See how Atlanta is transforming itself into a smart city

Environmental sensors, artificial intelligence, and data analytics could improve transit flows and public safety.
Written by Bob Violino, Contributor

How Atlanta is using IoT to improve traffic, trash, air quality, city lights, and more

Atlanta, like other metro centers, is striving to become a "smart city" via the latest technological innovations. But with some of the city's infrastructure more than 100 years old, it faces challenges that planners hope to resolve through an integrated technology approach.

The city's smart initiative began in 2015, when it created a vision and plan for a comprehensive approach to technology application to city projects. One of the key success factors was the passage of the Renew Atlanta bond in the summer of 2015, which gave funding and impetus to the program, said Samir Saini, commissioner and CIO of Atlanta.

Originally the plan was the deployment of municipal fiber for communications in conjunction with the renewal bond. But the project team, called SmartATL, quickly realized that the deployment of Internet of Things (IoT) devices and the sharing of the resulting data would have a much greater impact on the city than just the deployment of a fiber network alone, Saini said.

The smart city effort aims to improve city operations in five key areas: multimodal transportation, public safety, environmental sustainability, internal city operational efficiency, and citizen and business engagement.

"In order to accomplish this, the SmartATL team will identify key performance indicators [KPIs] for how well the city is doing in each of these areas," Saini said. "These KPIs will then drive what data is collected to establish baselines for how the city is currently performing."

As new projects and initiatives are launched in the city, the KPIs will be monitored to determine the specific impact of each effort. The ultimate goal is to fund those improvements that return the most value to the city for the given investment, Saini said.

To date, Atlanta has implemented numerous newer and emerging technologies as part of its smart initiative. These include environmental sensors, video analytics, artificial intelligence, data analytics, real-time situational awareness tools, big data management, traffic management tools, smart lighting, and smart waste management.

The city has planned deployments of technologies including radar detection, dedicated short-range communications, autonomous vehicles, and connected vehicle systems.

See also: 5 lessons from IoT leaders creating sustainable, smart cities

Two fundamental challenges hinder Atlanta's smart city effort, Saini says. The first is knowing which of the multiple technologies available today will most efficiently address the needs of the city and its residents.

"As with any technology there are many promises of value, but those claims must be validated, and not all solutions deliver equal value in every location," Saini said.

The second challenge is finding a sustainable business model to fund acquisition and operations of the new technologies. "In many cases funds can be found to implement these new solutions," Saini said. "But ongoing operating funds are more difficult to secure, because there are already so many needs competing for those existing dollars."

Early research shows that new revenue streams might be possible once a full smart city implementation is completed. "But as this is a new market, those assumptions must also be validated," Saini said.

As part of its smart city project, Atlanta is following the benchmark model provided by the TM Forum, a global industry association that drives collaboration and collective problem-solving among hundreds of members.

The model allows cities to assess their current "as-is" situation, articulate the future "to-be" situation, and benefit from best practices shared by other entities undergoing similar projects.

The model "helped us get a truly holistic and end-to-end understanding of how 'smart' we really are across people, process, technology, and data," Saini said. "It has also given us a window into how we compare against other cities around the world across all these dimensions."

While it's too early to quantify the impact of the efforts so far, Atlanta anticipates delivering benefits such as improved transit flows and better signal timing on city streets, more responsive pedestrian and bicycle detection at traffic intersections, better traffic management for special events, and improved public safety.

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