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Inclusion and connectivity must for smart cities

Smart Cities around the world face similar challenges. In Los Angeles, the focus is around making the city inclusive, equitable and connected, says Jeanne Holm, Deputy CIO and the Mayor’s Senior Tech Advisor, Los Angeles.

Jeanne Holm, Deputy CIO and the Mayor’s Senior Tech Advisor, Los Angeles.

What is your vision of a Smart City?

A Smart city is one that is inclusive, equitable and connected. For several cities in the world, the ungoverned way in which 3G and 4G were deployed has led to many neighborhoods being left behind the digital divide. We are now working with telecom providers to be able to deploy 5G in a more equitable way. We really want the people of Los Angeles to get access to the information they need — city services, training and education, and to be part of the digital age.

How is the City of Los Angeles creating value and bringing Smart City projects to life?

We work on a variety of Smart City projects. We have over 4 million people in Los Angeles. We run the largest port in the western hemisphere — 40% of all imports to the US come into the port of Los Angeles. And we have a large airport as well. So, we look at Smart City initiatives that are around city efficiencies, automation of transit management, and public safety. We also look at things that can make a real difference to people every day. For example, one of the Smart City technologies we have deployed around geospatial data was with the US Geological Survey. They have a ShakeAlert system, with sensors placed on the West Coast of the United States. Those sensors detect ground shaking when they start and triangulate and measure how big the earthquake is. We use this system to managed ShakeAlertLA, a mobile app that actually gets a signal out on cell phones in advance of people feeling the shaking. It’s like people getting a 60-second warning that they will be feeling the tremors. It tells them how severe the tremors will be at their location.

This may not seem like a huge advancement, but it’s tricky technically to get that latency down and get the information out. What it really does is provide peace of mind, so that the people of Los Angeles know in advance that earthquake shaking is going to happen. It makes a difference in people’s daily lives and their comfort levels, especially in an area that is prone to natural disasters.

What is the differentiating factor of the City of Los Angeles vis-à-vis other cities?

I think, in many ways, cities across the globe share similar challenges. There are things that differentiate each city. Like in LA, we have Hollywood and a variety of amazing activities ranging from sports to the weather and a diverse culture with 220 languages. There is so much we share with cities across the globe. Some of the challenges we face are right at the heart of Smart Cities — how do we make sure that people are connected, and children are engaged in STEM careers so that they become part of the economy and have jobs that can bring them into the future.

In Los Angeles, we do a variety of activities around STEM. We have a large digital life in many cities. In some of our neighborhoods, only 50% of households are connected online, and so we do computer giveaways through OurCycleLA. We gave away 6,000 computers last year and are giving away 15,000 Wi-Fi hotspots to high schools this year. We participant in the Cyber Patriots program starting in the third grade that teaches kids cyber security skills. National-level competitions are also organized for them. Through the College Promise, every student who graduates from an LA Unified School gets to attend two years of free community college, which is a huge impetus.

Along the way, we have an OurCycleLA program which gives away computers and Wi-Fi hotspots. If you are not part of that program, then you can go to one of the local libraries and check out a computer or tablet and a hotspot and take it home. We also conduct digital literacy courses, again offered through public libraries. We are thinking about the deployment of 5G, which really makes a difference because now we have the opportunity to put up to 10,000 smart cells across the city of Los Angeles and in the neighborhoods. We have partnered with telecommunication companies to do this in a way that is equitable.

What kind of technologies have been implemented to turn Los Angeles into a Smarter City?

In addition to the ShakeAlertLA application, work on digital equity, and 5G, we just won a $1.8 million grant from NASA for monitoring air quality. We are integrating satellite data with airborne sensor data and ground data from IoT and putting it together to collect a wide variety of real-time data around air quality. Our challenge is to use machine learning with all of this data in a way that it gives an air quality profile of the city in near real time, which can then create algorithms for other cities to be able to understand their air quality issues. We are also looking at using smart city technologies to improve the ability to better provide city services. We understand that there is a digital divide, but we want to increase the use and creation of mobile apps and access to information.

As one example, we are developing applications that can help people create their business, get access to procurement opportunities, and allow a person or business to transact all their business with the city with one single identification system. Our mobile app for 311 (MyLA311) is a way to call or connect online whenever there is an issue in the city. We get about 2.5 million calls a year on 311 for things that aren’t working, like filling potholes. So, people can directly report that on the mobile app and it automatically opens a trouble ticket to dispatch a crew. The idea is to streamline all of these services where we have people in the process, to gather data, and to measure our response time and improvement of city services.

You have implemented an integration of technologies and systems. What kind of challenges did you face on the implementation front?

We faced several challenges on data and data analytics. We did not have a job classification for data analytics in the city, so we had to create that. We worked with our HR department to establish this new class. We simultaneously created the Data Science Federation, which links 18 universities and students and professors there to work on city department challenges for 88 cities. We started with Los Angeles and have now spread out to other cities in the region. City departments come up with challenges. We devise ways to ensure that these are completed in a semester and we help students find data to support those programs. This way, the students get a solid CV and we get great solutions for the city. Also, the department can help students learn to apply to jobs before they graduate. We want the youth to understand that the city government is an amazing place to work and that they have the ability to make a difference.