Big cities see early benefits from Internet of Things, and grapple with ongoing challenges

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Geof Wheelwright

As many of the world’s biggest urban centers implement Internet of Things (IoT) technologies in a quest to become “smart cities” — making greater use of connected cameras, sensors and more — there are significant challenges along the way, including security, privacy and safety for citizens.  But there are also signs that the outcome can be potentially even more rewarding than might have been thought.

While IoT is often characterized as a technology that will make life more convenient, you don’t hear as much about how it can help save lives. But that’s what the City of Bellevue, Wash., has discovered about several aspects of its IoT infrastructure.

Over the last decade, the city has enabled 200 of its 204 intersections to use “adaptive” signaling, so that all of the connected, camera and sensor-equipped intersections can send data to emergency services agencies, as well as a centralized traffic management center at City Hall. This ensures not only that traffic flows a lot more smoothly, but also that police can respond to urgent incidents more quickly and intelligently.

In fact, it was IoT-connected overpass video cameras that were used to enable the November 2015 rescue of a man attempting to commit suicide. Officer Seth Tyler of the Bellevue Police Department says the city traffic department’s network of connected intersection cameras were instrumental in helping save the man.

“He was on an overpass and we were able to locate him within few seconds of the initial (911) call, and we were able to (use the cameras to) direct officers to a site where they couldn’t be seen and they were then able to grab him before he went over the guardrail,” explained Tyler. The dramatic rescue is now posted on the police department’s YouTube channel.

Not all stories about how the IoT technologies used by cities are as dramatic as that. According to Tyler, a more common situation is the traffic accident that takes place with no witnesses — and the drivers involved in the accident blame one another.

He cites the department’s investigation of a fatal 2015 traffic accident. “We had two vehicles that were street racing — and we could estimate speed using camera and time distance calculations,” he said. “It helped investigators figure out how fast they were going. Without that camera, we wouldn’t have had that information.”

Gunshot detection improves crime reporting

Other cities are also using IoT technologies to help keep citizens safe. According to Jeff Merritt, director of innovation in the New York City Mayor’s Office of Tech and Innovation, using IoT to “listen” for signs of violent crime can also make a real difference.

He points to a recent pilot project in Brooklyn and the Bronx, where the New York Police Department implemented an IoT gunshot detection system called “ShotSpotter” (which Seattle is also planning a pilot program to test). It uses a network of hundreds of rooftop-mounted sensors to detect the audio footprint of gunshots — and then alerts ShotSpotter and the NYPD where the gunshots have been fired.

Using this technology, the city reports that the NYPD is now aware of a shot being fired within a minute of it being heard by ShotSpotter — and can immediately train any video feeds from the area on the shot location and send officers to investigate.

The technology uses triangulation to figure a shooter’s location, and the city claims it to be accurate within 25 meters. Merritt says that the findings of the pilot in the spring of 2015 revealed that three out of every four gunshot incidents in the pilot regions went unreported to 911.

“What we were able to see is that in traditionally underserved, low income communities, there were low rates of people calling 911 when shots were fired,” he said, explaining that it also gives the city a better idea of how much gun-related crime is really happening — as opposed to just that which is reported. “This is part of an equity play as well — because if look at reporting data, you would think that the upper Eastside has a lot more problems, but there’s an inherent bias based on civic engagement. The beauty of this system is that it takes all of that out of the equation.”

Keeping the water supply safe

Meanwhile, back in Bellevue, IoT technologies were used by the city’s utilities department to help manage a recent outbreak of Legionella (the bacterium that causes Legionnaires’ disease) at a local hospital. Andrew Lee, deputy director of Bellevue’s utilities department, explains that the city manages more than 600 miles of water and sewer pipes, as well as pump stations and reservoirs. It is responsible for water quality measurement — and notably, the levels of chlorine in the water.

In the case of the Legionella outbreak, Lee said the city was able to use its IoT-connected sensors to monitor the levels of chlorine in the pipes connecting to the hospital and ensure they were high enough to prevent any growth of Legionella in the system.

He also said the IoT-connected water-pressure sensors in their systems are used to quickly alert utilities department staff when there’s a dramatic drop in pressure (something that can be caused by a water main break). This allows the city to not only send out teams to more quickly repair the break before it can cause further damage and potential flooding to nearby homes and businesses, but also to issue “boil water” notices to residents when necessary.

Lee also said that cases of water main breaks point to one current area for improvement of its IoT implementations. You might expect that a connected utilities system and a connected traffic management system would talk to each other — allowing the alerts for water main breaks at an intersection to trigger a redirection of traffic to avoid the area, and call emergency services could be called in to help residents. But that isn’t the case.

“A lot of those systems are separate — we have a water system that senses things, but doesn’t talk to 911 or the street light system or the traffic system,” Lee said. “When a water main break occurs at an intersection, typically the people who can respond fastest are the fire department — and we have fire stations throughout the city. If we had a system that could call out fire immediately — divert traffic around streets that are flooded or would need work — that’s what we want to do. We could even use the street lighting system so that a pathway to the (water) emergency could be lit up by having brighter (lights) leading to the breach.”

