Smart Cities and Security: an Inside Look at New York City
New York City is not what you would call a “smart city” at first sight. Old buildings, aging infrastructure, an outdated subway, collapsed sidewalks... and an assumed lack of public means to achieve the necessary work that would modernize the city’s physical infrastructure.
When I traveled there in February as part of my Urban and Regional Policy Fellowship studying smart cities, snow seemed to be a big obstacle to garbage collection. Hills of anything from cardboard boxes to everyday trash were piling up and making movement along the city’s Streets difficult, a strong contrast to the latest technology I was expecting to learn about.
On the other hand, New York seems to be the perfect example of a global city that is at the crossroads of economical, political, and financial flows that make it so vibrant. Looking down from its brand new high-rise buildings, the city still appears as a world of possibilities. Add technology to this idea and this vista suddenly widens. The city recently received the nickname of “silicon alley.” One cannot yet really understand why by just walking its streets, as this nickname came about after the emergence of several initiatives related to internet technology and open data in the city. Last December, the city launched on of the largest networks of wifi hotspots, replacing some of the pre-existing phone boxes. The full network, called LinkNYC, will eventually be installed in more than 7,500 public hubs throughout the city. Once completed, the hubs will also include USB device charging ports, touchscreen web browsing, and two 55-inch advertising displays. The city estimates that ads served by the new hubs will generate more than $500 million in revenue over the next 12 years.
On organization at the center of this emerging field is the Center for Urban Science and Progress. Based at New York University in Brooklyn, the center is inventing a new urban science. And more and more students seem, with reason, interested in the emerging field. As where sociologists, planners and architects have long worked empirically, getting their conclusions after surveys and experiments mostly in “soft sciences” like sociology, history, and geography, a new background is opening using tools developed by mathematicians, physicists, and even astrophysicists who have decided, together with sociologists and geographers, to devote their skills to big cities and people.
The idea is to collect data about almost everything by getting access to databases owned by those who sometimes don’t measure the value of the treasure they have on their hands. This new science consists of watching the city through electronic eyes, measuring what is changing and what is not, and capturing physical movements through cameras and repeating the operation in order to get reliable information in the long term.
By analyzing this data, the possibility opens up that policymakers can use these numbers to improve public policy and the everyday life of citizens in cities. How? That is the question and the story these new urban-data-scientists are beginning to write. “Understanding that local governments have responsibility for education, fire, police, delivery of human service, operation of public works like streets, sewers and solid waste and storm water management, urban planning and zoning... cities deliver services to their citizens through infrastructure and through processes. We want to know how those systems operate, how they interact and how they can be optimized,” Steven E. Koonnin writes in an article called the value of Big data for Urban Science.
One of the applications of this method is the System Of Awareness developed by the New York Police Department together with Microsoft. During my visit to New York City, I had the opportunity to meet Sergent Richard Narog and Denise McDonald from NYPD Technology, who helped build the system. They gave me a tour through the headquarters (“war room”) and allowed me to get into a patrol car with officers. This system is an incredibly well documented database. It is fed with the reports all officers write about every control, intervention, or arrest. All officers are now carrying smart phones with this application in it. All police cars get a tablet with the same software. Instead of hearing a voice on the radio dispatching assignments after 911 calls, all the details appear on the screen with a huge amount of information: the address, the name of the person calling for help, and every fact the police could be aware of concerning the building, the person, its neighbours, if some thing already happened there, if somebody was arrested or had anything to do with the police, and so on.
To insure officer security and that police do their job, police cars are also are tracked. Some of them have embedded cameras filming what’s going around without interruption. This means that 8,000 cameras, operated by system of awareness, are staring at the city 24 hours a day. Does the rate of crime get down? Do people feel safer? Or is this electronic watching a threat to privacy? Nobody seems to be complaining about that quite yet. This development has also been one way the city the city has been able to get a fund for its investments. The software has been sold to a few other countries in the world, and each time, New York City gets a cut of the deal.
Catherine Sabbah is a 2014-2015 Urban and Regional Policy Fellow. This is the first of two blog posts Sabbah will write on smart cities and security.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.