Want a Smart City? Start from first principles!

By Lance McKee

For 42 years, I’ve lived in Worcester, Massachusetts, a city of 181,000 people. Over these years, it has become a much smarter city. It has become smarter technology-wise, but it is also a smarter city in the sense that our city government is more open and citizens are more involved.

Worcester was awarded the Massachusetts Common Cause eGovernment Award with Distinction for all of the years that award was given, 2006 through 2010. The award recognizes cities whose websites make it easy for citizens to find information such as City Council meeting minutes and agendas, the municipal calendar, zoning bylaws, and the minutes and agenda for boards and committees. I think easy access to the workings of government has contributed to Worcester’s rich and expanding culture of civic participation.

I suggest that nurturing this virtuous circle should be seen as a foundational principle of Smart City development. As citizens become more directly impacted by urban information systems, citizens need opportunities to influence the design of those information systems. Information system architectures reflect policy, whether published or not, or they reflect lack of policy.

My friends and neighbors, Karen and Jerry Powers, were selected as this year's recipients of the Caffrey Memorial Award, which recognizes the qualities of "courage, fortitude and perseverance through deeds and actions on behalf of the community." One of Jerry’s projects: He and his co-advocates in Walk/Bike Worcester are influencing highway planning to make Worcester more walkable and bikeable. Karen and her partners implemented a model for humane management of stray cats that is being emulated in cities around the country.

The reward is given every year, and there are thousands of citizens here involved in a wide range of civic organizations and informal groups. Courage, fortitude and perseverance are indeed requirements.

How does this relate to countless richly connected computers, mobile devices, cloud resources, and Internet of Things sensors and actuators being used to manage a city’s assets and serve the purposes of citizens, visitors, businesses and other stakeholders?

Let’s first look at the Worcester Department of Administration & Finance Technical Services Division. They implement Worcester’s open government policies and they’ve done a good job of integrating a broad set of IT products and services to help city departments become more productive and effective.  According to Claire Brill, GIS manager in Technical Services, spatial data is increasingly integrated into internal productivity applications, both in-house developed (e.g. customer service) and commercial off-the-shelf software (e.g. ShotSpotter, ViewPermit).  Part of the vision of Technical Services is to continue to develop more interactive GIS applications which are directly accessed by the public.  Current offerings on the City of Worcester website include maps for viewing and printing, as well as an interactive map to support the Adopt-A-Hydrant program.  An open data site provides spatial datasets for downloading and access to a property viewer application. 

“Providing more information to citizens also improves efficiencies for city departments.  It is a constant balance between providing self-service options, complying with public records law exceptions, ensuring data accuracy, addressing the accessibility needs of users and prioritizing limited resources. Constituent input can help guide our development decisions,” Brill said.

Worcester Tech Services is not unlike many other cities’ geospatial groups in their set of responsibilities. What struck me in my conversation with Brill was that complying with public records law exceptions and ensuring data accuracy will require considerably more resources as the City begins communicating with computers, mobile devices, cloud resources and Internet of Things sensors and actuators that are outside its jurisdiction. Policy makers and managers will need to address complex issues of privacy, security, data provenance and data maintenance.

As urban IT departments become more connected to local external digital devices and systems, and as they make more data open, especially through interfaces that remove the delays imposed by data file manipulations, those IT departments will become more important. As urban IT becomes more important, policy guidance becomes more important.

Citizen input thus becomes more important. However, sometimes the issues are technically complex and only experts can see the hazards and opportunities, so citizens need expert representation in public hearings and council deliberations.

Technology Ombudspersons

In this new connected age, good representative government, collaboration among citizens’ groups, and a new class of “technology ombudspersons” will be, or already are, necessary to keep us away from the dystopian visions and bring us closer to the utopian visions.

Technology vendors, grid operators, energy providers, transportation providers and other corporate municipal partners understand how their interests are served or not served by the information infrastructures provided by cities or provided by these vendors to cities. The need for a technology ombudsperson derives from the fact that citizens often don’t understand how their interests are served, or how they could be served if the technologies were implemented differently. 

