Sensor-studded Kansas City is like a giant smartphone. Now it just needs apps

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Your city is dumb. The potholed streets, coin-operated parking meters, and drafty brick buildings many of us interact with every day haven’t changed much in a century. But it’s finally happeningFrom Oslo to San Diego, cities across the globe are installing technology to gather data in the hopes of saving money, becoming cleaner, reducing traffic, and improving urban life. In Digital Trends’ Smart Cities series, we’ll examine how smart cities deal with everything from energy management, to disaster preparedness, to public safety, and what it all means for you.

In June 2016, the Department of Transportation dangled a $40 million check in front of urban planners with its Smart City Challenge. The premise: Don’t just tell us about the technology you would install with the money, tell us how it will solve your residents’ problems. Kansas City entered, alongside 78 other cities, with high hopes.

The city wanted “to close the opportunity gap” and “transform the Prospect Corridor, currently riddled with high crime, vacant and abandoned buildings, and pervasive hopelessness, into an area as vibrant as our downtown, with cutting edge public transportation, economic development opportunities, and immense pride,” according to its application.

Kansas City’s made it all the way to the finalist round, along with Denver, Portland, and a handful of other cities. Then Columbus, Ohio took home the prize.

But Kansas City isn’t waiting for another contest to implement its plan. Even without a fat check from the DoT, the city still hopes to widen its digital umbrella to cover these areas, and use technology to turn around some of its most blighted areas.

Fiber of being

For Kansas City, the road to becoming a smart city started with Google Fiber. It was the first city to get the superfast network, back in 2012. “It brought a whole lot of entrepreneurs and tech-oriented folks to Kansas City in order to take advantage of what was at the time the only deployment of gigabit fiber,” Bob Bennett, the city’s chief innovation officer, told Digital Trends.

“We turned the city into a smartphone.”

Not long after, Kansas City began construction on a new streetcar line. Cisco came knocking, wanting to install additional fiber lines along the route — that way, it wouldn’t incur additional construction costs. It could just use the holes that were already there. Cisco partnered with local startup Think Big Partners to create solutions, and the city tapped data analytics company Xaqt to build a traffic and parking platform.

Recently, Google Fiber has cancelled some of the installations it had planned for the city (and delayed starting projects in other cities it had previously announced would get the 1,000 megabits-per-second service). But KC still has plans to turn into a smart city, slowly but surely.

Bennett calls the 2.2 miles along the streetcar line the “smartest 51 blocks in America.” There’s public Wi-Fi, smart LED street lights, and 25 kiosks delivering hyper-local information, such as what events are taking place at Sprint Center. The result was a hyper-connected silo, cut off from the rest of the city. The smart strip is easy to see on the city’s interactive website: columns of gray and green along a stretch of a street, representing occupied and available parking spots.

The three-year second phase of the project is set to begin in a few months. It involves putting similar resources into Prospect Avenue, a major thoroughfare in the eastern part of city, which Bennett said has been chronically under-served. “What our gut feeling tells us is that by expanding first into that part of the city, we’re going to be able to accomplish several things simultaneously,” he said. The area is densely populated, with many in the area on the wrong side of the digital divide. The city hopes to better connect 60,000 residents with services “not in the form of a project that gentrifies it, but instead with 21st-century jobs and 21st-century opportunities, so folks who live there can keep their homes and we can grow that section of our city,” said Bennett.

From data to decisions

Aside from the kiosk and public Wi-Fi, citizens may not yet notice how else the city is becoming smart, thanks to a plethora of installed sensors. These can help alert drivers, via an app, of where to find an available parking spot downtown. Sensors can gather a variety of data, but it’s crucial to have a way to analyze data from other sources as well and turn it into something useful. “We’ve used the analogy quite a bit of, we turned the city into a smartphone,” said Blake Miller of Think Big Partners. “We have the connectivity, we have sensors that collect data, now what are the apps and solutions that can be built on top of that, à la the iTunes store?”

Wi-Fi kiosks and real-time parking maps guide residents and visitors around Kansas City as it tries to become one of the U.S.’s smartest cities. (Photos:  Kansas City Area Development Council)

Just recently, the city started using a street-condition predictor. It found that 77 days after the weather went through a freeze-thaw period, residents would call 311 — Kansas City’s service number, not the band — to report potholes. Knowing when and where a pothole is likely to form means crews can address the problem ahead of time, getting materials ready and diverting traffic if a longer-term fix is needed instead of just a patch. Based on water and electricity usage, the vacant building predictor could be a useful way of figuring out which structures are uninhabited before they start attracting crime and the problem spreads. (Abandoned buildings tend to drive property values down, which can cause nearby homeowners to leave as well.) Baltimore is using a similar model, in partnership with Johns Hopkins University.

