Figuring Out the Municipal Internet of Things

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Figuring Out the Municipal Internet of Things

In order to realize the potential of Smart Cities, we’re going to have to figure out the Municipal Internet-of-Things (IoT). We know “smart communities” (a broader term meant to be inclusive of counties, special districts, and states in addition to cities) will utilize an assortment of devices, networks, data and analytics – what we’ll call Municipal IoT. And we know these technologies collectively have the potential to improve many aspects of public service delivery.

But what we still don’t know is how we will get there. How do we advance the goals of smart communities, fully realize the benefits that IoT technology can bring, and avoid undesirable effects on public security and privacy?

It turns out, the best way  for the public sector to start making the smart city movement a reality is also the most obvious. Public sector agencies should build and deploy their own IoT networks and identify, test, scale, and share use-cases and smart city IoT applications that are designed specifically to solve their challenges.

Easy, right? Not quite.

To help drive this forward, we recently published the Municipal IoT Blueprint as part of the Global City Teams Challenge (GCTC), a program sponsored by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). We conducted research with four local governments who are innovating with IoT and demonstrating the value to public sector agencies of building and testing their own IoT solutions.

The city of Calgary, Alberta, Canada is a great example. They built a LoRaWAN network leveraging a City-owned fiber-connected tower. The network has a coverage radius of 10 kilometers, built-in security, and was inexpensive to construct. They deployed sensors to measure moisture, humidity, light and other conditions at Devonian Gardens – an urban, indoor 2.5-acre park and botanical garden managed by the city’s Parks Department that features a living wall, koi ponds, fountains, a children’s play area, and over 550 trees. Historically, it has been costly to know exactly how much water and maintenance is needed to keep the ecosystem healthy.

Devonian Garden

Source of this photo – davebloggs007 on Flickr.

Using the sensor data, city staff learned that lighting and “vapor deficit” were the most critical metrics to enable effective plant care. Scaling this sensor system saved staff time, increased plant health, and was all done at an incredibly low price point. That’s a home run!

Meanwhile, the county of San Mateo, California is testing multiple IoT solutions through what they call “SMC Labs.” These pilot projects are looking for base hits: small wins that can be scaled into production, such as: parking availability; water conservation; localized air quality and environmental monitoring; real-time tracking of mobile assets; pedestrian and outdoor space utilization; and optimized and predictive waste collection. The county has multiple external partners and solutions providers, who are incentivized to find scalable applications. This public-private partnership structure transfers some of the development cost to the private sector, while minimizing the financial risk to local taxpayers.

In the city of San Leandro, California (where I am the CTO), we bundled a multi-million-dollar streetlight LED retrofit project with the construction of an IoT-connected smart street light system with controls. Effectively, the energy savings from the new lighting system covered the entire construction cost of the network. With the network controlling the City’s streetlights, we now have a built-out, citywide IoT platform to explore additional use cases with.

Some will argue that cash-strapped, local government agencies should avoid the risks of constructing IoT networks because they require specialized expertise to build and maintain, will gobble up staff time, and project failures can be costly. 4G / 5G cellular networks include IoT networks that can be subscribed to as a service, easing deployment and implementation challenges. So, the thinking goes, the public sector is best served by waiting for the IoT market to mature.

While such an approach is safer, it nonetheless has drawbacks. The as-a-service model will come with high recurring annual costs and, perhaps more critically, agencies will not have control of these networks, which will severely restrict their ability to innovate and develop new solutions and partnerships. In other words, cellular IoT options are likely to be narrower in what they support, leading to vendor lock-in and limiting innovation.

Instead, the public sector should start innovating with IoT on their own. The local governments in our case studies are proving it can be done cost-effectively, while minimizing risk. The smart city/ community movement can realize its potential by identifying, testing, scaling, and sharing successful IoT use-cases now and not waiting for others to solve it for them the future.

This is how we can figure out the Municipal IoT.


Tony BatallaThis article was written by Tony Batalla, the Head of Information Technology at the City of San Leandro, California. He has helped launch a 10-gigabit internet connection at City Hall and a free, public Wi-Fi system utilizing the City’s fiber optics network. He oversees all aspects of technology, including infrastructure, service delivery, and data management, and acts as the senior advisor for City Council on technology issues and policies.