Portland State University campus (ARTYOORAN/Shutterstock.com)

Campus testbeds pilot smart city solutions to climate threats

The recent uptick of natural disasters in the Pacific Northwest is pushing researchers at Portland State University’s Digital City Testbed Center (DCTC) to explore ways to raise the public’s awareness about environmental threats. However, between communities that are distrustful of urban digital technologies and startups’ innovations that never gain traction, many tech-based solutions for increasing awareness of local and global problems are never deployed.

“The analogy that we've been drawing is with the COVID-19 vaccine,” DCTC Director Jonathan Fink said. “You have this miraculous technology, but it's not able to realize its potential because so many people have concerns about it and are reluctant to use it,” he said. “There's a similar issue in terms of climate change, particularly in cities where there are technologies that can help mitigate some of the effects.”

To make it easier to evaluate smart city technology, DCTC is building a network of campus testbeds where promising applications can be piloted to evaluate their reception and effectiveness. The campuses offer the advantage of being similar to, but smaller than, municipalities, enabling them to make faster decisions than cities. The testbeds give researchers the opportunity to study various applications, their interoperability and data privacy and governance issues.

Aside from Portland State, other testbeds in the network include the University of Washington, the University of British Columbia, Portland International Airport and the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry,

Some of the technologies to be evaluated include:

Energy conservation. DCTC is working with Cisco and Sensible Building Science to reduce energy consumption in parts of buildings with few occupants. The system identifies the number of Wi-Fi-enabled devices in operation to calculate occupancy and links the information directly to building management systems that then can reduce the use of energy in unoccupied spaces.

Pedestrian safety. Researchers are tracking curb level activing including the number of pedestrians and the behaviors of travelers and objects in streets, using Numia’s light pole-mounted sensor. The system combines a camera and computer vision to meticulously count cyclists and pedestrians. Through a native application programming interfaces, the company provides street-level metrics that developers and city planners can access in real time over any cell phone network.

Public transportation. Downtown.AI’s software-as-a-service platform will help researchers analyze data for transportation planning. It optimizes bus and train schedules by evaluating forecasts, human movement maps and the impact of current infrastructure for insights into the routes and modes of transportation used by students and staff.

Community engagement.  To educate, engage and collect responses to embedded questions, DCTC is working with Hello Lamppost to provide conversations from urban infrastructure such as streetlight, benches, elevators and parking meters. Users scan a QR code to get answers to questions or chat about issues on campus. Participation in the narratives serves as informal survey instrument, giving researchers feedback from students and visitors on campus on issues from parking to environmental conditions.

“New technologies developed by large tech firms and startup companies can help people anticipate and deal with climate-related extreme weather events in a variety of ways, including, for example, improving air quality inside homes during wildfire events,” Fink said.

The DCTC will work with local community groups and city officials to determine which solutions can best address both local and global problems. It plans to use a $150,000 National Science Foundation grant to explore why some communities — including people of color, those with disabilities and those with low income -- are often hesitant to use digital technologies that could better prepare them for negative impacts of climate change.

About the Author

Shourjya Mookerjee is an associate editor for GCN and FCW. He is a graduate of the University of Maryland, College Park, and has written for Vox Media, Fandom and a number of capital-area news outlets. He can be reached at [email protected] – or you can find him ranting about sports, cinematography and the importance of local journalism on Twitter @byShourjya.


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