Information architectures that will heavily involve communication between diverse open systems are often based on the ISO’s Reference Model for Open Distributed Processing. The RM-ODP provides a coordinating framework for the standardization necessary for such communication.

Reference Model for Open Distributed Processing (RM-ODP) Viewpoints. Table from "Server Architecture Models for the National Spatial Data Infrastructures (NSDI).” Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC) (2005)

Usually, an RM-ODP architecture is structured as five viewpoints. Viewpoints are subdivisions of the work to be done, or areas of concern, in developing an architecture. They establish a sequence for the types of decisions that need to be made. The Enterprise viewpoint addresses the high-level purposes of the architecture and sets forth the goals of the various stakeholders. The other viewpoints address how those high level goals are to be accomplished.

Sometimes a sixth viewpoint, the Contextual viewpoint, is put first to call attention to pre-existent and external contexts within which the resultant architecture must be developed. This is important. Our increasingly digital and connected world is one thing that is pre-existent and external. Also pre-existent and external are the prevailing legal, political and commercial realities.

City planning visionary Jane Jacobs wrote fifty years ago: “Private investment shapes cities, but social ideas (and laws) shape private investment. First comes the image of what we want, then the machinery is adapted to turn out that image.” It would be good to include in the Contextual viewpoint that reality often falls short of this ideal. The “we” needs to be identified, inclusive, well-informed and represented.

A technology ombudsman would focus on this issue: Whom does the technology serve? The ombudsman could take an advocacy role as well as an adversary role. He or she might, for example, work with local citizen groups to suggest ideas for IT that would support their goals; advise on new initiatives, such as developing an open 3D city model; or work with local college students to advise them and liaise with the city on their ideas for Smart City innovations.

Below I describe my take on Worcester’s embrace of a smart grid pilot program. My intent is to illustrate potential risks in architectures and show the importance and difficulty of stakeholder education and representation.

I don’t claim to understand all the complex technical and legal issues involved. Worcester’s city energy manager and the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities in effect serve as Worcester citizens’ technology ombudsmen, and I don’t mean to suggest that they’re not doing their job. My point is that there can be complex political issues involved in Smart City rollouts. I and most readers of this magazine are technology advocates, but we are also citizens. We need to consider the common good and be wary of Smart City initiatives that are going too fast with too little discussion of possible negative outcomes.

Worcester’s – and National Grid’s – Smart Grid pilot

In 2004, a Clark University graduate student serving as clean energy coordinator for Worcester’s Regional Environmental Council developed a municipal carbon footprint. City leaders took it seriously, so that document, plus the city's commitments as a participant in the Cities for Climate Protection campaign, led to the formation of a Worcester Energy Task Force, of which I was a member for several years. The City Council adopted a Worcester Climate Action Plan, which led to the hiring of an energy efficiency and conservation manager who has saved the City millions of dollars. This progress also provided a welcoming environment for National Grid, our transnational investor-owned electric power utility, to make Worcester a Smart Grid pilot project site.

In 2012, the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities, responding to a mandate in the federal Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, approved the pilot.  There were well-publicized opportunities for public input. I was very glad about that, but I was away and couldn’t attend those sessions. I was delighted by the sequence of events described above and very much in favor of a Smart Grid, but if I had attended, I would have asked some questions.

The questions I would have asked were inspired by what I learned at a 2009 Department of Energy workshop, one of three organized by the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Those workshops brought together more than 1500 individuals representing hundreds of organizations to discuss requirements for Smart Grid standards. Representing OGC, I participated in the first workshop.

At the NIST workshop I saw that utility executives were confronting, some for the first time, what is now called the “utility death spiral”. As reported by Greentech Media, many electric power customers are becoming increasingly energy self-sufficient. “... as grid maintenance costs go up and the capital cost of renewable energy moves down, more customers will be encouraged to leave the grid. In turn, that pushes grid costs even higher for the remainder of customers, who then have even more incentive to become self-sufficient. Meanwhile, utilities are stuck with a growing pile of stranded assets."