This issue is what City of Seattle CTO Michael Mattmiller calls the problem of “dumb Smart Cities.” He says that while cities all over the country want to become Smart Cities — and many are following the guidelines developed by New York last year to implement IoT solutions — there are often organizational changes that cities have to make in order to get the real benefits that will come from having truly integrated IoT systems that “talk” to one another.

“We consolidated 15 IT teams from across the city — and we’ve been working through a legacy of trying to merge systems and tech that were developed independently over the last 20 years,” Mattmiller said. As an example, he cited the proliferation of multiple weather-sensing systems that were deployed (sometimes at the same location) by different city departments and implemented without the departments talking to one another about them beforehand.

Preparing for connected cars

According to Bellevue chief technology officer Chelo Picardal, the key to successfully using IoT lies in leveraging what you have and building on it in an intelligent way. For Bellevue, for example, that has meant taking advantage of the city’s early investment in rolling out connectivity to city intersections.

A visit to the traffic management center offers a visual reminder of a crucial scene in the 2003 remake of the classic heist movie “The Italian Job” — in which one of the characters takes control of the city’s connected traffic light infrastructure to frustrate the attempts of law enforcement to chase the thieves involved in a big gold robbery.

“We have on-demand (traffic) lights, so you don’t sit at an empty intersection,” Picardal said. “Loop detectors in the pavement would switch the light for the lone vehicle at the intersection.” The sensors also help unsnarl traffic by changing the timing of lights at intersections, as well as allowing emergency services vehicles to take priority at intersections.

Picardal said this connected traffic control infrastructure is now providing a foundation upon which the city can build.

“It sets us up nicely for connected vehicles — especially where vehicle technologies are quickly evolving,” she said. Picardal suggested that because intersections have the digital foundation to be able to communicate to smart vehicles, you could see scenarios where a signal could be sent from intersection lights to “smart” vehicles (or even self-driving cars) letting them know that the light won’t turn green for 90 seconds and that vehicles could safely power down during that period.

Security challenges

IoT systems also present security challenges, which were highlighted in a January 2017 research paper by cybersecurity expert Trend Micro. The report concluded that several major U.S. cities face greater potential exposure to IoT attacks than they should.

Using data from the Shoban IoT search engine, the Trend Micro research team identified wireless access points, printers, firewalls, and webcams as the bulk of exposed devices on city networks.

According to Jon Clay, Trend Micro’s director of global threat communications, the potential vulnerability of IoT devices comes from old devices that have not been maintained with up-to-date security patches, as well as newer devices that have been rolled out without a lot of planning for security.

“We appear to be seeing a similar phenomenon to the BYOD syndrome where people within organizations, whether businesses or government agencies like cities, are connecting IoT devices to their networks,” he said. “This shadow IT tends to be a challenge for IT to manage. These users are not likely to be as diligent in updating with the latest security patches from the vendor.”

Clay also warned that IoT product manufacturers need to be more responsible about ensuring that they continue to do security updates for the life of their devices. “We need both the users and the manufacturers to be more aware that these devices are under attack and can be compromised,” he said.

Trend Micro’s research found that the cities with the highest number of “exposed cyber assets” were:

•Lafayette, La., for the government sector.
•Houston, for the emergency services sector.
•Cambridge, Mass., for the healthcare sector.
•Clarksville, Tenn., for the utilities sector.
•New York City, by a huge margin, for the financial sector.
•Philadelphia, for the education sector.

“This is a very interesting and unpredictable mix of cities; while it is not surprising that New York City has the highest number of exposed cyber assets in the financial sector, one would assume Washington, D.C., would logically trump Lafayette for the highest number of exposed government assets,” the report stated. “For the utilities sector, we found that exposed cyber assets are mostly located in small cities and towns, not in big cities.”

New York’s Jeff Merritt is not surprised by the conclusions. He said rapidly dropping costs for IoT devices makes it hard for some city IT departments to keep pace with the number of places that the city wants to deploy those devices.

“In many cases, the biggest challenges are in the small deployments,” he said. “It used to be that you would plan for years and spend a lot of money to build these (IoT) systems. Now we’re used to buying IoT devices for hundreds or thousands of dollars. There’s a much broader audience of people deploying these IoT devices with potentially a lot less scrutiny. We want to make sure that anyone buying IoT devices (for the city of New York) understands the complexity and the need for scrutiny.”

Merritt said that last fall’s attack on domain name system company Dyn — which was facilitated by IoT devices controlled by the Mirai botnet — was a reminder of the gravity of the city’s significant security responsibilities in using IoT technology.

“Security is priority number 1 — it’s hard to retrofit a system and make it secure,” he said. “We have to build a system with security front and center — it’s also a space that’s evolving really fast. We try to keep our finger on the pulse of potential security threats, look at where the industry is going and keep our networks as best in class.”

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