Portland kicks off smart city initiative with traffic sensor safety project

If cities don't carefully plan smart city deployments, "the risk is technology happens to us rather than working for us," Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said.

Video: Portland's move from hand-counting cyclists to tracking traffic in the cloud

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Portland, Oregon officials claim its city has some of the best bike data in the United States -- data revealing how many people ride bicycles, where they're going and what streets they're using. Their collection of that data, however, has been as low-tech as it gets: city staffers and volunteers stand out on street corners for two hours at a time and count.

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Now, the city is aiming for more comprehensive, accurate data collection with the installation of 200 sensors installed on street lights on three of Portland's deadliest streets: Southeast Division St., SE Hawthorne Blvd. and 122nd St.

The Traffic Sensor Safety Project, for a price tag of just over $1 million, represents the first major milestone for the Smart City PDX initiative. It relies on GE's Current CityIQ sensors, which are powered with Intel IoT technology and use AT&T as the data carrier. GE, Intel and AT&T have already worked together to deploy smart streetlight sensors in San Diego.

"We are bringing forth the best aspects from our domains... ultimately to solve a real-world problem," said Sameer Sharma, Intel's global GM for IoT Solutions.

In addition to tracking cyclists, the city plans to track cars and pedestrians to better understand overall traffic patterns. The data will help Portland planners evaluate the impact of street design tools like protected bike lanes and new crosswalks. Ultimately, the city wants to use that information to advance its "Vision Zero" goal of eliminating traffic fatalities and serious injuries.

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Portland, Oregon Mayor Ted Wheeler, joined by private and public sector partners, launches Portland's Traffic Sensor Safety Project.

In a press conference in a park on SE Division St., Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said the city needs to think about what data it's collecting, how it's collecting it, and how that data is shared. If it doesn't, he said, "The risk is technology happens to us rather than working for us."

"Our intent is to define the smart city in way that serves our city's values while at the same time serving as a national model," Wheeler said, "to ensure technology, data and partnerships with the private sector are used in a coordinated way to improve people's lives."

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Wheeler told ZDNet that any privacy concerns have been "well-addressed" by the city's private sector partners. The data is processed at the edge, and no images or personally identifying information (such as license plate numbers or car models) are stored. Only metadata is extracted to inform the city about the kind of traffic on the city's roads -- whether a pedestrian, car or cyclist is passing by -- and the speed at which they're moving.

GE's CityIQ platform will enable the city and other developers -- such as students or entrepreneurs -- to build new applications with the data. The applications could tackle challenges like parking planning, urban delivery and logistics, or disaster recovery and mitigation. Meanwhile, the data will be collected in the Portland Urban Data Lake (PUDL), which stores data from a variety of city sources.

Portland's smart city rollout, according to Intel's Sharma, has the ingredients for success: a focus on real citizen pain points (traffic fatalities), the ability to execute solutions in the short-term, the right partnerships, and the assurance that the solutions and technologies deployed can evolve with time.

Portland plans to use the traffic sensor deployment to inform the development of the Smart City PDX Priorities Framework -- a framework that will give city officials a structured process for evaluating new technologies, different uses of data, as well as potential partnerships. The framework, the city says, should help it embrace technologies that can offer benefits to typically under-served communities like minorities and the people with disabilities. The Portland City Council is slated to vote on the Smart City PDX Priorities Framework this week.

Michael Zeto, AT&T's VP of IoT and GM of Smart Cities, said smart city deployments that are focused on economic development and inclusion are challenging for a couple of different reasons: For one thing, goals like "inclusion" can mean different things to different people. On top of that, digital inclusion requires more than just enabling connectivity -- it requires devices, as well as digital literacy.

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"If you don't have a device -- a laptop or a phone -- connectivity doesn't do much good," he noted.

AT&T, Intel and other companies have spearheaded initiatives like hackathons to boost digital inclusion.

Most smart city deployments are more straightforward -- such as the installation of street light sensors -- and offer a more reliable return on investment. With initiatives focused on inclusion, Zeto said, "You need to make an investment in good faith because it's good for the community."

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