Universities to study how to turn Baltimore into a "smart city"

Imagine that Baltimore’s street lights automatically came on when they sensed someone was near, collected data about air quality and even alerted police at the sound of a gunshot.

Such futuristic-sounding technology may not be so far off in Baltimore.

Backed by a National Science Foundation grant, a group of university researchers led by the University of Maryland is working with city leaders, neighborhood groups and other stakeholders to devise a plan for how to turn Baltimore into a “smart city.”

Smart cities expand internet access for residents, install sensors, and use data analysis and other advanced technology to address systemic problems such as inequity, crime, air quality and government inefficiency.

Such technologies can be costly, and cities must weigh the benefits they bring against the safety and security concerns associated with collecting massive amounts of data.

But with two-thirds of the world’s population expected to live in urban areas by 2030, according to the United Nations, analysts say cities that want to remain functional maintain functionality while continuing to attract new residents will have no choice but to embrace technology.

“We’re putting additional strain on our resources and infrastructure — we have to figure out how to use that infrastructure better,” said Dominie Garcia, the smart cities program lead at Battelle, a global research and development firm based in Columbus, Ohio.

In Baltimore, the $100,000 federal grant will fund a year-long research project focused on developing a strategy for how Baltimore could get smart.

But the project dovetails with a broader “inclusive digital transformation plan” being developed by the city’s information technology department at the behest of Mayor Catherine Pugh. That plan is intended to outline how the city will, over the next several years, use technology to improve public health, economic development, public safety and government transparency, as well as bridge the digital divide between households and neighborhoods of different economic means.

Baltimore’s foray into smart technology comes as the city tries to woo one of the county’s most technology-savvy companies — Amazon. Even if the e-commerce giant doesn’t choose Baltimore for its second headquarters, a $5 billion project with the promise of 50,000 jobs, city leaders say a more technologically advanced Baltimore is a top priority in continuing to attract top-notch employers and talent.

“The number of graduate students outside Baltimore that come to our universities and when they’re done with their degrees, what do they do? Most of them leave,” said Frank Johnson, the city’s chief information officer, who is tasked with overseeing the creation of the digital transformation plan.

“This would improve the lives of the people who were born and raised here, who visit here, who educate here,” he said. “The benefits to everyone are absolutely tremendous.”

Johnson envisions a head-to-toe digital transformation, from efforts to go paperless to an overhaul of the city’s technology infrastructure. He said the city has not yet set aside a specific amount of money for the initiative. The plan he develops is a first step to evaluating what technology the city has and what it will need to invest in.

The region’s universities will be key partners in accomplishing such a heavy lift, he said.

University of Maryland and its research partners — Johns Hopkins University, Morgan State University and University of Baltimore — will focus on Mount Pleasant, Upton and the surrounding West Baltimore area, neighborhoods where researchers think technology could help address long-standing disparities.

The area has high unemployment and poverty compared to city averages, but benefits from community groups trying to solve those problems.

Engaging neighborhood organizations will be an important first step, said Gerrit Knaap, executive director of the National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education at the University of Maryland.

“The major thrust of this proposal is that as Baltimore gets into the smart cities arena, it get implemented in a way that doesn’t exacerbate the digital divide,” Knaap said.

Researchers plan to survey residents and meet with community groups to determine what issues they should focus on and what technologies could be used to address those problems.

Andre Robinson, the head of the Mount Pleasant Community Development Corp., has some ideas.

He’d like to see more affordable, readily available internet, so students whose families cannot afford the utility can complete their homework at home, rather than leaning up against public buildings to mooch a connection on a phone.

The Mount Pleasant Community Development Corp. is the umbrella organization for Innovation Villages, an initiative launched last year to bring more technology and innovation to underserved neighborhoods in West Baltimore.

Robinson said the group’s mission is in line with the university project, and he’s pleased to see more people taking an interest in the same work.

“The west side of Baltimore is a beautiful neighborhood, but just like if you had a beautiful Mercedes-Benz, if you don’t invest in it, it falls apart,” he said. “We’re trying to bring those technologies to a part of the city that has been marginalized for generations.”

Baltimore is one of dozens of cities exploring how to harness increasingly powerful technology.

Cincinnati reduced its infant mortality rate by collecting and analyzing data such as mothers’ ZIP codes, smoking habits, sleep environment and other health outcomes to better target outreach efforts.

In Louisville, Ky., smart inhalers send usage data and geographic indicators to doctors and city analysts to create a “heat map” of asthma hot spots.

Chicago, Philadelphia and San Francisco have used sensors to reduce sewage overflow and manage stormwater runoff.

“The hope is that cities can identify earlier neighborhoods in trouble, families that need help,” said Stephen Goldsmith, who leads the Data-Smart City Solutions project at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. “We’ve thought about it more in terms of redirecting public resources and getting a better return on the dollars that are spent.”

Still, getting such initiatives off the ground costs money, and funding is a major hurdle for any city pursuing smart technology improvements, said Battelle’s Garcia.

“What it takes is a city being able to say we’re willing to look at different ways of paying and saving and sharing revenue,” she said.

For example, a company that makes sensors that can turn off streetlights when they’re not needed could agree to make the upfront investment of installing the devices in exchange for a cut of the savings the city would gain from more efficient lighting.

The universities’ research project won’t tackle the question of cost, but they’ll have plenty of other hurdles to clear, such as what data points will be most useful and how to collect that information.

The group also will need to work out logistical, cyber security and privacy issues associated with data-gathering, said Katherine Klosek, director of applied research at GovEx, an urban development nonprofit at Johns Hopkins working on the research project.

“In general this project shows leadership,” Klosek said. “It can absolutely put Baltimore on the map.”

sarah.gantz@baltsun.com

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