponders an upgrade to its downtown parking technology (see “Paying for Onstreet Parking in Cville“), parking guru Bern Grush is looking two steps ahead and thinking about how municipalities should handle the inevitable demise of the parking meter.

At some point in the foreseeable future, parking will be managed in the greater majority of all these cities by all-digital means including phone, Web or in-vehicle, self-paying meters. Accompanying this will be a uniform enforcement approach that uses the license plate number to read parking credentials from the cloud. …

With the top two cell-pay providers in the US each claiming “hundreds” of cities as customers, the trend toward virtual parking meters, digital parking payment, and license plate-enabled parking (LEP) and enforcement credentials appears unstoppable. Many in our industry are increasingly seeing fully wireless parking payment management as the self-evident future.

But that does present a transition problem. Maintaining both parking meters and a wireless system is redundant and expensive. But switching prematurely to an all-digital system can alienate people not comfortable with the technology. Writing in Canadian Parker (flip to page 16) last year, Grush had a few suggestions on how to think about the switch-over.

— JAB

A Radical Notion: Paying for Onstreet Parking in Cville

Image credit: Charlottesville Tomorrow

Image credit: Charlottesville Tomorrow

Irony time: Virginia soon may get a test in market-based parking in… the People’s Republic of Charlottesville. The city would start charging for 800 on-street parking spaces downtown, now free, and install a system of smart traffic meters under a proposal advanced by Mark Brown, new owner of the Charlottesville Parking Center (CPC).

The city reverted to a system of free parking two years ago, creating a severe misallocation of parking spaces. Downtown employees grab the free on-street spots, making it exceedingly difficult for visitors and shoppers to find convenient parking spots. The idea is to encourage downtown workers either to park in long-term structured parking, which would free on-street spaces, or to ride bicycles or use mass transit.

“The promotion of free parking on the street is at odds with the promotion of walking, cycling and mass transit,” said Mark Brown, the owner of Yellow Cab and the Main Street Arena who became the sole shareholder of the CPC last summer, reports Sean Tubbs for Charlottesville Tomorrow.

The proposal, very conceptual in nature and subject to revision, is to install about 60 kiosks where parkers would enter their license plate information to pay. There would be two zones, a core zone with more restrictive parking lengths and higher rates, and a peripheral zone, where people could park longer and pay less. On-street parking rates would encourage long-term parkers to use structured parking. A smartphone app would provide real-time information on parking availability and rates. A portion of the parking revenue would be dedicated to transportation alternatives such as a free trolley, park-and-ride-options and cheap monthly bus passes. The remainder would go to a Business Improvement District.

Bacon’s bottom line: I’m sure some of Brown’s ideas will prove controversial. Downtown employees won’t want to give up their free, convenient parking. But there is no compelling public policy reason for subsidizing their hogging of downtown’s supply of on-street parking. Indeed, quite the contrary. Parking spaces have a cost; they are not “free” to the city. Parking is a scarce good that people are willing to pay for. Charging the right price for parking is a critical element of any downtown development strategy. Although the details may need to be modified, Brown has the right idea.

With all the tools available today, every large and midsized Virginia city should be asking the same questions as Charlottesville.

— JAB

Easy Savings: LED Street Lights

LED street lights in action -- China

LED street lights in action — China

by James A. Bacon

Installing LEDs  in street lights may be no panacea for municipal budget woes, but the payback is so high that one can’t help but wonder why every local government in Virginia isn’t doing it.

It’s heartening to heart that Virginia Beach, Virginia’s most populous city, is taking the plunge. Well, dipping its toe might be a more accurate description. According to the Virginian-Pilot, Highway Electric of Chesapeake will install about 180 LED street lights in the median of the newly expanded Princess Anne Road beginning January 5.

The main drawback of LEDs (light emitting diodes) is that they are more expensive than the high-pressure sodium lamps they replace: $6,600 compared to $4,800.  But fewer LEDs are needed to light Princess Anne Road — 182 compared to 257 of the sodium lamps —  so the total project cost is lower.

Moreover, maintenance and electricity costs are lower. An LED street lamp lasts five times longer than conventional lights. Over time, that saves the cost of buying new lights and the cost of sending crews to replace them. They also consume about half as much electricity as a sodium light. Virginia Beach spends about $5.4 million a year lighting all of its street lights, according to the Pilot. The city expects to be saving $650,000 annually within ten years by phasing in the LED lights.

Arlington County had converted 85% of its street lights to LEDs by August. But only a few Virginia localities have implemented the technology.

Bacon’s bottom line: The payback is so high that any citizens ought to get up in arms if their locality is failing to take advantage of this cost savings. But why not go a step further? Local governments can save even more by attaching sensors that detect the movement of cars and people. The lights turn on when someone is walking or driving nearby and turn off when no one’s around. As a bonus, burning less electricity reduces carbon dioxide emissions and power-plant pollution.

Admittedly, in Virginia the picture is complicated by the fact that Virginia Dominion Power owns many street lights. I’m not clear on how much say-so local governments have over how those lights are maintained. With that caveat, smart LED street lights is low hanging fruit that every local government should be plucking.

Chopra Pushes “Open Innovation” in Hampton Roads

Aneesh Chopra

Aneesh Chopra

Aneesh Chopra took his message of “open innovation” on the road to Hampton Roads yesterday, pushing the case for making government data more readily available to the public for transformation into commercial products and services. Perhaps the single best example of wealth creation that can flow from government data, the Weather Channel, came from Hampton Roads, he noted. Norfolk-based Landmark Media Enterprises, which owns the Virginian-Pilot, launched the Weather Channel, which grew into a company of more than $500 million a year in revenue.

