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The Major Roadblocks Facing the Smart City

Cristian_BorceaIn this special guest feature, Cristian Borcea of NJIT reflects on the evolution of technology and public policy in support of so-called “smart cities. ” Cristian Borcea is an Associate Professor and the Associate Chair of the Department of Computer Science at New Jersey Institute of Technology. He is also the program director of the online MS in Computer Science at NJIT..

Global and tech leaders are clamoring to establish themselves as pioneers in the development of smart cities. Most recently, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi pushed a plan to build 100 smart cities across the country, investing nearly $1.2 billion over the next year. In a similar vein, the IBM’s Smart Cities Challenge is an initiative geared toward providing recommendations to cities like Guadalajara, Townsville and Sendai in order to make cities smarter and more efficient. From traffic improvements to the way a municipality responds to natural disasters to energy consumption, the smart city will have an enormous impact on creating a sustainable, urban life. However, the challenges of building and implementing a smart city infrastructure will require significant adjustments to policy and the perception of privacy.

Before we look at the roadblocks, which are certainly challenges to the smart city, it’s important to note what a smart city working at full potential can accomplish. Improving traffic is one way the smart city will improve American life. By collecting data from smart phones, local officials can acquire a detailed picture of congestion, which would allow city officials to make informed decisions on redirecting traffic, opening tunnels and manipulating the timing of traffic lights to lower commuter times and save energy. The smart city will also have a dramatic impact on sustainability and energy conservation. Since cities account for more than 75 percent of the global energy consumption and are responsible for 80 percent of the total greenhouse gases, they should be considered the central focus for driving worldwide sustainability. By implementing sensors in the infrastructure, including the power grid, water systems and bridges, city officials will have access to environmental data that will contribute to saving resources.

Perhaps the most significant change to the city is how data generated by smart phones and sensors in the infrastructure will lead to better responses to natural disasters. For example, if there were sensors in the Minnesota I35 Bridge, then city officials and drivers could have been notified of the structural risk. In the event of an earthquake, rescue teams can be alerted to victims buried under the ruble by tracing signals from implanted medical devices or body sensors. The smart phones will amplify the signals from the sensors, and the rescue teams will track the signals. The body sensors and the smart phone will communicate with the sensors within the infrastructure. This would ensure that communication could work even when parts of the infrastructure are down by creating wireless ad hoc communication.

But this vision of the smart city is still far off, and some of the major roadblocks include software and network architecture. In order to truly benefit from the advances of the smart city, fine-grain data from sensors deployed within the infrastructure of the city as well as smart phones and smart cars, better known as the Internet of Things, will need to be collected at a massive scale. Currently we’re limited by relatively small-scale IoT islands, which are closed-looped networks under proprietary protocols, as well as a lack of sensors within the infrastructure. This means that a city can’t share data dynamically across these “islands” to execute distributed tasks that involve sensing, actuating and computing.

In order for the smart city to reach its full potential, private companies should establish a collaborative relationship with the city in order to share data dynamically. For example, private companies hold traffic data from applications, whereas cities collect data from static infrastructures such as black cables counting traffic on city streets. City officials aren’t collecting the data from smart phones, because the information from apps like Waze and Google Maps are collected privately. This is a fundamental roadblock.

Partnerships between the private and public sectors are essential for the smart city to become a reality. Clearly, this is a major undertaking with financial implications, but we can see glimpses of this already happening in Amsterdam’s Smart City and the Smart Cities Challenge by IBM. Yet the problems are beyond just infrastructure, and privacy concerns are another major obstacle in the way of the smart city.

After the leaks from Edward Snowden, the line between privacy and data mining have been intensely scrutinized and debated, and it’s understandable to have a healthy skepticism. Many citizens are concerned with how their data is being used and how this relates to their privacy, especially the government use of data.

However, the smart city relies on sharing data with city officials to improve our lives. In order to alleviate the fear over privacy concerns, it’s important to share this data in a meaningful way while keeping the reports anonymous. These algorithms are currently in the research community, but private companies prefer not to use them because the status quo allows them to sell our data and make a profit. That’s why it’s up to the larger community to demand these algorithms be used to maintain anonymity while reaping the benefits of sharing data dynamically.

In order for the smart city to become a reality, cities should develop a more collaborative relationship with private companies, and the privacy concerns could be addressed by implementing algorithms to collect data anonymously. Perhaps in the future, data will be shared on a larger scale, and if people start to rethink privacy in connection with the smart city, then perhaps we will take a step closer to making a sustainable and smarter urban life a reality.

 

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