Laying the Foundation for Smart Communications Networks

By Steph Stoppenhagen, Director of Strategy & Innovation - Connected Communities, Black & Veatch

Steph Stoppenhagen is recognized as a technology solutions expert, strategizing with clients to deliver value from smart infrastructure, networks, and Big Data. She focuses on creating future technology solutions that demand eco-responsibility and has a track record of over 16 years in the creation, leadership, and implementation of global smart city programs. She has created transformational, high-visibility IT-based solutions for C-level clients. Her past experience includes the positions of client development and technologist for CH2M; Senior Consultant for Schlumberger focused on energy and water; and a Geo-Integration Officer and business consultant internationally with the US Department of Defense.

I’ll bet that most of us have not thought about telecommunications and how it affects our daily lives until the Coronavirus hit us hard, right? As the current COVID-19 crisis illustrates, telecommunications are mission critical infrastructure. Without it, Zoom cocktail hours would be impossible, and how would we be able to binge our favorite Netflix series? But let’s get serious and consider how our virtual lives are supported by a strong wired and wireless network foundation that enables citizens to work remotely, run their businesses, do their gym workouts, and have their kids attend classes from home.

But, believe it or not, telecommunications are more than just the internet. A community with robust foundational telecommunications infrastructure can support expansive, unprecedented levels of connectivity and accessibility; enabling entire communities to embrace real-time information sharing like never before.

Our lives are deeply intertwined with crowdsourced data that is held, quite literally, in the palm of our hands. From posting real-time Yelp reviews and dropping pins in Google Maps to skimming NextDoor updates and streaming Facebook Live events, social media platforms offer up an incredible view into the life of a community. There is tremendous value in the things we don’t consider to be data-centric sources – but these platforms are the things that glue the community together.

According to estimates, there are approximately 30 billion connected devices in use today, with some forecasts pegging more than 50 billion connected devices by 2025. As more people use smart phones and embrace the Internet of Things, the world is evolving to house a population of digital citizens.

With this connectivity comes the realization that there is an incredible amount of data available in the public domain. What if we embraced the idea that we could use this amazing crowdsourced data and make it available for decision making? Data mining is not a new concept, but it’s time to think about the next step in data analytics, big data, data aggregation, and more importantly, how we can make it useful and actionable. We aren’t using big data to its fullest capacity. As an aside, my Twitter page even touts that I am “obsessed with making people smarter with Big Data” so I am not just preaching here.

These next-level big data communications networks not only make it possible to crowdsource community data and information, but they also allow leaders to integrate “connect-sense-and-respond” capabilities into the framework, changing the very nature of their city systems and engaging citizens in entirely new ways.

The Need for Data Aggregation

Imagine if there was a platform that not only harnessed the power of social media data and crowdsourced information, but made it useable and actionable, empowering leaders with a clear, complete, 360-degree understanding of their communities. We have all these amazing data sources that are not being used to their highest capabilities: Instagram, Facebook, Flickr, Pinterest, Reddit, NextDoor, Snapchat, Tik-Tok, Tumblr, Twitter. The public is online, providing loads of free information at the swipe of a finger, 24/7. The data is out there, but the gap lies in collecting it, then distilling it into useful information.

Some communities have nibbled around the edges of this idea. For example, many cities have adopted 311, the non-emergency phone number that residents can call to help them find information on city services, such as the DMV or street-sweeping; report problems such as graffiti or road damage (e.g., potholes, sidewalk replacement); and file complaints. Although 311 has evolved since its earliest days into a multi-channel service, for example, Denver’s PocketGov.com website as a complement to 311; the platform remains primarily focused on providing a reporting mechanism.

Consider the NextDoor platform. It tends to center around neighborhood comings and goings, and inquiries about landscapers, babysitters, and lost pets. But sometimes it does provide more critical intelligence around public safety or mobility, such as when road construction closes streets; or if a protest is headed your way, the platform can provide location updates.

Today, the proliferation of social media platforms offers a new way for cities to collect and mine data. These nuggets are important. I often wonder how communities can use real-time data monitoring in social media to leverage citizen feedback and aggregate and mine specific data trends. But the truth is that community leaders are busy – they don’t have the time to figure out where their residents are communicating, let alone what they’re saying. So, how do we become more data-centric?

Data Mining IRL

Some companies are already chasing down this dream. For example, the Kansas City-based company mySidewalk is working to collect and take action on community data. The company relies on two tools: mySidewalk, “a city intelligence tool designed to help local government analysts get data out of silos and into operational, strategic, and policy decisions,” and MindMixer, “a powerful online engagement platform that has helped more than 1,200 organizations start conversations with people who care about their communities.”

