The City of Los Angeles Is Taking Sustainability Data to New Heights

By Mark Stone, Contributor

Smart cities—municipalities that use data and technology, such as IoT, to connect city resources and enhance the lives of its citizens—are popping up all over the world, and for good reason.

According to a McKinsey research report, the smart city industry is expected to skyrocket to $400 billion by 2020, and by 2025, 600 cities around the globe are projected to generate 60 percent of the world’s GDP. In the U.S., this is due, at least in part, to the $160 million federal grant signed by the Obama Administration in 2015 to help foster smart city development.

One of those standout cities is Los Angeles. The second largest American metropolis, the City of Los Angeles is committed to using IoT to boost environmental awareness, livability, and mobility. As a founding partner of the Intelligent IoT Integrator I3 consortium with USC and other major tech companies, the city has taken a leadership role across many fronts in the smart city landscape.

Seeing (and Counting) Green

For the last two consecutive years, Government Technology Magazine named Los Angeles the #1 Digital City in the U.S. at the annual League of Cities conference for city mayors and council members. The city’s initiatives apply IoT to improving its citizens’ safety and lifestyle, the environment, and saving people time.

Los Angeles’ Internet of Trees project, for example, a collaboration with Google and Caltech, uses a machine learning (ML) algorithm to identify and count the city’s trees and helps city officials better understand its urban forestation inventory (currently around 700,000 trees scattered over 469 square miles). The intention is not only to maintain the health of the current green space, but also to expand it over time.

“How you manage and maintain that urban forest is extremely important,” said Ted Ross, the city of Los Angeles’s CIO in the mayor’s office. “Trees remind us of what was here before all the buildings were here. So when you live in a dense urban environment, trees are our connection to nature and the natural world. Besides, they beautify and purify the environment.”

The question of whether the city can increase the amount of land devoted to parks, community gardens, and more trees, comes down to smart technology. Today, Los Angeles has over 1,500 intelligent signal controllers on its traffic lights, allowing the city to improve safety by illuminating crosswalks and adding specific signals for bicycle traffic. The technology is expected to address traffic flow, decrease emissions and eventually, according to Ross, communicate with driverless vehicles.

“When you have a city with a large urban environment like Los Angeles, you have many competing forces,” Ross explained. “We look toward the improvement in technology, such as the autonomous vehicle, which allows us to reimagine the cityscape to reduce the number of car lanes and promote bicycles and alternative methods of mobility.”

By minimizing the volume of vehicles on the road, Ross forecasted a change in urban landscape, particularly for parking. As demand for parking declines, traffic created by drivers looking for parking spots will go down too, and the city can identify opportunities to install more green spaces.

Machine Talking

Located on an earthquake fault-line, Los Angeles is hyper-vigilant about how to protect its citizens from this type of natural disaster. To quell fears, the city plans to launch an earthquake early warning app, called QuakeAlert, for smartphone users.

Based on earlier findings, the city knows there is a 12- to 60-second window (depending on the epicenter) to warn residents before an earthquake hits. According to Ross, 420 IoT sensors — internet-connected seismometers, to be specific — measure the shaking which travels through the earth at the speed of sound. By sensing the shaking at the epicenter and transmitting the signal through communication networks (operating at the speed of light), that data is sent to servers that rapidly run through complex algorithms to identify the earthquake’s epicenter, the estimated magnitude, and the expected area of impact. From there, a message can be sent to all app users that varies depending on their location.

Since approximately 80 percent of urban and suburban Americans own a smartphone, many Angelenos could, through this technology, be warned to drop and take cover in the case of an earthquake. But Ross said the true beauty of this IoT endeavor lies in its machine-to-machine application. “We [can] start a conversation with vendors who can shut off your gas,” said Ross, “since the majority of damage from earthquakes comes from fire.”

Ross anticipates many powerful use cases for the upcoming app. For example, the application also has an API that connects to factories that can shut down the production line. Hospitals, too, could be warned to move patients safely in the middle of surgery, and elevators could stop at the next floor to let people out safely. In these machine-to-machine scenarios, data from servers originating from the U.S. Geological Survey speedily transmits information to networks and servers to public and private institutions participating in the program.

With $5 million dedicated toward investment in earthquake sensors, the city plans to unveil this transformative project by the year’s end. What’s more, data from the project’s sensors, implanted across Southern California, will feed into the U.S. Geological Survey.

“We now have a powerful IoT use case,” Ross said. “We can take sensor data and move it quickly over the network to smartphones, and even machine-to-machine.”

With safety on its mind, leaders in Los Angeles are already envisioning new ways IoT can make the city more environmentally sustainable, safe, and equitable. And with smart cities set to save enterprises, governments, and people over $5 trillion annually by 2022, this city is only one example of the way government municipalities can transform the world.