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By Stephen Goldsmith

This article originally appeared in Government Technology.

Steadily cities are deploying sensors — in streetlights, in water and waste systems, and to measure air quality and manage mobility. These very real breakthroughs provide tangible examples of the more foreboding-sounding Internet of Things (IoT). These IoT initiatives can produce vast quantities of data to help city governments manage infrastructure and improve operations.

Increasingly, though, governments are pondering how to pull all this information together, wrestling with the platform they need for this data. However, is that really the right question? Officials should consider how IoT data needs to be integrated into a broader citywide data plan focused on solving priority problems and producing responsive services. As with all data sources, merely collecting the information won’t create public value. Rather, IoT should be approached as a rich data source that can feed analysis and insights when analyzed and incorporated into broader efforts. Here are five key themes to consider when implementing IoT initiatives.

1. LEVERAGE EXISTING PHYSICAL ASSETS

Infrastructure upgrades are an opportune time to add IoT data collection capabilities. When upgrading parking meters to accept credit cards, cities can look for solutions to add space occupancy detection to those meters. When rolling out new streetlights, various sensors can be added that control the lights, as well as cameras or gunshot-detecting sensors. When incorporating the sensors in capital improvements, cities can procure the service of installing and maintaining IoT sensors, while adhering to data standards.

2. ENGAGE THE LOCAL DATA ECOSYSTEM

Partnerships with research groups, local nonprofits or corporations can help cities manage the technical complexity as well as the funding and analysis needs of IoT. For example, Chicago’s expansive Array of Things network of environmental sensors is being developed through a partnership with Argonne National Laboratory and the University of Chicago and funding from the National Science Foundation. These sensors will collect data citywide, including air quality, noise, weather and traffic information. This data will then be published on Chicago’s open data portal, which helps ensure that the initiative will be integrated and available along with the city’s other data work.

3. EMPLOY A CLEAR DATA MANAGEMENT STRATEGY

To maximize data, cities must be able to analyze it collectively with similar data sets, often from other departments or sources. When agencies independently collect data with no overarching guidelines, it can become siloed or incompatible with other data sets, blocking collaboration and cross-department insights. Data compatibility is an issue cities have struggled with for years, but can worsen when IoT solutions generate multitudes of new information without a plan for its use. Developing clear standards for how data is collected, stored and shared can prevent this fragmentation by creating a template that encourages collaboration and growth.

4. ADDRESS SECURITY AND PRIVACY CONCERNS WITH TRANSPARENCY

Because expansive IoT solutions collect massive amounts of data, security and privacy issues are critical for cities to address. Governments must take the necessary precautions to ensure data is stored properly and securely, and that the understanding with any involved private companies is clear. This is particularly important to consider with IoT initiatives, as off-the-shelf products may not have adequate security for government needs. Transparency on how a city is using IoT data, who can access what degree of data and the measures taken to protect sensitive data is essential to show citizens their information is being properly handled.

5. TURN COLLECTED DATA INTO ACTION

IoT is a tool to enable better governance and not the end goal. Operational implementation is crucial — IoT data must be analyzed and visualized to allow for better decisions in city operations or for research purposes to improve the quality of life. Having constant, real-time information is useful only if a city can keep up on the analysis end and use the flow of information to pre-empt problems.

IoT can help governments foster innovation, promote information sharing, engage the public and understand their cities like never before. But to fully take advantage of IoT, cities must integrate it into existing data strategies while addressing new challenges and continually refining their procedures as they grow these new projects.

About the Project Director

Stephen Goldsmith

Stephen Goldsmith is the Daniel Paul Professor of the Practice of Government and the Director of the Innovations in Government Program at the Harvard Kennedy School. His latest book is The Responsive City.

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