Knowledge is power, and the city of Portland, Oregon, is about to use the power of knowledge to save lives. As part of its Vision Zero Program, the city is deploying a network of smart sensors along its three most dangerous streets to gather data about the speed and flow of traffic. Traffic system designers will analyze data from the sensors to figure out what's not working and how to make those and other city streets safer for motorists, bicyclists, and pedestrians.
The sensors, built by Portland's project partner Current by GE, will be used to track how fast people drive, where they walk, bike, and drive, and where pedestrians cross the street. In future they may also be used to track supply and demand for parking spaces. These Internet of Things (IoT) devices have cameras, microphones, and environmental sensors, but to protect people's privacy, they won't store or transmit video. Instead, each device will identify the objects it "sees" and just pass on the resulting data.
The data-gathering phase is crucial to the Vision Zero mission. (As management guru Peter Drucker said, "You can't manage what you can't measure.) However, as Vision Zero efforts progress in Portland and other cities, IoT devices such as sensors, controllers, and connected signage will become not just data-gathering points but an integral part of new systems that will manage traffic flow in real time. As they do, traffic system designers will need to include these devices in their safety planning. New IoT components will need to be chosen for ruggedness to withstand the harsh conditions that traffic equipment is often exposed to. Because they are connected computers and therefore vulnerable to cyberattack, they will need to be evaluated for security (a notorious issue in IoT design) and the manageability to install security updates in the field. And designers will need to plan power supply and power backup systems to ensure continuous uptime, so outages in the "smart" parts of our traffic systems don't end up adding to safety problems.
Recognizing both the potential and risk of IoT and other new technologies, the city of Portland this summer adopted the Smart City PDX Priorities Framework, a structured process for evaluating new technologies, uses of information, and related partnerships to ensure they provide tangible benefits to the people of Portland. We hope that their evaluations of new technologies will include reliability to ensure that new solutions don't become new problems.
This latest effort in Portland's Vision Zero initiative is a smart move by an innovative community. We applaud our home town, and we applaud all the members of the Vision Zero network for pioneering the way to a safer, healthier, and more equitable future.