Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Smart City Pilot in Boston

By Lucas DiLeo
Contributing Writer

The proliferation of mobile sensors and the interest by Cities in utilizing these tools to develop new insights into how cities function and how are used, are driving projects to create models for improved urban services and management. In many cases these are experiments - in term how new technologies can be utilized, how accurate and reliable they are, and what new services or solutions can they support.

Recently, Ms. Nissia Sabri, CEO OF Bitsense discussed a Smart Cities Pilot organized with the Boston Mayor's Office of New Urban Mechanics. The talk was hosted by MIT System Design and Management Program Thinking Webinar Series. Bitsence is a company which monitors human movement and behavior in physical space and uses data and insights to improve cities, architecture, and real estate developments. 

City planners and the business community sponsored this project for Downtown Crossing, Boston's urban shopping core, in order to better understand the flow of pedestrian and vehicular traffic, the quality of the environment, and uses of urban spaces in order to better manage these areas and better serve their constituents.

The first phase of the project entailed identifying the metrics to be collected, the selection, location and support of the sensors, and creating the communication and data collection and integration. 

The sensors were designed to track a number of measurements: environment, including air quality and noise, as well as pedestrian traffic. As the sensor packages were not off-the-shelf, they had to be custom assembled. The decision was to use many specialized sensors located across the study area, as opposed to a single location with multiple sensors. 

Ms. Sabri discussed many of the design issues: The design of the enclosures for the sensors required special treatment; they needed to be tamper proof and weather proof. They had to fit within the environment and not be intrusive. Some were designed with flower pots or other decorations. Placement and attachment to light poles and buildings also had to be addressed. Moreover, as these were temporary installations, they required temporary power, battery recharging, and communication solutions. Solar panels were used - but there were issue of sunlight as well as wi-fi coverage. 

Prior to installing on the streets, the team tested the sensors in the labs where they identified and fixed a number of potential problems, such as RF interference, access to the Internet, and insufficient sun for the solar panels in some areas.

On August 10 of last year the 4 month pilot was launched on several streets Downtown Crossing. A parallel project was also organized in a residential area to provide benchmarks.

Data from the pilot has enabled the sponsors to develop initial insights. For instance noise levels on the streets - and the impact of continual background noise versus areas that saw AM and PM peaks during commuting hours. The authors also noted that nighttime lighting is important - that Summer Street was well illuminated where Winter Street was less illuminated, less welcoming at night. 

The air quality calibration was limited as the project did not use the highest, most expensive sensors. However, the team was able to develop insights into overall air quality trends, such as the level of C0 is higher mid-day than the rest of the 24 hours period. 

Pedestrian traffic was also an area studied. The project indicated fewer people on the streets during weekends - but they tended to spend more time and linger at the stores and shops, as opposed to the work week, where commuters hurrying to and from their offices. 

The organizers are now beginning to think about how to use the sensors and data for future urban managment and planning and modeling - such as for emergency situations. "Data is not the Bottom line, it is the insights you get from it". 

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