connected kansas city

Kansas City aims to be the smartest city

Bob Bennett has high hopes for Kansas City.

“We’re going to be the smartest city in the world,” the Missouri municipality’s chief innovation officer, told GCN.

Free Wi-Fi, smart kiosks, shot spotters, traffic sensors and predictive algorithms to assist police are technologies that will define the future of the city, he said. The 21st century rust belt, he predicted, will be populated by places that failed to deliver smart city services.

“That [is] not happening in Kansas City,” he said. “Not on my watch.”

Kansas City began capitalizing on high-speed internet about six years ago after Google Fiber chose it as the first metropolitan area for gigabit-speed internet. That investment brought in entrepreneurs and helped jumpstart the city’s digital economy.

Then in 2014, the city began construction on a smart and connected streetcar system, which necessitated digging up the roadway. Cisco, which already had deployed smart city applications and data platforms in other cities, approached Kansas City about working on a more “holistic approach,” Bennett said. With the roadway already open, more fiber was added, which attracted more partners along the route, like Sprint, which built and runs the free public Wi-Fi network and smart city networking, and Smart City Media, which installed smart kiosks. These partners invested more than $15 million, and Kansas City put in another $3 million for smart city projects.

Kansas City was one of seven finalists in the U.S. Department of Transportation Smart City Challenge. It spent $50,000 on the application processes, but received $100,000 for making it to the finalist round. That money was used to work with Xaqt, a local company that is helping the city integrate its data -- including open, historical and sensor data -- in a single quantitative analysis environment from which analysts can create applications that detect anomalies in 311 calls, traffic and crime.

The city has also been working to make data easier to access across departments and more visible in general, an issue Bennett noticed first-hand in a Parks Department meeting.

“They were talking about a new park they wanted to put in [but] … they were using 12-year-old Census data,” he said, even though the Planning Department, whose job it is to update this data, is just a few floors away from the Parks Department.

The city is using a Cisco product called Kinetic to visualize sensor data from across the city. About 40 datasets are feeding into the platform, including information on water, traffic and Wi-Fi usage. City managers can look at 19 dashboards in the morning to check city’s vital signs.

The public signs of Kansas City as a “smart city” are its free Wi-Fi and smart kiosks that provide information on what’s going on around the city. Behind the scenes, though, the city is leveraging its data and technology to help city staff, including running detailed analysis to gain insight from historic data.

The city’s first project attempted to predict potholes, which would improve the efficiency of its maintenance crews. Working with Xqat and Harvard, Kansas City pulled historical data on 311 calls and service requests related to potholes and combined it with data on climate, bus routes and traffic. This data was used to inform a statistical analysis on the factors associated with pothole formation, which in turn was used to build machine learning algorithms that could predict when potholes were likely to form on roads.

The city’s police department has plans to roll out a crime forecasting tool soon, too, Bennett said. Those forecasts are based on an algorithm developed by area graduate students that will help the city anticipate where crimes might occur and deploy its resources accordingly.

Kansas City also has begun to expand its smart city program into a regional project.

The region is working with Amazon Web Services in a formal partnership to create a regional traffic data hub. Although the project is only two months old, multiple datasets from several localities and agencies have been uploaded to the cloud environment. The cities participating so far are Parkville, Mo.; Olathe, Kan.; Kansas City, Kan.; Blue Springs, Mo; and Kansas City, Mo. Working with Xqat, the regional partners want to be able to understand traffic trends for commuters from their homes to their places of work.

But there also are plans to expand the public-facing aspects of Kansas City’s efforts. Public Wi-Fi, kiosks, shot spotters and other technology are going to be brought to Prospect St., which Bennett described as one of the more economically challenged streets in the city.

“The entire purpose of the smart city program is not to, you know, do smart cities for the people that can afford it,” he said. “To bridge the digital divide is to figure out ways to do things that make it smart for all Kansas City citizens.”

About the Author

Matt Leonard is a reporter/producer at GCN.

Before joining GCN, Leonard worked as a local reporter for The Smithfield Times in southeastern Virginia. In his time there he wrote about town council meetings, local crime and what to do if a beaver dam floods your back yard. Over the last few years, he has spent time at The Commonwealth Times, The Denver Post and WTVR-CBS 6. He is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University, where he received the faculty award for print and online journalism.

Leonard can be contacted at mleonard@gcn.com or follow him on Twitter @Matt_Lnrd.

Click here for previous articles by Leonard.


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