smart city

SmartCityPHL: Where data makes an impact

In the two years since an executive order from Philadelphia Mayor James Kenney established the SmartCityPHL program, the two women who run it have laid plans to improve food distribution, the built environment and roads.

“We are locally inspired. We are not Silicon Valley, we are not New York City. We are Philadelphia,” SmartCityPHL Director Emily Yates said. “We have a lot of amazing assets and resources that we want to leverage to make sure that the work we push forward is representative of Philly and the needs that we have. We also want to make sure that we’re collaborative, innovative and, most of all, equitable.”

For instance, on March 3, SmartCityPHL announced that it was requesting proposals for a platform to support the logistics and distribution of meals to food-insecure Philadelphians.

SmartCityPHL wants to keep Department of Agriculture grants funding in the city by making it possible for local restaurants -- many of which are minority- and woman-owned, Yates said -- to provide meals. Currently, the city contracts with an outside company that handles the logistics and distribution demands that come with providing about 60,000 meals a day, she said.

“Can we get an application that can identify which restaurants are able to produce meals and where do we need them distributed?” Yates said. “It could have a really massive impact if we can work through these bottlenecks.”

Every project the program undertakes seeks to break down silos and facilitate collaboration. That’s evident in two other pilots that use artificial intelligence to analyze city areas ripe for improvement.

To study how Philly’s built environment differs among neighborhoods, SmartCityPHL is working with State of Place, a company that calculates an area’s quality based on more than 290 built environment features, and PennPraxis, the consulting arm of the University of Pennsylvania’s design school.

Using 360-degree images from CycloMedia, a street-level visualization company, the team has collected more than 100 microscale data points about the built environment, including curb cuts, sidewalk quality and the number of trees, Yates said. The organizations analyzed the data and put it into what she calls a “menu of improvement recommendations” that includes expected returns on investment for each to help the city prioritize projects.

SmartCityPHL overlayed the findings with data on socioeconomic status and COVID-positive rates to better see correlations. They found that areas with poorer built environments had lower socioeconomic statuses and higher COVID cases and deaths.

“What we want to do with that information is to work with our partners in any department that deals with geospatial issues,” Yates said. For example, she said, someone from the city’s Office of Violence Prevention reached out to her about using the data because the quality of the built environment affects violence and homicide rates.

“Is there a way to take this data and this menu of interventions and co-create with community and the police what the community wants in terms of improvements?” Yates said. “I think smart cities are criticized often for being shiny object after shiny object, and that we’re just deploying sensors and technology for technology’s sake,” she said. “I really wanted to find a way to have an impact.”

The other AI-driven pilot is with GoodRoads, which provides low-cost devices that attach magnetically to city vehicles and collect roadway images every half a second and analyze them for problems. This lets the Streets Department know where repairs are needed, without deploying city roadway inspectors. Plus, when combined with data about race, income and historic investment patterns, the data can help officials prioritize upgrades more equitably.

What’s more, the project lets SmartCityPHL collect data points the city didn’t have, such as street sign mapping, pavement marking and manhole locations. In about three months, the program covered about 1,200 miles of streets. The outcome was not only the assessments, but also a five-year paving plan that aligns with the city’s five-year budgeting plan.

“By planning long-term and looking comprehensively across the city instead of whatever we’ve been able to evaluate in a given year, we’ve been able to take into account the distributional effects of upgrades to pavement or markings,” said Joanna Hecht, Pitch & Pilot Fellow. One of SmartCityPHL’s working groups, Pitch & Pilot is led by the Office of Innovation and Technology, solicits ideas to improve government services and offers funding to test solutions with the private sector.

“It’s designed to bring technology into the city in a transparent way that serves broad goals,” Hecht said. “We put out calls for solutions that are typically in the form of [requests for proposals] to get private-sector ideas, and then we pilot them with partners across government. What distinguishes it from just putting out an RFP is that we try to frame them as open to what possibilities are out there instead of prescribing what technology we want to acquire.”

The idea for SmartCityPHL came about in 2016, when the city issued a request for information to determine ways to better use assets the city already had. In 2017, with the help with the Smart Cities Council Readiness Challenge and a grant from the Knight Foundation, the city began developing the SmartCityPHL Roadmap, which was released Feb. 4, 2019, along with the executive order creating the program. The EO also created an advisory committee, which currently has about 15 members.

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.


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