Kansas City gets 'smart': New streetcar line opens amid free public Wi-Fi zone

With smart city technology, K.C. envisions autonomous vehicles, water pipe monitoring, even drones to find missing elderly

Many smart city proponents speak in vast generalities. They talk about the ways that Internet of Things sensors and big data will improve life for citizens while conserving water and energy resources and reducing traffic congestion.

Not so Bob Bennett, the recently installed chief innovation officer for Kansas City, Mo. He's a combination of CIO, city planner and futurist with a quick grasp of technical details about what smart city technology can do. Bennett arrived at his job just four months before the city's planned opening on Friday of a shiny new downtown streetcar line offering free rides and the deployment of public Wi-Fi that spreads over two square miles, an area of more than 50 square blocks.

The 2.2-mile streetcar line promises to be much more than a people mover for residents, businesspeople and tourists. It will also be the first-generation smart city corridor for new technologies, some running wirelessly over one of the largest free public Wi-Fi zones anywhere. The zone was built by networking giant Cisco and wireless carrier Sprint.

kc cio bob bennett

Kansas City, Mo., CIO Bob Bennett

Cisco chose Kansas City for the project because of its medium size; it has fewer than 500,000 residents (with 2 million in the metro area). The company wanted to try out a variety of new smart city technologies, which is easier than in a large metropolitan area, and hopes to transfer what it learns to other cities.

The streetcar line has 16 stations, mainly along Main Street, from historic Union Station northward to a colorful City Market neighborhood near the Missouri River.

Twenty-five 7-foot-tall interactive touchscreen kiosks have been placed at or around the streetcar stations. The free Wi-Fi comes from 328 access points installed around the streetcar line that will reach 20,000 downtown residents, many living in new high-rise apartments ushered in by a downtown renaissance. The network performed successfully when 40,000 basketball fans converged in the area to watch the March Madness tournament on a giant outdoor video screen as well as in nearby bars and restaurants, Bennett said in an interview.

Data, in anonymized form, about streetcar usage and pedestrian movement patterns will be gathered from users logging on to Wi-Fi from smartphones and other devices. In one example, Bennett said city officials will be able to see how a group leaving a streetcar disperses into restaurants and bars in the popular Power and Light district or other neighborhoods so the city can judge business usage trends.

"I don't want to know anything about any individual IP address and where a particular smartphone is," Bennett said. "But I do want to know that 52 people waited at a traffic light for 42 seconds, and then zero of them went to one restaurant and 25 to another, while the excess of 17 didn't eat nearby and boarded a bus for somewhere else," he said. "That kind of information can inform the economic development folks that maybe we need another restaurant at that location."

Hopes of greatly expanded free Wi-Fi, autonomous shuttles

In a second phase, Bennett wants to expand the free Wi-Fi zone's reach by five times the original area so that 180,000 residents can access it. That larger Wi-Fi zone would include low-income neighborhoods with families and children who are without fast Internet connections at home. "It becomes a social change mechanism," he said.

In coming years, the city also hopes to run autonomous vehicles that connect via smartphones for on-demand rides needed by low-income workers. Also envisioned: autonomous vehicles carrying business travelers from the main airport to downtown hotels — a distance of 18 miles.

A pilot project is also getting off the ground to test collision avoidance technology on some autonomous city buses. The city hopes to win a $40 million Smart City Challenge grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation to help finance many of the new tech ideas.

The purpose of autonomous public vehicles is far-reaching. "Even if you are able to get on a city bus next to your house, it might stop a mile from your job, so you might not take the job. But if you can get [an autonomous vehicle] ride using your smartphone, just in time, that's very efficient and solves the employment issue and helps get congestion off the street from additional cars," said Herb Sih, managing partner for Think Big Partners. His organization runs an innovation lab downtown and has partnered with Cisco on smart city planning in Kansas City and elsewhere.

Protecting the water supply to avoid a Flint

Another future project calls for water system sensors and data aggregation that could fend off a potential catastrophe like the one in Flint, Mich. Currently, Kansas City, Mo., is confident its water is safe to drink, but deep analysis of data could prevent problems in the future, Bennett said.

Inexpensive sensors could be used to detect when water pressure is down in a certain neighborhood, a possible indicator that residents aren't using and drinking water. By comparing that kind of data with other data points, warning signs could emerge.

"If we get one phone call to the 311 information line that the water tastes bad, that's one data point, but we might not pay attention," Bennett explained. "If I compare that to the water pressure being down, and other data shows there aren't any restaurants in that area, then I'm more likely to investigate. A truly smart city is one that more quickly reacts to data sources to understand the totality of problems, whether that's related to water or education. My goal is to smartify the water system and to keep from being a Flint."

New sensor technology can monitor the natural resonance given off by a water pipe to see if that resonance has changed, which could be an early indicator of a cracking or leaking pipe, Sih said. Natural pipe resonance is analogous to the sound emitted by running a wet finger around the edge of a glass of water. By adding or reducing water in the glass, the pitch of the sound changes, a characteristic that mirrors changing pipe pressure, which sensors could detect.

The water pipe sensors could communicate via Bluetooth Low Energy to a nearby router, which can convert the BLE signal to Wi-Fi and then communicate with a larger network, possibly in the cloud. That kind of information, combined with weather data showing a big freeze is on the way, could prompt the city to send out a crew to replace the leaky pipe section before the bad weather arrives, Sih said.

Like many other older cities, Kansas City loses a significant percentage of its water supply every year because of leaks in its aging pipe system. The use of smart technology could be used to conserve this valuable resource, Sih said.

Free public Wi-Fi is sexy

For the public, the most exciting part of the new smart technology on the new streetcar line won't be the the city's ability to collect seemingly disparate bits of data, Bennett admitted, but will likely be the free Wi-Fi. However, gathering more data, enabled by a massive Wi-Fi network, will empower the city to reduce costs and improve the quality of life.

"We are a data-driven society, but governments generally are not built to include data in decision making," he said. "Our city manager is all about using data."

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Matt Hamblen

Computerworld (US)
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