Hurricane Harvey Escalates the Imperative for Smart City Technology

There is a reason that safety and security are at the foundation of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Survival is a basic human need and a fundamental aspect of building successful communities. DC’s Chief Technology Officer, Archana Vemulapalli, echoed these thoughts this week at at the 2017 Global City Teams Challenge (GCTC) Expo.

“Public safety transcends all other metrics and areas. If your residents don’t feel safe, it makes you reassess and think about things differently… It has made us ask if we are leveraging technology the way that we should,” she adds.

Given the tragedies that Hurricane Harvey has unleashed in Texas and Louisiana, the timing of this conversation could not be more relevant. Smart city technology can play an important role in helping communities not only react to disasters but put predictive measures in place to hopefully prevent or decrease the negative effects. Existing tools including Ready.dc provide one-way communication on how to prepare for disasters. While a valuable and informative tool, it is not interactive and may not even be available in times of crisis due to the loss of power or connectivity.

Vemulapalli spoke about three key vantage points: (1) residents (2) systems (3) partnerships. Ensuring that people remain at the heart of the discussion is critical and the first place to start. Understanding the real-time impact life-threatening events can change the way solutions are implemented. The next category, systems, are then developed not in terms of what the government agency is designed to do, but instead reflect what services are truly needed. This human-centered perspective, can also influence how partnerships are formed. In a natural or man-made emergency, organization charts, hierarchy and bureaucracy seems not only ridiculous, but can also be life threatening.

In the US, smart city technology is largely defined by how cities utilize data. The first level of sophistication is the intelligent use of existing data, which is largely open-sourced with some early examples of collected data. As cities mature in their smart city journey, this information can be combined with algorithms and artificial intelligence to not only interpret but predict specific outcomes. Armed with these tools, cities can alter operations and potentially head off devastation and deploy solutions with greater speed and agility.

Chicago’s Array of Things pilot focused on Storm Water Management is in the beginning stages of doing this very thing. Storm water runoff from paved surfaces carries toxins and pollutants, which exacerbates storm damage.  The City Digital Smart Green Infrastructure Project (SGIM) seeks to leverage green infrastructure laden with sensors to gather information on “precipitation amounts, humidity levels, soil moisture measurements, air pressure levels, and chemical absorption rates. The next step will be to combine the data with an advanced computing and analysis platform.

Mother nature has a keen way of reminding us of our vulnerability as well as the imperative to use our resources wisely. One of the greatest resources available to cities in this modern digital era includes smart city technology. Platforms, programs, conferences and initiatives provide an excellent opportunity to share what works, explore new solutions and collaborate in order to accelerate our progress.

We need the collective wisdom from government, industry, academic and entrepreneurial leaders who can quickly reassess and redesign the systems that serve all residents with a human-centric perspective. As Hurricane Harvey has unfortunately reminded us, there is truly no time to wait.