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A look at Schenectady as a technological 'Smart City': What do we know about Smart Cities?

A look at Schenectady as a technological 'Smart City': What do we know about Smart Cities?

A look at Schenectady as a technological 'Smart City': What do we know about Smart Cities?
A pilot program on lower Union Street uses these wireless sensors to monitor vehicular traffic with the goal of reducing flow.
Photographer: Pete DeMola/Gazette Reporter

SCHENECTADY — Schenectady has branded itself as a “Smart City,” a municipality at the cutting edge of technology and efficiency.

Since 2016, Mayor Gary McCarthy has made the initiative a keystone of his administration. He and the city's signal superintendent, John Coluccio, have carried the message far and wide. They’ve been tapped as experts at conferences, and McCarthy has even testified to Congress on the city's efforts to leverage technology to bring The Electric City into the future. 

The “smart city” concept can be jargon-heavy and difficult to untangle. 

What is it and why should you care? 

What is Smart Cities? 

Here’s the official definition on the city’s website: 

“The Smart Cities concept is centered on utilizing new technology and innovative methods of problem solving to improve a community's sustainability, efficiency and quality of life.”

McCarthy has referred to the effort as using a “broad matrix of options” to reform delivery of government services, hopefully making City Hall more responsive to resident needs in the process. 

The concept can largely be separated into two broad areas:

There are bold, headline-grabbing projects and smaller, more incremental technology upgrades the city is steadily rolling out for everyday government functions.

What’s one big-ticket item?

Among the most high-profile projects is the city’s partnership with National Grid.

The provider is in the midst of upgrading 4,400 street lights to LED technology as part of a state initiative dubbed “Reforming the Energy Vision,” or REV for short. 

Switching to LED lights will reduce energy expenses and allow for better control, allowing the units to be dimmed during off-hours or adjusted based on real-time data.

At the same time, the city believes the poles contain valuable real estate and is working with National Grid to co-locate new sensor-based technology on the units once the old bulbs are swapped out. 

McCarthy and Coluccio envision a network of sensors and wireless network nodes, each with unique functions that can be utilized by numerous city departments. 

Take traffic, for example.

Wireless sensors can be used to monitor traffic data and analytics. 

An ongoing pilot program on lower Union Street aims to count vehicles with the goal of reducing flow and idling.

Traffic patterns differ between sport utility vehicles and compact cars. With a better understanding of the types of vehicles on city streets, the city can schedule traffic lights more efficiently.

“We’d like to be able to do that on a citywide basis,” McCarthy said.

Data will also allow vehicles can be re-routed in the event of a crash or some other kind of large-scale event. 

Traffic data also has possible applications for the private sector, with businesses or real estate agents chomping at the bit to identify hotspots.

And National Grid has said data can be used to help identify strategies to reduce the carbon footprint left by drivers in the city.

How is Smart Cities being deployed in City Hall? 

While focused on big-ticket items, Schenectady is also continuing to roll out regular technology upgrades within City Hall.

For instance, the city Codes Department recently introduced a new software program called Municity5.

The program is designed to streamline operations and improve efficiency by allowing building inspectors to file reports and print documents from the field, for instance, instead of returning to the office. 

A chief backbone underpinning these efforts is the city’s wi-fi data network, which is available in some parts of the city. 

City police use the network to download dashboard camera video from their patrol cars as they pass through "smart" checkpoints. 

Like with the Codes Department, officers are no longer required to have physically return to the office in order to download the videos from a storage device.

The city is also weighing technology that will monitor vacant city-owned structures, McCarthy said. 

How about public uses?

The city has teamed up with Schenectady-based software company Transfinder to develop software designed to track snow plows.

A pending software upgrade will not only show where plows have been, but also map out their predicted route, which may help homeowners decide whether if they should  shovel or not, McCarthy said. 

And in a partnership with CivicPlus, the city’s Citizen Request Tracker allows residents to report quality-of-life issues like potholes, code violations and garbage pickup complaints to authorities, a measure city officials hope will make local government more responsive to citizen needs.

“We’re exchanging information in real time, which better informs the public and allows for better management of city resources,” McCarthy said.

And while a 5G network is in the embryonic stages (see more below), the city has prioritized working with the Schenectady City School District to provide a platform for low-income households to access the network for homework and remote learning applications. 

Doing so, the mayor said, will provide “real value for closing the educational gaps that occur because of households in poverty.”

