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Cities get smarter

Richard Adler | Oct. 29, 2014
Cities can seem immortal, lasting for thousands of years. Imagine the possibilities when we make them smart.

The archetype of these installations is the Rio Operations Center, a vast NASA-like control room built by IBM for Rio de Janeiro that collects data from sensors all over the city as well as live images from more than 800 cameras that are displayed on an enormous video wall. The center, which opened in 2010, is staffed 24 hours per day by 600 employees from 30 different agencies whose task is to monitor the city's multiple systems -- ranging from transportation, energy and communications to public safety, health and even recreation -- and integrate the data with such things as weather forecasts to anticipate and respond to problems and emergencies in real time.

Cities already generate large amounts of data -- and will generate far more in the near future. As the density of connected sensors continues to grow, many urban areas will produce more data than the Large Hadron Collider, the multibillion-dollar scientific instrument that is exploring the frontiers of knowledge in particle physics. Collecting massive amounts of civic data on this scale will require a robust wireless and wireline broadband network infrastructure. Big data requires big pipes, and continued investment in next-generation broadband networks will be needed to meet demands to transmit this bandwidth-intensive data.

The limits of control
While Rio de Janeiro demonstrates how digital technology can be used to improve city operations, barriers to more widespread adoption of that model here at home remain, including outdated communications policies and regulatory uncertainties that could slow investment in the necessary digital infrastructure.

And as appealing as this vision of cybernetic control may be, it has limits. Anthony Townsend, a senior research scientist at NYU's Rudin Center for Transportation and the author of the 2013 book Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia (just released in paperback), these mega-systems have three potential weaknesses: they can be buggy, brittle and bugged.

First, large-scale computer systems often contain undetected flaws (bugs) that can cause unanticipated problems. For example, in 2006, a bug in the control software for the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system caused a system-wide shutdown that recurred three times in a 24-hour period. Second, big systems that provide centralized control can be vulnerable to large-scale disruptions (brittle): the intentional destruction of a few pieces of key equipment at the FAA's air traffic control center near Chicago last month by a disgruntled employee led to the cancellation of thousands of airline flights that rippled across the country for nearly a week. Finally, large systems are susceptible to being attacked (bugged) by unauthorized intruders, which has been graphically demonstrated in recent months by headline stories about massive data breaches at major retailers and banks by unknown intruders. And in the post-Snowden world, citizens' concerns about the potential for sweeping government surveillance have increased markedly.

 

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