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Philadelphia starts mapping its smart city future

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Philadelphia is in the process of ramping up its smart applications thanks to a grant from the Smart Cities Council and plans to bring in a consultant to help it pave the way for a detailed roadmap for smart projects. Philadelphia CIO Charles Brennan said officials weren’t aware of all the technology projects currently underway when they were preparing to apply for the Smart Cities Readiness Challenge Grant. In the application process, however, they learned about a project in the Streets Department to place speed sensors on roads that adjust traffic signals to slow down speeders. They also learned how the Water Department feeds data from meters directly onto a network, and about work being done to place gunshot detection technology into security cameras allowing them to pivot toward the sound of a gunshot.

“All of these things were stovepiped,” Brennan told GCN. “Nobody outside the agency knew about them. When we called around [to departments] we realized, ‘Hey, guess what, we’re actually doing more than we thought.’” Opening up these projects will be the one of the goals of the roadmap the city plans to create with help from the consultant. The consulting work is not part of the grant, and a solicitation for it will go out at the end of March or beginning or April, he said.

“I think we need an overall plan about how we’re going to approach this and how we’re going to consolidate all of the data so that it makes sense,” said.

Projects like these can’t be siloed, he said, because the biggest benefit coming from sensor-based technologies is the data they generate. “If they’re stovepiped, then the data is not being shared,” he said.“Breaking down the departmental silos is a key challenge in developing a smarter city,” Smart Cities Council Chairman Jesse Berst said. Each of the winning cities has demonstrated the ability to work across departments to solve problems,” he said.

At an Oct. 12 Readiness Workshop that the city won as part of the Smart Cities Council grant, the consultant will do some final interviews with attendees on

The other grant winners were Orlando, Fla.; Miami; Indianapolis, Ind.; and Austin, Texas. All winning cities get advice from the council in planning their projects, a readiness workshop and products and services from council member companies. Those member firms include Ameresco, AT&T, CH2M, CompTIA, Dow Building and Construction, IDC, Qualcomm, Sensus, Telit, TM Forum and Transdev.

To prepare the city to leverage data sharing from its smart city applications, Philadelphia is working with Comcast to install a high-speed fiber network connecting more than 200 city buildings. This network will provide a much-needed increase in bandwidth as it moves more applications, like Philly 311, onto the cloud and as more Internet of Things projects are spun up, Brennan said. Early portions are already being tested, and the city expects the full network to be up and running within a year. And once it’s up, data management will much easier, he said.

“If we put things out there like sensors, or cameras or devices that collect data, once we get to that [high-speed fiber] network, then we can go anywhere in the city and move the data around pretty easily,” he said.

Buy in from executive leadership has been an important driving force for these projects and has helped build enthusiasm for them in the city, Brennan said.

“We have been building a coalition of city, community, business and educational institutions,” Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney said statement announcing the grant award. “They are all enthused and ready to help with smart city projects focused on the built environment, telecommunications and basic public services like water. We know the technology behind us is important for our citizens and businesses alike, and the expertise that the Smart Cities Council brings will help us realize those opportunities.”

Brennan said the city’s citizens are excited about being out in front in the smart cities movement.

“We’re interested in finally being on the leading edge,” he said.

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