In Atlanta, smart city plans aim for safety

In Atlanta, smart city plans aim for safety

CIO says residents are ok with smart cameras to bolster terror fight and crime awareness, though privacy issues could emerge

As the city of Atlanta embarks on an array of smart city pilot projects to improve public safety, transportation and water monitoring, residents also appear to favor installing smart cameras for public surveillance.

In some other cities, video surveillance has emerged as a hot-button privacy issue that could lead to a Big Brother culture.

But the terrorist bombing during the Boston Marathon in 2013 and the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif. last year seem to have affected Atlanta's perception of video security. Many residents in the city of nearly 500,000 (with a metro area of 5 million) also remember the terrorist bombing during the 1996 Summer Olympics that killed one person and injured 111.

"We haven't heard any issues for what we've communicated we're doing thus far [with video surveillance] from the public," said Atlanta CIO Samir Saini in an interview. "There's been an invitation to deploy video cameras and our citizens are asking for that. They want it. We don't have appropriate situation awareness on the public rights-of-way. We need cameras in high-crime zones."

Atlanta CIO Samir Saini City of Atlanta

Atlanta CIO Samir Saini.

Saini is well aware that cameras in public spaces can be seen as an invasion of privacy. As a result, he is working with smart city experts and other city CIOs to get the best advice from privacy experts on how to handle the issue.

"We're going to be completely transparent about what technology we are deploying and what it can or cannot do," Saini added. "We're building privacy that any information is protected and encrypted."

Noting that Atlanta's smart city projects are still in their early planning, he stressed that if the city gets pushback to its plans, "we'll do what citizens demand. If it's an issue, we'll deal with it. But right now we don't have enough situational awareness" to help first responders react quickly to an explosion, a large-scale shooting, bombing or some other crime.

"How do we manage the threat of a person on our streets who has a backpack?" Saini asked. "If there's an explosion [from the backpack], how can we assure that emergency responders arrive as soon as possible and gain full situational awareness and quickly respond? In that scenario, how can technology and smart city solutions enable us to deal well with that?"

Smart City Forum network to help

Saini was recently named to the leadership team of the new Smart City Forum, a group of CIOs and other leaders from cities as farflung as Lisbon, Spain, and Toronto.

The forum is looking to accelerate smart city innovations by combining hands-on investigations of Internet of Things projects in leading cities with top academic research. It will be co-chaired by Peter Marx, CTO for the city of Los Angeles, and Jane Chen, senior vice president of ZTE.

The TM Forum, a global non-profit industry association, created the Smart City Forum and wants a more coordinated and holistic approach to security and privacy. Chris Stock, director of security and privacy programs at TM Forum, has called for a dedicated security operations center within a city's overall operations center that would help break down silos of information in smart cities.

The Forum recently posted an 82-page report by Rob Kitchin, a professor at Maynooth University in Ireland, that was initiated by the Irish government. So far, data security and privacy "in the context of smart cities has been haphazard and uncoordinated," Kitchen wrote. He also raised concerns about how smart city technologies and the data they generate will be kept secure from hackers and thieves.

Atlanta expects to keep much of the data gathered from various sensors for traffic, public safety and water in cloud storage systems, Saini said.

Part of the goal of the Smart City Forum is to bring municipal leaders together so they won't need to solve privacy, security, deployment and funding problems independently, Carl Piva, vice president of strategic programs at the TM Forum, said in an interview.

"We want to unleash innovation and port a [smart city] service from one city to another," Piva said. "It's not an easy undertaking.... We intend this forum to network together for good advice. All cities need to be very prudent about taking security and privacy seriously and, in turn, finding what citizens want."

Atlanta's smart city ambitions go beyond surveillance

In addition to surveillance cameras and other sensors for public safety, Atlanta will soon test transportation and water sensors for gathering data.

City residents approved a $250 million bond issue in 2015 primarily for traffic light synchronization. As part of that system, 300 miles of fiber optic cable are being laid to create a network that will be owned by the city. That network will carry data from an advanced traffic control system, as well other smart city data -- probably the video surveillance data. Excess capacity will be leased to raise money.

In addition, a city Wi-Fi mesh offering free Wi-Fi is being planned that uses the fiber network for backhaul. The size of the mesh network has not yet been decided.

According to Saini, the city still is working out its costs and potential savings from using smart city tech. "The truth is that we don't have a lot of money and we're going in knowing that and the strategy is going to be through private technology partnerships," he added. "Cities can't evolve to become smart and connected without the private sector.... We're trying to minimize any costs for citizens."

To crunch the massive flow of data, Atlanta will be working with Georgia Tech and Georgia State University. "The objective is to leverage those schools to do the big data analytics to inform the city on how to improve operations and efficiency," Saini said.

In January, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed bluntly told tech company executives at AT&T, Ericsson and Intel at a public forum that smart city projects have to be successful enough to help public officials get re-elected.

In addition to smart sensors like cameras for public safety, Atlanta is also piloting technology to accurately capture license plate numbers on cars and perimeter monitoring, Saini said.

Streetlights with smart LED lighting will run atop smart poles with sensors for perimeter monitoring that can be used to watch parking lots. The poles might also include environmental sensors to keep tabs on air quality. Smart poles will be erected in downtown Atlanta in the next month.

Sensors are also planned for monitoring waste water pipe leaks, which could reduce the time needed for a repair, and for water quality -- even though the city doesn't currently have a water quality issue, Saini said. Water usage can also be controlled with water meter sensors to give customers real-time updates.

There's even a plan to deploy smart city trash cans, which will alert a crew to pick up a can when it is full; that can help reduce the number of truck runs. The trash can sensors can be interconnected to air quality sensors through a central management platform as well.

"The system could trigger us to a certain trash bin, because maybe somebody threw a skunk in there," Saini said.

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