Long Beach’s smart city challenge program delivers tech solutions to problems city staff face in their jobs.
For three years running, Long Beach, Calif., has hosted a smart city challenge, hatching pilot projects that may result in a contract.
Details on what the fourth challenge – to kick off this summer – will hold are still in the works, said Ryan Kurtzman, Long Beach’s smart cities program manager, but past programs have had success.
“We prompt city staff to submit challenges to us,” Kurtzman said. Then, based on those challenges, the city solicits bids from the technology community and enters into pilots that explore promising solutions.
In 2021, the city issued 12 challenge statements, including a request from the Long Beach Police Department for a mobile-based solution to digitize police reports and field interviews, another from they city’s Cannabis Oversight Office seeking a solution to streamline cannabis social equity program components and one from the Public Works Department for a public-facing, map-based, automated solution to publicize private construction activity in public rights-of-way.
Five of the 12 ideas proceeded to pilot tests, which run four to six months and started last fall. One involves a mobility sensor that Numina, a street-level data company, installed on a busy downtown intersection, Kurtzman said.
“That sensor is capturing travel pattern and behavior data from pedestrians, cyclists and trucks, and other vehicles moving in that intersection,” he said. “Our mobility team [at the Public Works Department] is getting insights, analytics and a dashboard that will allow them to better understand what’s going on at that intersection and then potentially make the case to make improvements and safety measures backed up by data.”
A recent two-week calibration period of the sensor provided the city with initial accuracy benchmarks and enabled the company to identify areas prone to errors in the sensor data – such as two trash bins that it mistook for pedestrians. “Together, Numina and the City drew a coverage area Behavior Zone that excluded these error-prone areas but still captured the section of the intersection that the City desired for reporting purposes,” according to the company’s March 10 announcement. “This ensures that the city team will have cleaner, more accurate data for the duration of their pilot study.”
Another challenge statement that became a pilot came out of the Long Beach Homeless Services Division, which sought a mobile, interactive mapping solution to identify nearby resources such as food, shelter, medical care and employment that residents experiencing homelessness might want to access.
A third was the Long Beach Technology and Innovation Department’s desire to have a single sign-on for residents, businesses and visitors that would let them access city services, such as municipal billing and parking meter payments, through a single web portal. “With one account, residents could sign into multiple applications and cut the need to provide duplicate login information for different City services,” according to the challenge statement.
A pilot from the 2020 challenge that led to a contract was a solution for collecting resident feedback and promoting discourse. The pilot test involved software from Zencity that gathered resident discourse from social media channels and provided city staff with a dashboard of trending topics, key insights and positive or negative sentiment around certain topics, Kurtzman said.
The pilot began in February 2020 and found the next month that the COVID-19 pandemic made a strong use case, providing city decision-makers, including the city manager and mayor, with an understanding of what residents were saying about the city’s COVID response and what they needed, Kurtzman said.
The city quickly incorporated the data from the software into internal reporting about the pandemic. “Because of that, we began relying on the data and on the service pretty quickly,” Kurtzman said, and transitioned the pilot to a full contract in June 2020.
Now the program has more than 100 users in 15-plus city departments and helps with reports on everything from homelessness to recycling services to community engagement.
Smart city pilots incur no cost to the city other than staff time, “which is very compelling because city budgets are tight right now, so it allows us to pilot new and emerging technologies without committing heavy resources on our part,” Kurtzman added.
Long Beach’s smart city initiative started in late 2019 at the directive of Mayor Robert Garcia. Engagement efforts with the city’s 500,000 residents in 2019 and into 2020 helped officials understand what residents and business owners thought a smart city should be and set priorities. That research led to the publishing of a Smart City Strategy Initiative strategic plan in 2021 with four guiding principles: design for equity, earn public trust, cultivate local expertise and build civic resilience.
The Smart City Challenge is one result of the plan. The other is Pitch Long Beach!, an initiative the city launched last month to foster communication between businesses and officials.
“Our goal is to manage those pilots so we can allow city staff and other stakeholders to explore and implement new and emerging technologies,” Kurtzman said. “If cities don’t take a more proactive role with responding to new technology and prioritizing digital equity to make sure residents don’t get left behind by new technology, then I think we’ll continue to have a divide among our residents.”
Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.