Utilities have multiple ways to regain lost revenues.

  • One way is to build out the Smart Grid in a way that microgrids are largely owned and serviced by the utility and not by those served by the microgrids. Microgrids are small, highly controllable collections of electric loads, and generation resources can operate either independently or connected with the regional grid, depending on policies of the microgrid owners as well as local conditions and conditions in the larger grid.
  • Microgrids support the goal of climate change mitigation, provide resilience in the event of storms and cyberattacks, and they synergize with smart buildings. I had come to the workshop excited by the thought that distributed generation plus microgrids equated to distributed ownership of energy production assets, energy storage assets and local energy network assets. Distributed ownership of income-producing energy assets supports local wealth generation. Generating, preserving and circulating energy dollars locally becomes increasingly important for struggling citizens and cities. The growing wealth gap is leaving more and more citizens poor, while reduced state and federal support for cities is leaving more and more cities unable to meet the needs of their citizens. The Massachusetts DPU plays a governing role, and I can only hope they will serve as the expert ombudsperson who represents this interest of Massachusetts’ citizens and cities. As far as I can see, and it’s only natural, National Grid will seek to own as much of this new infrastructure as possible.
  • Utilities could profit from meter replacements and upgrades. There are fire and hacking concerns with at least some of the current meters, and these concerns will require replacement of meters. Wireless smart meters have a life of about 5 years, versus 30 years for analog meters.
  • Utilities may charge homeowners an opt-out fee if they want to opt-out from having a wireless smart meter. Citizens are opting out because of worries about fire risks, privacy and data security, hacking risks, and other problems mentioned below.
  • Utilities may sell consumer profile information to other corporations.
  • Changes in public utility charters and in federal and state law would enable utilities to become telecommunication companies, providing Internet of Things services and internet services. In Worcester, the web of amped-up WiFi routers on utility poles could perhaps be deployed for the smart grid but scaled up to provide other services. The wireless network National Grid is building could be designed to provide WiFi to the city. Ubiquitous WiFi might sound good, as the competition would tend to lower prices for internet services. Such an expansion of wireless would, however, also increase the amount of citizen data that could be sold to companies for use in targeted advertising, and ...
  • Most worrisome of all, and something I didn’t know before Worcester’s Smart Grid Pilot began: Microwaves, those emitted by wireless smart meters as well as cell phones, cell towers and Wi-Fi, pose health risks (see below) that, despite the troubling evidence, have gained about as much attention as the greenhouse gas hazard had gained 40 years ago.

All of these issues deserve local press coverage and public debate. A technology ombudsman would help organize these activities.

Further, if every large city had a Technology Ombudsman office, their combined voices and influence over procurements could support open architectures, open standards (see OGC’s Future Cities video), and best procurement practices that would give the public a more certain path toward increasingly livable, lovable cities.

A chilling prospect

Four years ago, members of a group of citizens protesting National Grid’s wireless smart meters (a group I’ve joined) told me their concerns about the health effects of the pulsed microwaves that are emitted by wireless smart meters.

I was skeptical, but after reviewing over 100 bioelectromagnetics research abstracts (see the EMF-Portal and this chart from the BioInitiative Report) and talking with a number of scientists, I am concerned.  Around the world, protests by scientists and citizens have resulted in hundreds of policy actions. In 2015, 190 bioelectromagnetics scientists from 39 nations submitted an appeal to the United Nations, UN member states and the World Health Organization requesting that these institutions adopt more protective exposure guidelines in the face of increasing evidence of risk. That number has now risen to 225 scientists from 41 nations.

In my next article, I’ll share what I’ve learned about the biological effects of low-level (sub-thermal) microwave exposure and offer my view of the implications for humanity as well as for wireless communications, Smart Cities, location services and remote sensing.

Published Wednesday, April 19th, 2017

Written by Lance McKee

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