Why Seattle is poised to be a leader in ‘smart city’ technology and regulations

New technology is helping local government create “smarter” cities in a variety of ways, from adaptive traffic lights to open data platforms to advanced utility meters. But with innovation comes complication. Privacy, security, and equality challenges are inevitable when the public sector tries to implement technology with the help of private companies.

This was the subject of a roundtable discussion hosted by U.S. Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-WA) at the University of Washington on Wednesday in Seattle.

The hour-long meeting brought together key regional leaders from a variety of sectors: City of Seattle CTO Michael Mattmiller; Seattle Public Utilities CEO Mami Hara; Socrata CEO Kevin Merritt; Microsoft Government Solutions Manager Mike Geertsen and others — to talk about the role of government in establishing policies and processes that enable the modernization of cities.

DelBene co-chairs the Congressional Internet of Things Caucus and is working on a comprehensive smart communities legislation. She told the group that government is “trying to play catch up” in regard to adopting new technology for its constituents.

“It seems like we are catching up to yesterday,” she said. “This idea of being forward looking in these areas is very important — the question is, how do we get there?”

Bill Howe, associate director of the eScience Institute at the UW, said the region can lead with policies that ensure “responsible algorithmic decision making,” or data-driven models that take into account human observation. He called it a “huge opportunity.”

“We have the right folks at the University of Washington studying research issues; we have the right mindset in the city to treat this as a priority; we have the political will and climate; and obviously the right companies to buy into this stuff … data is in the water here,” Howe said.

It’s a particularly notable time for Seattle leaders to be discussing “smart cities” given the tech boom and how quickly new residents are moving into the city — a 31 percent population increase is expected by 2035.

Ed Lazowska, the Bill & Melinda Gates Chair in UW’s Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering, was at the meeting and noted that there are many smart city-related threads coming together in Seattle — from the UW’s eScience Institute program “Data Science for Social Good,” to data-driven companies like Microsoft, Socrata, INRIX, Zillow, and others whose work is relevant to smart city initiatives. He also talked about Seattle coming together with nearby Bellevue, Wash., which has a robust tech ecosystem of its own.

“There’s a real potential for the region to be a leader in smart cities,” Lazowska told GeekWire.

Here’s a quick rundown of the discussion topics at Wednesday’s meeting:


It’s Ofo vs. LimeBike off the Burke-Gilman Trail in Seattle.

Technology is quickly changing the transportation landscape in Seattle, from the new bike-sharing services to adaptive traffic light technology for the Mercer Mess.

Scott Kubly. Photo via City of Seattle.

Seattle Department of Transportation Director Scott Kubly said his team is trying to move faster with how it tests and ultimately picks what technology to use. Data is helping provide insights about “cruising,” for example — SDOT worked with the Data Science for Social Good Program at UW and found that 30 percent of all downtown traffic is caused by drivers looking for parking or waiting to pick up an Uber or Lyft ride.

But there are also challenges that come with new tech. The adaptive traffic light system, which rolled out in April, helps reduce congestion by detecting vehicles. But it can’t see how many pedestrians are waiting to cross the street. This causes a build-up of people needing to get across Mercer. Kubly said the city is working with Siemens, which built the original traffic light software, to create a sensor that has a pedestrian-sensing capability.

Kubly also brought up “trip neutrality,” which, similar to net neutrality, is about an equal playing field as different companies install their sensors and services in transportation infrastructure. For example, if a vehicle has Microsoft or Google or Apple technology, how does it communicate with a traffic light sensor built by the same, or different, company?

Kubly also noted that SDOT needs to better leverage the fact that it owns 25 percent of the land in Seattle. He added that the city needs to examine its gas tax as more electric and autonomous vehicles make their way on the roads.

Open data and responsible algorithmic decision making

University of Washington Professor Bill Howe is also the associate director of the UW eScience Institute.

“Data” was the most frequently-used word during Wednesday’s discussion. Merritt, CEO of Seattle-based startup Socrata, encouraged government leaders to figure out better ways to use open data as a way to implement new data-driven solutions for citizens. He said he heard someone say recently that “data is the new asphalt.”

Kevin Merritt.

Merritt also used the City of New Orleans as an example of how open data can be used effectively. In 2015, the New Orleans Fire Department worked with the Office of Performance and Accountability to identify neighborhoods in the city least likely to have smoke alarms, but most at risk to experience a fire fatality. They then created a door-to-door smoke alarm outreach campaign based on that work.

“In two or three years time, there have been almost no fatalities in these areas of New Orleans due to fire and smoke,” explained Merritt, who also encouraged more public-private data-sharing partnerships. “It’s a really amazing use case where a public servant was able to use publicly-available data to improve the outcome they have in their area.”

Howe, the UW eScience Institute associate director, said Seattle has an opportunity to show how cities should think critically about using data in regard to privacy and equality beyond just simply collecting the information. The phrase “responsible algorithmic decision making” came up during the roundtable discussion. 

“As a technologist, I like the idea of shifting decisions from humans to algorithms, ” Howe explained. “There’s more scale; there’s potential to be more objective; you can incorporate more information; there’s the automation aspect. But the ugly side is that it can amplify a little bit of the institutional bias we have in the data.”

MIT Technology Review noted last year that both public and private sectors need to be aware of how algorithms can sometimes lead to undesired consequences.

“Just because we can collect data and use it, doesn’t mean we are doing the right thing with it,” Howe added. “Trying to figure out what technology stacks we need to make responsible decisions, as opposed to making just a high accuracy decision, is coming down the pipe. Cities have more of a mandate to do this than companies do because their whole job is to equitably distribute resources.”

Procurement versus permitting

Kubly also said government needs to rethink how it brings on technology vendors for smart city applications, particularly when it comes to the traditional procurement process.

“By the time we figure out what we want to buy, it’s outdated,” he said.

Instead, he likes the idea of establishing a permitting process, which tells companies what the city requires from a policy standpoint, and lets them deploy their services as they see fit.

Kubly talked about the new bike-sharing services in Seattle and noted that it took just three months to write the permits and get private companies to put bikes on the road — a stark contrast from what happened with Pronto, Seattle’s failed public/private bike-sharing program that resulted in Kubly violating the city’s ethics code.

Hara, the Seattle Public Utilities CEO, agreed and said procurement processes have no guarantee of return on investment in innovation. She also noted that government employees often don’t have resources to figure out exactly which technology is best to use.

“Municipal managers don’t necessarily have a way to assess the market potential for the kinds of innovations we need,” she said.


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John Marwel


Within this program, we can deliver to governments and cities the possibility of implementing Smart City projects from idea (vision) to the final stage of implementation.

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