Israel-based Zencity looks at platforms and real-time data, like 311, Twitter pages, Facebook feeds, and NextDoor, to get a grasp on what is happening right now in cities and communities, like where people are demonstrating in Washington, D.C. Zencity harnesses AI (artificial intelligence) to transform data from all of the touchpoints residents have with their city into actionable insights.

Cities can even use this information to make tourism more enjoyable for visitors and residents alike. In 2016, the European Commission named Amsterdam the Capital of Innovation for its “Beautiful Noise” initiative. Tourism is a major revenue driver in Amsterdam, and so the initiative uses data collected through social media platforms such as Flickr, Instagram, and Twitter; along with street cameras, WiFi hotspots, and GPS tracking to monitor how crowds move through the city.

Cities then use that feedback to identify tourist movement patterns, helping to determine crowd congestion, wait times, and mass-transit delays. This information helps them make decisions and unclog high-traffic points, improving urban movement for both tourists and residents.

This level of digital knowledge can even help inform public safety initiatives. For example, StreetLight Data, based in San Francisco, combines Big Data with transportation knowledge to enable smarter mobility. In Columbus, Ohio, the company has identified a link between transportation issues and infant mortality rates, noting that low-income neighborhoods often do not have easy access to health care facilities, and by using transportation data, the city can increase accessibility and reduce mortality rates.

“Access to Big Data, and by Big Data, I mean the location data created by connected cars and trucks, smartphones, and wearables; can help communities use real-world information to design their transportation networks,” the company writes in its blog. “Instead of relying on outdated information from surveys or incomplete data from sensors, planners can see the full picture of travel behavior for their entire city across all demographic groups.”

Bleutech Park Las Vegas might be one example of an entire community that is being built with data in mind, from the ground up. Located in the Las Vegas Valley, this technologically advanced, self-sustaining eco-entertainment district personifies the digital revolution. This $7.5-billion, six-year project, which will kick off in January 2021, will offer a mixed-use environment featuring workforce housing, offices, retail space, a hotel, and at the forefront, entertainment. These net-zero buildings will be equipped with automated multi-functional designs, renewable energy, autonomous vehicles, AI, augmented reality, IoT, robotics, supertrees, and self-healing concrete structures. Data will be leading the charge in this development and helping to make the decisions.

The Underlying Infrastructure That Makes It All Happen

We’re on the cusp of a digital revolution. From smart water to advanced telecommunications, microgrids to data centers, electric and automated vehicles; the pieces are all there. The question now is, how can cities and communities align these individual efforts in the name of technology integration?

To make this dream a reality, cities and communities require the robust advanced communications infrastructure that enables these advanced data initiatives. Having the appropriate smart foundations in place allows cities and communities to pivot and address the challenges of today, while also helping to set the stage and prepare the community for future conversations. The goals can be as various as to integrate new technologies, respond to the rhythms of day-to-day life, or respond to crisis situations, like national demonstrations and global pandemics.

We’re seeing this happen today as COVID-19 continues to disrupt how we live, work and play, forcing people to stop and figure out how to exist, and even thrive, in this new environment. It all comes back to the foundational idea of embracing and using data to find value in the larger platform.

Real-time data allows leaders to make informed decisions, and cities and communities should start asking themselves how they can invest in this idea today, to reap the benefits of more insight and more intelligence tomorrow. What does that future look like, and what could it look like and what do we want it to look like? No one knows what the future holds, but I’m betting that increased connectivity and accessibility will continue to play a driving role in reshaping the world, offering a brighter, smarter, more connected, and capable future.

Discussion

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2 Comments

  1. An entertaining and thought-provoking article on the value of data and analytics for municipal decision making. There is certainly a lot more to be learned by aggregating and analyzing this vast amount of citizen/customer data. We are also using analytics tools to create structured data and insights from these sorts of ‘free form’ discussions in municipal meeting minutes and capital improvement plans, using a combination of off-the-shelf business intelligence dashboarding tools along with natural language text analysis. Some municipalities are also expressing interest in doing cluster/topic analysis of citizen engagement feedback, to try and find the ‘themes’ being discussed. I know that if we worked on this for 20 more years, we would still be learning new things the whole time. A great place for new graduates to focus!

    Reply
  2. Great article Steph! Couldn’t agree more that communications network technology is the thread that connects and enables all of these technologies and benefits. The challenge is the classic chicken and egg issue. How to build the network/benefits when the infrastructure isn’t yet in place. Point solutions that solve a single problem are difficult to cost-justify, but large scale integration concepts are fraught with conflicting priorities and bureaucracy. I am counting on the combination of innovative start-ups and use-cases combined with municipal/private partnerships and initiatives to tackle these opportunities focusing on the most impactful opportunities. A bit optimistic perhaps, but waiting for government entities or large conglomerates to solve these issues is equally naive. Thanks for your efforts and the work the BV is doing to advance the conversation.

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