Smart Cities and Climate Change: Lessons from Miami

BY BETSY GARDNER • JANUARY 13, 2022

Rising sea levels. High energy consumption. Disappearing shorelines.

Coastal cities across the world are dealing with these issues but in the United States, perhaps no city is as vulnerable to these issues as Miami. Luckily for residents, they’re not just at the front lines of climate change — they’re at the front lines of innovative, data-driven and government-led resiliency planning. From increasing the city’s tree canopy to a Greenhouse Gas Reduction Plan to the new Miami-Dade County Chief Heat Officer, local Miami governments are leading the way toward a more resilient, climate-ready city on the global stage. 

One crucial part of all of this work: data. Thanks to the support of the city’s Department of Innovation & Technology (DoIT), city leaders have access to all of the data needed to inform resiliency plans, map coastline changes, create information dashboards, and identify energy use patterns. The city’s Senior Data Scientist Jennifer Hernandez manages the DoIT’s Data Program, overseeing the massive amounts of data that the city requires to run efficiently, sustainably, and safely. Hernandez discussed her role in supporting resiliency work at the city level through city-county collaborations, breaking down data silos, and “continuing to nurture the city’s appetite for data.” 

Utilizing Smart City Tech for Resiliency

Hernandez works closely with her colleagues in the DoIT’s Smart Cities team on projects around data privacy, city sensors, and data governance policy, but a big connection for the two is using data to support city-wide resiliency goals. 

Currently Hernandez is working with the Smart Cities team on an energy consumption reduction plan. This is a pilot program where the Smart Cities team is installing sensors in public buildings to measure and track energy consumption. As it’s a pilot they’re only measuring a few buildings for data collection, which Hernandez is assisting with; all of the sensors collect data which is then stored in a data warehouse. From there Hernandez creates pipelines for the data that bring the information into mapping programs like Esri. Once she has corralled the data Hernandez can then make maps of energy usage and even produce real-time data dashboards for the Resilience team. Based on an analysis of this data, the DoIT will help scale up this pilot for other public buildings to monitor and minimize energy usage by the city. 

Breaking Down Data Silos to Combat Climate Change

While Hernandez is based in the city’s DoIT, her work cuts across multiple city departments — and even across Miami-Dade County departments. One of the biggest challenges to conducting data work across so many different groups is that each department utilizes different legacy systems. The first step to even understand these older systems is putting together a data dictionary, determining which fields are needed, and then generating a CSV file. 

Once the data has been cleaned and formatted, then Hernandez determines where to share the information; either sent to the GIS team or stored in the city’s data warehouse. Once all of this has been completed, Hernandez can finally analyze it and work with the department that initially reached out for assistance. While this is a long and sometimes complicated process, it’s important to do this work so that existing data isn’t isolated in individual departments. 

One example of breaking down these silos is a project that Hernandez’s team is doing with the city’s Building Department. The current process for building permit recertification isn’t very data-driven, so DoIT is working to create a more informed — and resilient — recertification process. This new process compiles all of the Building Department information into a multi-layer map which plots out all of the buildings, marks them according to permit status, and overlays a coastline map that shows how close each location is to the current water line. 

Gathering together all of this information to make the map wasn’t easy, but it did demonstrate the importance of breaking down the data silos that exist not only between departments but between the city and county. Hernandez leveraged Miami-Dade County open data to get the shoreline information needed for this map. Collecting and then visualizing all of this disparate information provides city leaders with the most accurate and relevant information so that all departments can best keep residents of Miami safe, something that would be a lot more challenging if information wasn’t being shared.

Engaging the Community Around Climate Readiness

When Hernandez joined the city in November 2019, her original role involved outreach to community members around DoIT work. However, once the COVID-19 pandemic hit she had to pivot to virtual forms of engagement. While she has participated in online hackathons and hosted interns from local colleges, Miami ramped up digital engagement during the early months of the pandemic. 

One of the ways that the city conducted climate-ready digital outreach is through the I Sea Change app; the city’s Resiliency Team manages and promotes the app but Hernandez and her team make sure the data integrates with city systems. They facilitate the ingestion of the data into Miami’s Esri platform so that it can be incorporated into a visualization of changing coastlines with the data from 311 calls, emails to the city about flooding, and other types of climate alerts. This creates a one-stop-shop for city Resilience leaders to compile resident-generated information, and helps eliminate the data silos that Hernandez is working to break down.

For Hernandez, her main goal as the senior data scientist is to “make sure that all data is accessible, is getting to the right people at the right time, and is being used.” An audacious goal, but Miami isn’t waiting to tackle issues of resiliency and is relying on data to create a better, safer future for all residents.

About the Author

Betsy Gardner

Betsy Gardner is the editor of Data-Smart City Solutions and the producer of the Data-Smart City Pod. Prior to joining the Ash Center, Betsy worked in a variety of roles in higher education, focusing on deconstructing racial and gender inequality through research, writing, and facilitation. She also researched government spending and transparency at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. Betsy holds a master’s degree in Urban and Regional Policy from Northeastern University, a bachelor’s degree in Art History from Boston University, and a graduate certificate in Digital Storytelling from the Harvard Extension School.