Urban Mobility

Kansas City, MO ‘smart blocks’ harvest and crunch data to do everything from optimizing traffic flow to predicting and filling potholes more cost-effectively

The city is alive.

It is moving, changing and giving off data about itself every moment.

Bob Bennett knows all about this, because he watches it happen in real-time.

“They are the 54 smartest blocks in the United States,” says Bennet, who is Kansas City, Missouri’s Chief Innovation Officer.

The downtown city blocks he’s referring to are near major venues, restaurants and attractions, and they report changing conditions in real-time via a fiber backhaul to the city’s network and IoT-enabled devices.

“We have left-turn sensors, pedestrian sensors, traffic flow sensors and transit sensors, and artificial intelligence (AI) helps to adjust the flow,” he says.

There are more than 100 smart streetlights and 25 interactive digital kiosks. The kiosks allow anyone to access current events, local business information, public digital art, local history and even specials that nearby restaurants may be offering. In addition, the kiosks may be able to serve as a reverse alert system during emergencies.


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Bob Bennet, Kansas City’s Chief Innovation Officer


And this part of Kansas City is blanketed with free public Wi-Fi. The idea is to make the city more digitally inclusive, while allowing the Wi-Fi vendor to test out the business viability of such an idea.

All of this happened because of a $15.7 million public-private partnership that includes Cisco Systems, Sprint and other partners.

Kansas City owns the data, but thanks to one of the many startups the city has attracted with this project, you can see live visualization of the smart blocks 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

At the top of the live page you can even use traffic counts as your guide for when you do not want to be driving through this part of downtown.

Despite all of this, Bennett refuses to call Kansas City, “smart,” at least for now. It’s more of a living lab that is poised to make another huge technological leap within months.

“We are a cool city for sure, especially along our 2.2 mile downtown streetcar line. But we’ve got 315.6 miles to go.” And there is a plan for that to happen in 2018.
So how does a city near the geographic center of the United States set itself up to become one of the world’s smartest cities? Bennett told us all about it.




Move Forward: How did this “smart” project get started?

Bob Bennett: A marriage of two things happened. We had a streetcar line going in. There was massive disruption to the corridor, streets torn up, and the electricity load needed to grow along with other infrastructure. Then Cisco came to the city and asked to partner with us on a smart city deployment and Sprint was willing to test whether a free Wi-Fi system could be profitable. At first, it was purely a tech play, then it went beyond that. In Kansas City there is excellence in every stovepipe: transit, corporate, city hall, etc. But lacking was the catwalks between those silos to use that data to get predictive instead of just analytical. And that’s what we’re doing.


Move Forward: Can you give us an example of being predictive based on data and analytics?

Bob Bennett: We now predict potholes. The city already owns 85% of the data we need. And we use lidar radar systems to assess efficacy of roads every 3 years. But all this information was just kept on an Excel spreadsheet. Now we harvest that information, combined with traffic data. How many cars, buses or semi-trucks are using a specific road? That tells us how it wears. And then there is the weather. We now know that 77 days after a significant freeze-thaw-cycle potholes will be a significant issue. Using an algorithm with all these things we can project within a half block where those potholes are most likely to be. That means we’re scheduling the repairs. And when we plan it out, we save on overtime for crews and patch with regular asphalt, which is much more inexpensive than materials used for emergency repairs that cost much more. We’re also going to start using 3,200 cameras around the city to help in this effort.


Move Forward: You say your plan is to become a truly “smart city” very soon. What are your next steps for Kansas City?

Bob Bennett: We know what we have a main street that works. We know that we have time left under the current leadership team to develop irreversible momentum to continue what is happening. During the second phase in 2018 we’ll extend the smart data east to a dispossessed neighborhood to continue bridging the digital divide. And we’re also going to have a third-party pay for replacement of water meters using advanced metering infrastructure (AMI). It reports back every 15 minutes on water usage anomalies and can notify you. What I want to do with this, however, is what happens when the water meters are not transmitting to the water department; I want to use that time for the meters to report on things like traffic, air quality and pedestrian traffic. This could cover the entire city, and then we would use that information in data and analytics.


And Bennett says it’s not just his vision for Kansas City, but rather all stakeholders, who are going to keep moving this project forward so it is set up for success, regardless of political changes in the future.

“This will bring irreversible momentum, so everyone can see the intrinsic goodness of the smart city.”

That sounds like a smart idea, indeed.