Smart Cities

Illinois seeks to become the nation's first smart state

Forget smart cities--Illinois officials have a loftier goal in mind: They have a plan to make it the first smart state in the US.

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Image: uptonpark, Getty Images/iStockphoto

The city of Chicago is tech savvy, but the rest of the state lags behind on the technology front. Illinois CIO Hardik Bhatt is working hard to improve efficiencies while making Illinois the first smart state in the nation.

If anyone can take Illinois to the top of the tech barrel, it's Bhatt. He spent four years as the CIO of Chicago, where he created the nonprofit Smart Chicago Collaborative before joining Cisco. At Cisco, he spent five years leading smart and connected communities efforts, and he worked on smart city projects in 40 cities including Barcelona, Spain; Dubai, United Arab Emirates; and Jakarta, Indonesia.

In early 2015, newly elected Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner asked Bhatt to join his team to improve technology throughout the state. "We realized that Illinois technology in general was extremely behind. We were at the bottom fourth of the 50 states in terms of outcomes for efficiency and customer service. We had to do something," Bhatt said.

SEE: Louisville and the Future of the Smart City (ZDNet special feature)

"We had to find an area where we could leapfrog and become the number one state and where others could learn from us. We threw out old systems, some that dated to the 1970s," Bhatt said, explaining how a plan was created to revamp the business of IT within the entire state.

"I worked with the governor to consolidate 30-plus different siloed IT organizations. Earlier this year they organized together under one department," he said, describing the new Department of Innovation and Technology (DoIT).

Focusing on three roles for the state

Once Bhatt began working for the state, he talked to International Data Corporation to assess the initial plan. They determined that there were three roles to focus on to become a smart state. The first role is the state as a customer; the second role is the state as an enabler; and the third role is the state as a demand aggregator, he said.

When looking at the state as a customer, many of the responsibilities of the state are the same as Chicago, just on a bigger scale. Public safety, transportation, and traffic management are key components, along with public health and the corrections department.

"We did a survey across the state, and we found that we already had some solutions in place, such as sensors for tollways and tele-visitation for corrections. The question was how to scale and make government more efficient," he said.

The state's chief information officer met with 11 agency CIO's and business owners to find the best practices and solutions that incorporate privacy and security as additional IT solutions are added, Bhatt said.

The second role is the state as an enabler, meaning finding more ways that the state can support business incubators and help build tech-savvy businesses to create more jobs. "How do we work with our schools and colleges to introduce courses in SAP and cybersecurity to build that 21st century workforce in Illinois?" The answer is a consortium that works with companies such as GE, Cisco, Microsoft and others to create an IoT curriculum for universities and community colleges in the state. It also means creating an advisory board filled with executives from IoT smart city businesses to help determine where smart city technology is heading, he said.

And then, the third role with the state as a demand aggregator means that they're maximizing efficiencies by purchasing statewide, rather than city by city, whenever possible.

"Everything in Chicago is big. But when you step out of Chicago...how do these towns and villages become smart? What we looked at there is that the state can act as a platform and aggregate these demands," Bhatt said.

A new RFP process

The state rolled out a new system on October 1 where one Request for Proposal (RFP) is issued for each type of technology and/or service, and cities can use the chosen vendor without issuing a new RFP with a lengthy and expensive approval process if they want to replicate the work that's being done elsewhere in the state.

"We hope to publish our first RFP by end of year or early next year—an RFP for smart city solutions. There will be 2-3 approved vendors on contract with two or three different business models, and once we have that on board, every municipality, university, and school can buy off of that contract and choose the right vendor and the right revenue model. If that is successful and successfully used, we'll have other RFPs. All across Illinois towns and cities have a way to become smarter. The entire state will be smarter, not just Chicago."

Other states, such as North Carolina and Utah, are looking at the model in Illinois and finding ways to replicate it in their states, he said. "It's a great journey and something new and innovative, and we're very happy we can contribute back to the rest of the US. At the end of the day, all 50 states are similar in some sense."

Chicago's new air quality sensors

In the city of Chicago, they're working with the University of Chicago's Argonne National Laboratory, which is a US Department of Energy scientific research laboratory, to share data and knowledge so that efforts are not duplicated.

Argonne is working on several joint projects with Chicago, and it's hoping to expand those into other cities within the state, said Charles Catlett, senior computer scientist at Argonne. Much of what Argonne is doing is analyzing the data to develop algorithms for predictive analytics, such as for food safety with restaurant inspections. It's also making data shareable through open data systems so that it's more accessible to everyone.

SEE: How the city of Louisville is using IoT and big data (ZDNet)

The latest project in Chicago is installing 500 air quality sensor nodes throughout the city over the next two years to assess air quality and see how it relates to factory schedules and traffic patterns. The sensors, which will be Wi-Fi linked, are being funded by a $3.1 million National Science Foundation (NSF) grant. Each sensor has a microphone and a camera, said Brenna Berman, CIO for the city of Chicago.

"Because the funding is coming from the NSF to go into the city, it's intended as a research platform so innovators can develop technologies on top of that platform," Catlett explained.

Working with cities outside the state

Argonne also works outside the state; for instance, he's working with officials in Portland, Ore., to see if the city's bike share program is causing more people to ride without bicycle helmets. Portland officials fear that more people are riding without helmets because they're not regular bike riders, and they're working with Argonne to see if the cameras on smart streetlights can be programmed to tell if a cyclist on a shared bike is wearing a helmet. The bikes in Portland are red, so they can be readily identified on a camera.

"That's an example of what we want to be able to measure for Chicago as well as Portland. Once we have it working for Portland, we would like to do it in Chicago," Catlett said.

The top 3 takeaways for TechRepublic readers

  1. Illinois wants to become the first smart state in the US with each city sharing technology with each other.
  2. The state of Illinois consolidated 30 siloed IT organizations to create the new Department of Innovation and Technology (DoIT).
  3. The city of Chicago is working with University of Chicago's Argonne National Laboratory to analyze data and create predictive analytics.

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About Teena Maddox

Teena Maddox is a Senior Writer at TechRepublic, covering hardware devices, IoT, smart cities and wearables. She ties together the style and substance of tech. Teena has spent 20-plus years writing business and features for publications including Peo...

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