Innovation

How Seattle wants to avoid becoming a 'dumb smart city'

Putting the right tech in place, and doing it the right way, is the key for Seattle's smart city goals. TechRepublic talked to Seattle's CIO to find out more about the city's plans.

In Seattle, a metro area filled with brilliant technologists, becoming a smarter city means avoiding mistakes when introducing new tech initiatives.

An example of a dumb smart city would be if there were city-owned utility poles with eight different weather sensors on the pole and each sensor was sending information to a different data center, he said.

"That's what we want to avoid. That is a dumb smart city," said Michael Mattmiller, chief technology officer for the City of Seattle.

Eliminating silos is key

Mattmiller said the city wants to make sure it installs new technology in the smartest way possible and that means silos need to be eliminated in government so that city departments talk to each other about the tech they're implementing to make sure everyone is working for the same goal.

Getting rid of silos has been a key task for Mattmiller since he became the city's CTO in June 2014.

SEE: Smart cities: The smart person's guide (TechRepublic)

"We consolidated technology professionals last year into one department. We had 15 departments that were all trying to figure out technological solutions for themselves and focus on what was tried without thinking of these broader solutions. In the past year, we've driven awareness about the need to eliminate silos and we've worked with all of our departments," Mattmiller said.

There are plenty of new technologies being used in Seattle, which is already well on its way to becoming a connected city. But there are always new technologies to add and also improve upon those already in place.

"What we're thinking about here in the city is what is a smart city? What are the types of projects we have today, and how do we encourage more projects that will add value and projects that will add scale in a manageable way? When I look at cities like Boston and Chicago they have established programs and they're doing fantastic work. Here in Seattle we've been a bit opportunistic to date," Mattmiller said.

Implementing new technology in Seattle

This year, the city will be piloting ShotSpotter's gunshot detection technology to help police officers determine where gunshots were fired, whether or not they're called in by citizens.

The city is also implementing 800 new body video cameras for police officers during the first half of this year.

Privacy is key for Seattle residents. "We have a community that is very passionate about civil liberties," he said. In 2013, the city implemented a wireless mesh network throughout the downtown core, and it wasn't explained to the public in advance. "We didn't think it was something objectionable. So when our public saw these Wi-Fi access points they assumed they were part of a surveillance network that would track your location through the downtown corridor using your cell phone."

SEE: The 5 IoT products a smart city needs in 2017 (TechRepublic)

The city council mandated that the program be shut down until safeguards were put in place. Council members now work with a community-created privacy program so that when technology is deployed that might lead to privacy concerns, the public trusts that their best interests are being considered.

The goal of sustainability

Sustainability is a key component of the smart city tech in Seattle. The Seattle 2030 District, which the city's office of sustainability created two years ago, is targeted with carbon emission reduction in the downtown core, which is particularly important because there are an additional 100,000 people in the downtown area during each workday.

"The office of sustainability in partnership with our downtown building owners did benchmarking. They told building owners when they were above average in carbon emissions and how they could reduce energy consumption and water and so on," he said.

"We've used analytics to reduce carbon emissions among 45% of buildings that participate in this program," Mattmiller said.

The city also partners with the University of Washington whenever possible. One project they've worked on together is RainWatch, which monitors precipitation in real time so that the city can send out safety alerts when flooding is imminent. Rainfall can vary by as much as 8 inches annually in Seattle versus on Mount Rainier, so keeping track of where trucks need to go to protect citizens and infrastructure is crucial.

There is also an adaptive transportation management system that allows traffic lights to adapt to road and weather conditions. The city is working on a smart watering project for parks so that groundwater usage is reduced when the ground is saturated.

And it's not just about city-owned technology. In December 2016, Amazon announced it was opening its first Amazon Go brick-and-mortar concept store in Seattle; in the store, computer vision and artificial intelligence replace cashiers and checkout lines. The concept is still in the beta stage and is only open to Amazon employees, but it is expected to open to the public later this year.

"The implications of that [Amazon Go] for a city are fascinating," Mattmiller said.

Opening a new data center

The city has also improved its own tech infrastructure with the opening of a new data center in Tukwila, Wash. in December 2016. It replaces a previous data center that nearly crashed in 2012 and caused a three-day period where the city worried that at any moment it might lose power in the data center.

As a result, one unified data center opened in Tukwila, on the northern edge of Seattle, with a secondary backup site near Spokane, Wash. nearly 300 miles away to the east.

"The facility is built to withstand earthquakes and other types of natural disasters that have the potential to occur here in western Washington. There are redundant power supplies and redundant power connections. The eastern Washington facility is smaller but has capacity to maintain hot systems," Mattmiller said.

Three takeaways for TechRepublic readers:

  1. Seattle is trying to eliminate silos in government departments so that everyone knows what technologies are being implemented for each area.
  2. The city opened a new data center in December 2016 to replace the previous one that nearly crashed in 2012.
  3. This year the city is testing gunshot detection technology and implementing 800 body video cameras on police officers.

Also see:

svetlana57-seattle.jpg
Image: iStock/svetlana57

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...

Editor's Picks

Free Newsletters, In your Inbox