Smart Cities program offers prospect of improving city services

ST. LOUIS – Those video cameras on top of light poles are a great way to investigate and catch lawbreakers running from the scene of a crime.

But under the right circumstances, they also can alert officials about what’s in the background: potholes somebody should fix, or pools of water still on the street after a recent storm. The cameras also could catch two cars at the moment they smash into each other and then give the information to someone who can quickly dispatch ambulances to take the victims to a hospital. 

Those are the possibilities with software St. Louis will soon receive that will link cameras and other sensors the city has and gather much more information than is available now. 

If the St. Louis Smart Cities Tech Pilot is successful, cities throughout the country could receive the same software.

The program, from the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate, is designed to improve public safety and make operations across city departments more efficient, a news release said.

Homeland Security’s specific purpose in providing the software is to check on flooding and flash flooding and the River Des Peres in and around downtown. However, the city is free to try the software out for other purposes.

Besides the software, the city is getting five sensors from the DHS. The sensors around the city can tell things such as the level of water pressure or whether a car has struck a hydrant. 

“How do we tie all the sensors together and then make sense of the data that they’re producing?” Robert Gaskill-Clemons, the city’s chief technology officer, asked. “I believe it’s a very exciting opportunity. It’s an opportunity most cities never get.”

The pilot program, centered at the downtown St. Louis technology innovation center, involves all city departments that answer to the mayor. Those include police, fire, EMS, emergency management, streets, health, human services and the water department.

“There’s a lot of opportunities to expand their use,” Gaskill-Clemons said. “We’re looking for tools that we could put in the hands of city workers that help with day-to-day city operations.”

The city is getting what’s called the Smart City Interoperability Architecture through a partnership with the Science and Technology Directorate. Also working on the project is the Open Geospatial Consortium, a group of businesses, government agencies, research organizations and others that deal with geospatial technology.    

Smart cities technology has the potential to improve city services, although some worry that privacy will lose out.

The on-line Future of Privacy Forum, a Washington-based think tank and advocacy group focused on issues of data privacy and supported by corporate sponsors and foundations, states: “Cities and communities generate data through a vast and growing network of connected technologies that power new and innovative services ranging from apps that can help drivers find parking spots to sensors that can improve water quality. Such services improve individual lives and make cities more efficient.

“While smart city technologies can raise privacy issues, sophisticated data privacy programs can mitigate these concerns while preserving the benefits of cities that are cleaner, faster, safer, more efficient, and more sustainable.”

Gaskill-Clemons said the city was taking privacy concerns seriously.

“Right now, the city is in the process of crafting privacy policies,” Gaskill-Clemons said. Among other things, the city will provide comprehensive guidelines for any footage taken, he said.

“It gives us a chance to get our hands on these kinds of tools at no cost to the city,” Gaskill-Clemons said. “Worst case, we get a better understanding of what’s possible using innovation technology. Best case scenario, they show up with some technologies that are mature and ready to go that we can implement quickly.”

One example of how the city might use the system is when more than one department might need to respond. In the case of an accident, police, fire, ambulance and the street department are all called out.

“It gives all departments visibility into what’s going on throughout the city so resources and personnel can be managed and dispatched more effectively,” Gaskill-Clemons said. 

It might be particularly effective when a firefighter wearing a sensor enters a burning building.

“If we’ve got a firefighter in distress, this sensor will tell you and help you find them inside a building.”

The most common sensors around the city are about 500 cameras now on traffic signals and streetlight poles. Now their main use is in criminal investigations or catching muggers. 

The city is seeking bids right now for sensors that detect such things as weather, air quality and even gunfire. The gunfire detectors might be particularly useful, Gaskill-Clemons said. 

“If we had enough of those detectors, and they were integrated with the cameras, now we would have the capability to detect gunfire,” he said. “How do we tie all those sensors and then make sense of the data that they’re producing in order to make better decisions?”

Jim Merkel

southsidemerkel@gmail.com Born and raised in the St. Louis area, Jim Merkel covered communities throughout the area from 1991 to 2013 for the old Suburban Journals of Greater St. Louis. He is the author of five books about the Gateway City published by Reedy Press. The latest is Growing Up St. Louis: Looking Back Through the Decades. He and his wife, Lorraine, live in the Bevo Mill neighborhood of south St. Louis with Miss Jenny the Cat. For more about Jim, visit www.jimmerkelthewriter.com.

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