Standing at the corner of 12th Street and Main, Bob Bennett points across the street, then beyond his left shoulder, over his right.
The place is lousy with sensors — on traffic lights, atop light poles, buried in the pavement.
By his reckoning, Kansas City’s chief innovation officer figures this is the center of the “51 smartest blocks” in the country. All around lie gizmos that never stop collecting bits of information.
Those bits become bytes piling into mountains of data that could, in the city of the near future, ultimately make urban life better at a lower cost to taxpayers.
Be the first to know.
No one covers what is happening in our community better than we do. And with a digital subscription, you'll never miss a local story.
Smart-city technology might better clear snow in the winter. It could spare sewers from breaking in spring rains, reduce the potholes that snarl your car’s alignment and whittle down the eternities you’re stuck at red lights.
If only someone can make sense of it all.
Bennett, City Hall’s data evangelist, thinks Kansas City’s starting to get it right.
“Every city in America right now has an amazing amount of data. We’ve got even more,” Bennett said. “The trick is putting it together, sharing it across departments, making sense of it. We’re starting to do that.”
He compares modern urban areas to smartphones.
They’re packed with more sensors all the time. What they detect builds an ever richer understanding of their users’ habits and notices when something unusual is going on.
They share what they find with networks, data-sharing pools where artificial intelligence can learn to notice both patterns and problems, finding rhythms in one thing that predict what will happen with another.
For now, the smart city hasn’t produced the killer app that an ordinary resident is likely to notice. Sure, you can use a city website to look at traffic and hunt for a parking spot along the Kansas City streetcar corridor. But it’s not the intuitive, go-here set-up you’re accustomed to on an iPhone.
Instead, the fast-growing internet of things — electronics that draw and feed information across networks — works largely out of view in a smart city to make things work more efficiently.
A White House report issued in February 2016 saw how that internet of things, or IoT, provides “new possibilities for the physical management and the socioeconomic development of cities. Local governments are looking to data and analytics technologies for insight and are creating pilot projects to test ways to improve their services.
“Technologies influence patterns of behavior,” the report continued. “Digital and mobile technologies are making the connections between service providers and users tighter, faster, more personal, and more comprehensive. Sharing-economy business models are emerging that enable more efficient use of physical assets, such as cars or real estate, and provide new sources of income to city residents.”
In parched Fountain Valley, Calif., a network helped the city reduce water consumption by more than 20 percent. In Los Angeles, the city cut its power bill by $8 million by subbing in high-tech lights that some day will better monitor air quality and track traffic patterns. Cincinnati is looking at a high-tech plan to know which trash cans need emptying.
Kansas City, recognized with an award this year for its smart-city progress, has blanketed Main Street along the streetcar line from the River Market to Union Station with sensors.
Although it lost out on a federal grant for a follow-up project, designs are in the works for the 8.5 miles of the planned Prospect MAX rapid bus line. There, the Area Transportation Authority could incorporate touch-screen information kiosks into bus stop shelters and perhaps repeat the free Wi-Fi service available in parts of downtown.
But the more promising might also be the more prosaic. Like sewers.
Consider South Bend, Ind. Its sewer system, like the one in Kansas City, at various points combines flows from rainfall with what you flush down the toilet. In heavy storms, it’s often more than the pipes can hold. So sewage that should be treated instead overflows into waters in its raw, polluting state.
South Bend was under an order from the Environmental Protection Agency to stop dumping 2 billion gallons a year of untreated water into the St. Joseph River. The cost to fix the system topped $700 million — much of it in the heavy construction costs of new conduits and tearing up a city park to bury concrete basins.
So the city, wondering whether technology offered a shortcut, turned to experts at the University of Notre Dame. A series of sensors were planted in the sewer system, mostly on the undersides of manhole covers, to track where the water was going and when.
“Suddenly, we knew where the bottlenecks were at any given time,” said Kieran Fahey, South Bend’s director of long-term control plan management. “We could reroute.”
The switch of a valve here or a pump there in the middle of a downpour avoided overflows. Spending a little more than $10 million to make its sewers smart cut the cost of the looming fix by more than half — from $700 million-plus to about $200 million.
Kansas City is using the same smart-sewer outfit, Emnet, to piece together a network of sensors using sonar and radar to watch how much water is flowing through the system and where.
“When a storm comes over a city, it’s not uniform. It comes in waves and cells. It can be pouring one place and completely dry in another area of town,” said Tim Braun, an Emnet official. “So you shift the flow to where you have capacity.”
The smart sewer crowd talks about a near future of even smarter sewers — ones that can tell the difference between storm water and untreated sewage, even gathering real-time readings of E. coli bacteria. Information like that, they say, could make the working of valves all the more sophisticated when water threatens to overwhelm: Send the rainwater toward the river, the sewage to a treatment plant.
That same approach carries Kansas City’s use of its other smart-city assets. The thick collection of traffic sensors along the streetcar line monitors parking, foot traffic and what mix of cars, trucks and buses is navigating the stop-and-go through the area.
Wi-Fi provided by Sprint in the corridor — the wireless company gains potential marketing information before passing along anonymized and aggregated data to the city — gives downtown visitors speedy internet access. The city learns, in general terms, whether people checking in on the system are locals or from out of town. That can be valuable for businesses in the area planning on what drink or dining specials might sell best and when.
Electronic kiosks can tell passersby what shows are playing and who’s offering happy hours. Most people use the obelisks to track when the next streetcar will show up. They, too, collect data. Somebody who opts into the system might get information triggered by the profile built into their smartphone.
Instead of using just historical data on traffic — what’s recorded when somebody with a hand-held clicker counts vehicles at an intersection to plan stoplight patterns — sensors constantly see how many vehicles are moving through a green light and how many are stopped at a red light. So far, it’s cut the drive through that length of Main Street by a half-minute.
“We know what’s actually happening in the daily pulse of the life of our city,” said Bennett, the City Hall data man.
Cameras on light poles can make clear during a blizzard what streets most need plowing. Knitting together traffic and weather data with what sensors say about pavement conditions — combined with records on the age of the street and which recipe for asphalt was used — can mean smarter street repairs earlier, he said.
“That way you’re fixing the street before the giant pothole opens up and residents are calling us with complaints,” Bennett said.
For now, only a small fraction of the city is quite so smart, covering less than 10 percent of the population. Bennett’s looking toward the day when home water meters, lights on every street and virtually all traffic signals are teamed in a weave that’s always watching what’s happening, and pointing to better management of it all.
As Kansas City’s been piecing together that smart-city technology, Columbia University doctoral candidate Burcu Baykurt has been watching it come together for her communications dissertation.
She credits the arrival of Google Fiber in the Kansas City market with propelling the project — largely because she thinks it made the city more enthusiastic about doubling down on new-found high-tech street cred.
She sees much of the smart-city effort as savvy, even bold. The city did well, by Baykurt’s accounting, to handle the Everests of data it’s collecting in ways that won’t threaten people’s privacy.
“They’re using it to find efficiencies, to make things work better,” she said.
Still, she said, the plan so far has been technology-driven — looking at the data for what problems it might minimize. An even smarter city would — and in subsequent phases could — switch that around.
“What would be really great is to start with what the community sees as a problem,” she said, “and find smart technology to fix it.”