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Smart Cities Connect & US Ignite Application Summit Explore Perennial Challenges, New Solutions

Rethinking the running and management of our cities–with new technology and data tools– is a good way to honor this country’s birthday.

AUSTIN, TX–It’s perhaps fitting that the Smart Cities Connect Conference and Expo– held in Austin last week, and collocated with the US Ignite Application Summit – wrapped on the eve of a (very) long 4th of July weekend. Because rethinking the running and management of our cities–with new technology and data tools– is a good way to honor this country’s birthday. If sorting out the key smart cities issues means looking beyond past accomplishments and entering some uncharted waters at the confluence of deep technical, political, and demographic tides, all the more reason to jump in feet first. And jump in we did last week in Austin, with a major conference exploring the use of technology, policy, data, and more to help cities become more efficient, secure, and sustainable–while improving the quality of life of its citizens and visitors.

“Cities can’t be bubbles preserving the past, they must be incubators ushering in the future”, said Austin mayor Steve Adler when he welcomed the Smart Cities Connect attendees to the event.

Interestingly, Austin, TX, got a preview of sorts of the June Smart Cities Connect Conference, back in April at SXSW Interactive, with a very good one-day Smart Cities event on Sunday March 12th, the SMART CITY DAY @ SXSW. That event featured a series of lightning talks from mayors, city technology officers, and solution providers, who were tasked with showing what they are doing, and what works for the smart cities solutions. And that event caught my attention, as a refreshing change of pace from typical conferences with their typical panel sessions– as the presenters were challenged to explain, solo, and succinctly, what was at the top of their smart cities agenda


Fast forward to last week– the smart cities ante was upped on every level. The Smart Cities Connect Conference and Expo/US Ignite Application Summit saw 1800 attendees converge in Austin, from 27 countries. 300 cities were represented (with city officials from mayors to data, policy and tech executives). There were 25 live application demos. And the expo section of the event featured 150 exhibitors, including 50 startups & innovators pitching their emerging tech solutions for cities. Beyond the impressive numbers I was struck by the unique mix of analytical sessions, formal presentations, panel discussions, demos of technology solutions, demos of prototype solutions such as robots and transparent (digitally) cars. The atmosphere was a creative and lively cross between a government conference, a tech expo, and high level university/research facility dive into future technology. All that is a testament to two things: good planning by Smart Cities Connect, the conference organizer, and the heavy participation of U.S. Ignite, the nonprofit organization that according to their mission statement “helps to accelerate new wired and wireless networking advances from research to prototype to full-scale smart community and interconnected national deployments.”

But don’t be distracted by that stated “wired and wireless networking” focus in the mission statement of US Ignite. In Austin last week, the organization showed how they are nurturing some amazing projects that go way beyond transmission platforms– drawn from among US Ignite’s over 100 application prototypes in the areas of public safety, healthcare, education, energy, transportation, and advanced manufacturing. On hand at the conference, representing just some of US Ignite’s great work: key creators and users of an application that enables STEM students in a rural community in Tennessee to learn biology in new, immersive ways by viewing microorganisms under a 4K microscope online, and remotely operating the microscope in real-time and simultaneously holding high-definition video conferences with world-class university researchers; real-time see-through technology for connected autonomous that can provide a vehicle with a real-time augmented view of a traffic scene normally blocked by surrounding vehicles; a system where a robot can automatically identify and track surrounding objects and people, as a building block of 3D robotic, collaborative wireless-networked augmented vision; and a streaming inter-city VR application.

The panel sessions and presentations in the conference track delved into every manner of smart city initiative. Many experts on both the municipal and solution provider sides gave presentations on technology trends– smart Kiosks using digital signage and other display technology, the Internet of Things (IoT), autonomous vehicles, and more, with sessions that included:

• How to Design a Smart City – IoT Technology Based

• Urban Mobility – Transforming Smart Cities

• City Spotlights: Networks & Data

• Urban Mobility on Demand

• Public Safety and Smart Cities – The Urban Area City of Tomorrow

• Using Data Science and Fog Computing to Accelerate Smarter Cities Use Cases

• Streaming Analytics: Transforming Local Government Operations

• Enhancing the role of higher education institutions in your smart community

• Immersive Virtual Reality Field Trip to a Solar Plant with a Live-Streamed Remote Teacher

And many more.

A common theme at the conference– and the most common ongoing theme in smart cities conversations nationwide– was data: big data, aggregated data, open data, privacy issues in data, data storage– because wrangling data is the prime concern in smart cities. Not the only concern– but it’s seen (maybe too much) as the starting point, the DNA, of all smart cities applications. But data in all those iterations and more is a tricky thing to wrap a business model or any other kind of model around: in smart cities initiatives you face the same conundrums you face in any industry: you don’t have enough resources to gather, store, share, and analyze all the data that’s the basis of what you are promising, or you have so much, or such different kinds of data, that no one knows how to analyze or manage it. In smart cities, add to that dynamic the perennial budgetary challenges all governments face– both qualitative and quantitative, as funding issues take on added political dimensions– the latter manifest themselves in the form of timing issues even when you do have adequate budget. In this context, top smart cities players (including city governments) are trying to build new smart city data gathering and management models– a task that even Fortune 500 companies are vexed by: what to do with all the data they collect (like POS data), because the task is huge. Even the U.S. government does not have the bandwidth to analyze all the data they collect.

Chelsea Collier, Editor-at-Large, Smart Cities Connect, moderated the panel Data and the City: Unlocking Big Benefits with (L to R) Mitchell Hensley, Sensus; Nathan Giles, Accenture; Jon Newhard, Trafficware; and Rob Silverberg, Dell EMC Corp.

It’s useful to step back and consider the difference between individual consumer/citizen data, and anonymous, aggregated data. Two different things. The first is mired in privacy issues, especially if governments or cites are the ones doing the data collecting. The second, should be the initial focus of smart city initiatives, as cities and their vendors collectively figure out how to collect and use aggregated data from its citizens and visitors in ways not fraught with privacy traps. The difference is often not fully understood. That being said, the Smart Cities Connect Conference made huge progress in framing the discussion properly– and sorting out the different approaches to the different kinds of data.