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Technology & Entrepreneurship

San Antonio Streetlights To Scoop Data, Inform Policy

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Flickr/Jonathan Cutrer http://bit.ly/2mA2AO1
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San Antonio is launching streetlights with the power to tell you where parking is, as well as what the city's air pollution looks like in real time.

In a presentation Tuesday to the City Council’s Innovation and Technology committee, city staff said the 90 new smart streetlights have been installed largely for a pilot study of several sensors. The streetlights have been placed in the city’s three innovation zones: downtown, Brooks City-Base and the Medical Center.

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Courtesy of City of San Antonio
City vendors Itron and AT&T have completed installing dozens of sensor-laden streetlights to collect data.

In addition to energy-saving LED lighting, the 90 new smart street lights will push data on area temperature, air quality, parking, noise and flood sensing to the city in real time.

How the data will be used is still being determined, but the city’s innovation department said other staff are eager.

“If you talk to our city departments they’ll probably say the most exciting part to them is having access to data sets in real time that can enhance their policy efforts,” said Emily Royall, smart city coordinator for the Innovation department in an interview last month.

Using ambient temperature data, the city could map areas with heat-trapping islands. One 2014 study showed these areas in San Antonio can raise the temperature by more than two degrees. That data can in turn be used to guide where projects promote shade, like the city’s free tree programs and its shade equity plan.

For staff in the city’s Center City Development and Operations Department, the data could glean insights on parking and payment structures.

“It becomes valuable for a couple of reasons,” said John Jacks, director of CCDO last week. “You can direct people where parking is (through the city’s parking app SAPark). Also it could allow for a demand rate for parking.”

The demand rate is essentially a surge fee model where in demand areas see prices go up and less crowded areas remain lower, again pushing cars into less congested areas.

The pilot streetlights along E Market street near the convention center have these pairing detection sensors as well as LED lights that indicate if parking is available.

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Courtesy: Itron
A LED intended to alert drivers to available parking in downtown San Antonio

The pilot streetlights come at no cost to the city. CPS Energy selected the competing vendors, AT&T and Itron. Each is attempting to prove out the technology for a potentially lucrative contract, if the city approves expansion. CPS Energy operates nearly 120,000 street lights.

The sensors are still being calibrated and after that data will flow into a data platform the city developed with Google. From Chicago to Rotterdam, concerns have been raised about personal privacy in the era of big data with sensors like these.

But city staff were adamant that all the data will be owned by the city and is subject to its data privacy policy. Itron and AT&T will have limited access to the data.

“Basically, none of this stuff has any personally identifiable data,” said Dirk Elmendorf, co-founder of Rackspace, and citizen member of the committee. “So, I mean, you said you didn't have cameras, so we don't have a temptation to later turn them into surveillance...in the modern era, that's probably way safer than trying to get too fancy.”

City documents state the pilot will end in spring of 2021. The launch today represents two years of work for CPS and city staff.

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