Giving Thanks for Big Data (and Saving Turkeys)

Beep. My fitness app pops a message as I start my day. “On average, your wake-up time was 7:08 AM on weekdays and 7:43 AM on weekends. The average user wakes up 21 minutes later than you on weekdays and 1 hour and 4 minutes later than you on weekends.” Moments later, I am filling out a survey for my university. Did you skip meals because of financial reasons? What modes of transportation do you take to get to campus? How much is rent at your apartment?

Besides sending an update on my student life, my personal data creates a paper trail of my successes and failures. Essentially, I’m like a transmitter continuously sending little pockets of data to an unknown pool of data, which may or may not reflect kindly on my productivity. But what would happen if a city had access to that same data?

Smart cities have taken up the charge, and have begun crunching numbers to save future costs, improve inefficiencies, and simultaneously make citizens happy. Smart cities have a busy to-do list as they invest in multiple projects including sustainability, energy consumption, waste disposal, transportation, crowd control, web provisions, and law enforcement. And though these policies may sound a bit Orwellian in proportions, cities worldwide have improved on the 1984 model.

  • Los Angeles uses magnetic road sensors and traffic cameras to control the flow of traffic around the city to reduce traffic congestion and replaced 4500 miles of streetlights to form an interconnected system that informs the city if one light malfunctions.
  • Porto, Portugal uses sensors to notify the city’s waste management when dumpsters are full, saving time, labor, and fuel.
  • Lansing, Michigan’s street lights automatically adjust levels to suit citizens, saving 70% of energy costs.
  • Reading, Pennsylvania uses PREDPOL, a predictive policing system, to accurately predict crime and place officers in specific locations at specific times, resulting in Reading’s crime rates dropping to the lowest in over 35 years.
  • San Francisco and New York City create personalized learning experiences for students at AltSchool so parents can understand how each child learns, where they excel, and where they need help.
  • Songdo, South Korea is the ultimate smart city where trash collection is automated through pipes in every building, and later sorted, recycled, buried, or burned for fuels. The city is also partnering with Cisco for other projects, like a tracking system for children with micro-chipped bracelets.

Pittsburgh has also been inching towards smart city status with similar ideas. An existing Snow Plow Tracker website alerts residents when and which streets have been cleared by using city street sensors. The city is also partnering with Carnegie Mellon University’s Traffic21 Institute to regulate congestion using radars and sensors, decreasing commutes by 25% and significantly lowering emissions. Recently, a team composed of the City of Pittsburgh, PennDOT, the URA, the Oakland Transportation Management Association (OTMA), and the Port Authority worked together to create new contra-flow bike lanes and two-stage turns on Forbes Avenue, advocating a safe environment for all roadway users.

Smart cities focus on different projects, but their goals are similar: avoid spending money on ineffective work, dare to make big changes, and focus on the people (and not the technology). Each individual data point may seem insignificant compared to the scale of change, but annual accumulation begins to set baselines, which is well on the road to easier lives for all residents. Speaking of easier lives, guess I should catch an extra hour and four minutes of sleep on the weekend.


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