“Making cities safer is probably one of the biggest promises that smart cities can have.”

Part of making the city smarter is making buildings and homes smarter, too. Think Big is working on creating smart apartments, and Kansas City Light and Power has a program offering residents free Nest thermostats. Participants agree to sign up for three years and let Nest access their energy usage information. In exchange, they get a free smart thermostat that hopefully saves them money.

As for public safety, data and sensors can only take Kansas City so far before “traditional policing” has to take over, said Bennett: “We’re not going to get to a place where I’ll be able to tell you, like I can with the potholes, that a crime is going to occur at X location at Y time, because quite frankly the data going into that equation are less definitive than what we’re using for the traffic bits.” Instead, the city will use correlations to increase patrols at times and locations where crimes are more likely to occur, based on the data. “There’s a lot of things that can be done around public safety and making cities safer, which I think is probably one of the biggest promises — outside of mobility — that smart cities can have,” said Miller. ShotSpotter, which uses acoustic sensors to triangulate the location of gunfire, could connect with streetlights and video cameras, to help officers get a better sense of what’s going on before they even arrive on the scene. Street lights could also strobe or brighten during an emergency situation, and the kiosks could provide instructions or alerts.

Think Big Partners is also helping other startups and companies take advantage of the data. “Now we’ve turned our focus been just about a year collecting data to creating a developer’s portal, which is the Living Lab,” said Miller. “That can help developers, entrepreneurs, corporations of all kinds not only access the connected infrastructure but also access the data coming off that and other city data, like 311.”

The city and its partners, like Cisco, all see open, accessible data as key to success. “You can start using the APIs we have, the secure but open APIs, that allow ecosystem partners to develop new businesses on top of them,” Munish Khetrapal, managing director of the Smart Cities and IOT division at Cisco, told Digital Trends. “If you now build these applications that allow to manage the city operations better, you’re creating jobs in that city.” He gave an example of a mobile application some developers built on top of Cisco’s platform. It allows citizens to report full trash cans around the city. “They’re gamifying it, so they’re telling the city to have incentives for those citizens who report all of this information, so they don’t have to invest in some of these sensors,” said Khetrapal.

With sensors, cameras, and public Wi-Fi comes privacy concerns. Sprint owns and operates Kansas City’s Wi-Fi, so it takes on the responsibility of keeping it secure. Anyone in the world can look and see what parking spots are occupied, but without getting a view of which car is parked there. “We’re trying to be transparent about what we collect, we just keep it anonymous,” said Bennett.

How smart?

Is Kansas City a smart city? Not yet. Even Bennett says that: “I’ll truly be able to say we’re a smart city when, as a citizen, you can essentially look online and have an idea how that city is performing, not based just on an annual apport but on a dynamic dataset.” To get to that point, more people need to be participating, somewhere between 100,000 to 120,000 people, said Bennett. “Right now I’m at 22,000, so I’m a little bit short.” He envisions a dashboard where residents can get a breakdown of how their tax dollars are being spent, how the city is performing. Everything the city handles — from business licenses to dog licenses to utility bills — can be done via an app. “What we see today as a crisis or an issue will instead be something where the city is proactively solving problems before it becomes something worthy of a 311 comment,” said Bennett.

“Our window for failure is probably still smaller than what an entrepreneur can withstand.”

These initiatives may be cost-saving in the long run, but Kansas City can’t afford to back programs that won’t pan out. “We are unique as a city in that we have been allowed to take risks in the smart city space,” Bennet said, “But our window for failure is probably still smaller than what an entrepreneur can withstand, simply because we don’t have the assets to say, ‘Oh well, we learned something,’ and move on.” It’s one of the reasons Bennett works with and looks closely at other cities that are moving towards becoming smart.

To reach the ambitious plans it’s laid out, the city needs to do more than just collect data. “We’re going to be freakishly cool, but we aren’t going to be smart until we actually start using the data to manage our city and be faster than we were in the past,” Bennett said.