Are there any transportation applications?

Yes. The city plans to leverage smart technology to better manage parking resources, including use of the Passport Parking app to identify parking regulations in Schenectady and how they compare to nearby locales like Albany and Troy, ideally resulting in a more streamlined experience for Capital Region residents.

The city also aims on using data to analyze where people choosing where to park and not park, allowing the city to plan accordingly.

Coluccio said the city is currently working with the Capital District Transportation Authority on a project that will give city police and dispatchers access to location data for buses, allowing for a swifter response times in the event of an incident and the ability to divert routes if needed.

How much will this cost?

National Grid has estimated they will invest approximately $7.6 million over the three-year implementation of the REV project, which had a deadline of June 2021.

The city has set aside approximately $5 million in its capital budgets over the past three years for the work, with $2 million included in the budget for 2019.

State Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, D-Rotterdam, previously secured a $1 million grant toward the effort. 

The city has spent $1.5 million for the Smart Cities initiative to date, said McCarthy in April.

City officials also hope leveraging technology will result in cost-savings over the long-term.

REV is expected to save the city between $370,000 and $380,000 annually on electrical costs, largely due to reduced maintenance and the ability to better manage resources through dimming. 

How can we tell if this program is working? 

Answer: It's difficult.

McCarthy said efforts are a "progressive deployment that doesn’t necessarily have a clear or straight path.”

And he has acknowledged metrics can be tricky it and can be difficult to identify variables to track progress. 

“Developing an all-encompassing Smart City plan is a difficult process and we are faced with many undefined challenges that are part of a complex system of continuously moving parts,” stated a 2017 report prepared by the Smart City Advisory Commission. “However, we strive to effectively communicate our challenges and proposed solutions in an effort to build upon that foundation we have.”

How is Smart Cities related to 5G?

The new light poles as part of the REV project will be able to accommodate a citywide 5G network. The latest iteration of cellular technology is designed to increase signal speeds and sharply boost the amount of data that can be transmitted.

While 4G, or LTE, networks require larger cell towers located far from each other, 5G technology uses clusters of small-cell technology that can be mounted on street lights, utility poles and other structures.

The City Council last week authorized the city to eventually enter into a licensing agreement with Verizon that would allow the provider to install the technology on a portion of city-owned utility poles. 

McCarthy said the city will also negotiate with other carriers to provide the service. 

What are the safeguards for data protection and privacy?

The city has touted the city’s ability to collect data from the network of wi-fi nodes and sensors as a leading benefit. 

But McCarthy has acknowledged the sheer amount of data will present a challenge in that city officials will need to develop a system that will efficiency separate valuable data from what ultimately amounts to "white noise."

While much of the data will be considered accessible to the public, such as traffic and collision data, safeguarding that information continues to be paramount, officials said.

"Cybersecurity is an ongoing concern,” McCarthy said, but he stopped short of identifying a specific strategy to keep that information secure.

There are also potential obstacles in working with private vendors who collect the data.

The city learned the hard way earlier this year when city workers deleted data logging if potholes had been filled or not. The vendor, CivicPlus, said they could retrieve the data but would charge the city $400 for the service.

What are the opportunities for public engagement? 

The city plans on hosting neighborhood meetings and informational sessions to gather additional public feedback. 

“As we get through summer, we’re going to set up more community outreach to talk about things we’re going to deploy," McCarthy said on Friday. "We're going to make people aware and make people start to understand the potential for emerging wireless-based technologies. We’re going to have community input to see what people want, what they don’t want and come up with ideas and applications which I believe other communities haven’t thought of.” 

McCarthy appointed a Smart City Commission in 2016 to oversee the effort, but acknowledged it has not met recently.

John DeAugustine, president and publisher of The Daily Gazette, is a member of the commission.

Are there any checks and balances?

The City Council holds the purse strings, and works in partnership with the mayor’s office and Smart City Commission to facilitate the initiatives. 

“We’re working closely with them to guide us on that initiative,” said City Council President Ed Kosiur, who said he was “confident” in the mayor’s oversight and leadership of the initiative. 

Lawmakers will discuss capital budget planning at their Aug. 5 committee meeting, Kosiur said. 

The City Council will also hear from Ithaca-based Municipal Electric and Gas Alliance, which administers community choice aggregation, also known as CCAs, that allow for the bulk purchase of energy.

That effort, Kosiur said, can also be considered a Smart City initiative.

 

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