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With $2M tech request hanging in balance, Schenectady mayor offers clarity on Smart Cities

With $2M tech request hanging in balance, Schenectady mayor offers clarity on Smart Cities

City to host at least four public meetings on effort
With $2M tech request hanging in balance, Schenectady mayor offers clarity on 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 — Mayor Gary McCarthy is seeking to pull back the curtain on his Smart Cities initiative following mounting lawmaker questions over costs, transparency, security protocols and the overall scope of the effort.

The city will hold at least four public meetings to discuss the program, McCarthy said on Monday; he's asking asking the City Council to approve $2 million in capital funding in next year’s proposed budget. 

At least a portion of those funds will be used to deploy gunshot-detection technology in neighborhoods prone to gun violence, including Mont Pleasant, Hamilton Hill and Central State Street. 

Deployment will be done in the form of sensors installed on utility poles as National Grid continues to update 4,400 street lights in the city to LED technology. 

Beyond the gunshot detectors, McCarthy and Signal Superintendent John Coluccio envision a broader network of sensors and wireless nodes, each with unique functions that can be utilized by numerous city departments, from traffic control to law enforcement.

Some of the sensors have already been deployed, including units to monitor traffic patterns on Erie Boulevard, which McCarthy said will allow the city to better tweak its repaving schedule.

Switching to LED lights also will reduce energy expenses by allowing the units to be dimmed during off-hours or adjusted based on real-time data.

SECURITY QUESTIONS

Coluccio and McCarthy briefed lawmakers on Monday.

But despite their sunny view of the many uses, which include a potential citywide Wi-Fi network, members of the City Council have contended the effort has been shrouded in darkness.

“Are we putting public information at risk?” asked Councilman Vince Riggi. 

McCarthy acknowledged the city is hit 40 times daily with attempts to crack the city’s cyber infrastructure.

(The mayor said his comments were “off the record,” but participants at public meetings cannot unilaterally dictate to the press which remarks can be published.)

Coluccio cycled through a list of security vendors and software used by the city to safeguard data.

“Only certain devices are allowed on the system, and it only allows certain devices to be plugged in,” Coluccio said. “We’re certainly looking wherever we can to make sure security is No. 1. And we’re not collecting personal information.” 

McCarthy noted the city has been awarded a $50,000 cybersecurity grant, some of which will be used to train city staff on new technology. 

“We engage in the most advanced protocols for protection,” he said.

While the upcoming meetings are designed to gather public input, the mayor cautioned the process will be ongoing, and more potential applications will eventually emerge once the public has a better grasp of how the technology can be used. 

When it comes to gunshot detection, the city is eyeing two different software programs.

Both applications will use sensors to alert authorities to the location in real time by triangulating gunshots and relaying that info directly to patrol cars. 

The city aims to use ShotSpotter in one zone, and acoustic sensors designed by Cisco Security in the other. 

The latter will be able to detect more sounds beyond gunshots, McCarthy said, including traffic crashes and car alarms.

The network will also be complemented with cameras in some areas to provide footage to accompany the audio reports, said McCarthy, who estimated those cameras will capture footage taken at least 5 to 10 minutes before shootings and will aid in police investigations.

“We’ll see people move into the area before the gunshots and be able to document it,” McCarthy said. “Hopefully it will create a level of deterrence.”

Following the pilot period, the city will compare the two technologies.

LAWMAKER FEEDBACK

McCarthy’s $2 million request in the capital budget joins $5 million previously allocated by the City Council, which has until Nov. 1 to adopt a budget for 2020. 

Projected costs for the gunshot detection technology were not specifically broken down in a line-item summary of Smart City funding issued to lawmakers at Monday's budget meeting, but the breakdown revealed $3,850 has been allocated for the solar-powered devices designed to monitor vacant buildings introduced last week.

Much of the costs are simply listed under “equipment.” 

Councilwoman Leesa Perazzo later noted the mayor can ultimately allocate those capital funds however he sees fit following City Council approval. 

She asked about cost-sharing with the county for any of the technological applications.

McCarthy stopped short of confirming or shutting down any possible avenues of cooperation.

But, he said: “Our hardware will be different than what they deployed.”

City Council President Ed Kosiur said he was more inclined to support the $2 million allocation following the presentation.

“That’s exactly what the public needs to see,” Kosiur said. “That’s what we’ve been talking about is to get this information — all the work [McCarthy] has been doing with the [Smart Cities Committee], and the partnerships he has established, and get it out to the public.”

Kosiur estimated four council members will support the investment "100 percent.” 

Riggi was more circumspect.

“At least we finally got some information, anyhow, for the first time ever,” he said. “But I still have the same concerns over security. Yes, you can identify a road that needs work or a pothole. But we still need blue-collar people to do the work. We still need a workforce to remedy those problems.”

Perazzo said she appreciated the line-by-item breakdown.

“It was nice to have a little more color,” she said. 

But she worried about creeping costs, noting the proposed spending plan also includes $200,000 listed elsewhere for software maintenance. 

“I’m not saying it doesn’t have value, but there are additional costs,” said Perazzo, who wants to delay the $2 million request for at least a year until ongoing projects are fully deployed.

“I would like to take a year off of funding Smart Cities to catch up on where we are,” she said.

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