“Weather is a $5 billion-a-year industry,” said Chopra, “but the source data that fuels that industry comes from the Department of Commerce, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which funds the satellites and the sensor networks that produces the raw data, which is open to anyone to consume, to build weather apps and other products and services.” (See story in the Pilot Online.)

A former Secretary of Technology for Virginia and former chief technology officer under President Obama, Chopra touted the “democratization of data” as one of several strategies for increasing entrepreneurial opportunity. Citing data showing the Hampton Roads had the lowest rate of new business start ups of any Virginia region in 2013, he also discussed ways of building the entrepreneurial talent pool by recruiting from the immigrant community, establishing regional early-stage capital and tapping the skills of tech-trainable veterans.

“No one’s going to come here – a white knight – saving the region while you sit back and observe passively,” said Chopra, a co-founder of Hunch Analytics, a Northern Virginia big data firm. “This requires active participation.”

— JAB

Bringing Big Data to the Poverty Debate

Here is a positive development in state government that will never get the attention it deserves: The Virginia Department of Social Services is joining four other state agencies in contributing data to the Virginia Longitudinal Data System (VLDS).

VLDS is a system for accessing data maintained by the Virginia Department of Education, the State Council for Higher Education in Virginia, the Virginia Employment Commission and the community college system. The program allows researchers to gain insight into what public policy initiatives will most cost-effectively prepare Virginians for a modern, 21st-century workforce.

The Department of Social Services brings new data to the mix and allows researchers to ask new questions, such as:

  • How does participation in public assistance programs (e.g. child care, WIC, Head Start, SNAP, TANF, Medicaid) in Virginia impact school readiness, school achievement, health, family cohesion, future employment and wages?
  • What is the return on investment from public assistance programs in Virginia? Are there patterns that suggest different program delivery models that may yield greater effectiveness or cost savings?
  • What are the most critical health, safety and community factors that contribute to children’s school readiness and school achievement?
  • How does investment in early childhood health and education impact future need for and cost of public assistance?
  • Are participants in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) work skills training programs employed and earning a living wage one or two years after completing the program? Which work skills programs have the greatest success rates?

These are all excellent questions! I am heartened to know that people in Virginia state government are asking them.

So many debates about public policy issues occur in a data-free vacuum. People advance arguments based upon preconceptions and ideology. VLDS holds out the promise of allowing us to reach conclusions based on hard data. This is one wonk who looks forward to the research coming from this initiative — even if the conclusions contradict some of my own pet theories.

— JAB

Smart Cities Tech Meets Sea Level Rise

In the most imaginative and useful application of crowd-sourcing technology I’ve seen in Virginia, Hampton Roads Cares has helped fund creation of the Wetlands Watch Sea-Level Rise app. Right now, you don’t know where it’s going to flood until you’re in the middle of it, says Skip Stiles, executive director of Wetlands Watch, in this video. “As long as you’re out there, wheel-well deep in water, you might as well be telling the person behind you that it’s wet here.” The ultimate goal: to provide enough data to help scientists and modelers predict where flooding will occur. — JAB

Sharing Information to Gain Competitive Regional Advantage

by James A. Bacon

Very different models of regional competitiveness are emerging as people think seriously how to harness the power of smart cities. In metropolitan regions like Charlotte, Seattle and San Diego, for example, major property owners are collaborating with municipalities and power companies on communal energy-efficiency initiatives.

Tapping the potential of “smart grids” is a great idea. But that’s just a start. Udaya Shankar, a vice president with Xchanging, sees smart buildings as the foundation for smart cities. Writing in IoT World, he recommends that smart buildings pool information for mutual benefit. “When buildings operate in a silo, we gain no insight into the effects one has on the other, and if a smart city is the sum of its parts then there is something to be lost in keeping them separate.” He envisions a future in which smart buildings connect and talk to cities and to one another.

It’s an intriguing premise. Shankar provides few examples of what kind of information sharing property owners can share, but we can think of a few.

Smart grid. Almost all smart buildings draw electricity from the electric grid. They monitor their consumption carefully and have some flexibility as to how much they consume and when. Sharing this information can help the power company optimize its generation and transmission assets, benefiting everyone through lower rates.

Water. All smart buildings consume water. In many municipalities leaking water pipes is a major issue (up to 20 percent of all water is lost through leakage). Sharing of usage data can help water companies identify leaks, reduce water loss and delay the need for expensive capacity expansions.

Parking. Many smart buildings maintain parking assets for their employees: either open parking lots or parking garages. Sharing information about parking capacity and usage can help cities better match parking supply and demand. By optimizing the amount of valuable urban land dedicated to parking, cities can convert excess parking to more productive uses that yield more taxes.

Lighting. Cities operate street lights. So do many smart buildings. Sharing information can allow cities and building owners to reduce the wattage needed to light public spaces, thus conserving electricity and curbing light pollution.

Security. Smart buildings typically are equipped with security cameras to provide added security for occupants. Sharing video feeds with the city can provide law enforcement authorities with more eyes on the street, helping prevent and solve crimes.

Transportation. Smart cities utilize a variety of strategies — mass transit, walkable and bikeable streets, road improvements, car- and van-pooling — to manage traffic demand, many of which require cooperation with employers. Sharing information about employees and their transportation needs can help cities fight congestion.

We’re moving into a world where the sharing of information confers competitive economic advantage. Here in Virginia, we should start by encouraging state agencies and local governments to open up their data — not just to link to it from websites but to make it available so anyone, whether a business enterprise or a civic activist, to add value to it. Then we should start creating mechanisms whereby building owners can share information with local governments to tackle public challenges ranging from energy conservation to traffic congestion.

Communities that move first will gain competitive advantage. Those that are slow to adapt will fall behind.