Smarter and Safer Cities

Connected people, places and things. The number of integrated systems solutions is rapidly expanding, bringing data and gathering analytics from more points than ever. Smart and safe cities will continue to achieve operational and business process improvement from connected devices, including sensors, surveillance and other technologies. However, moving into this uber-connected scenario comes with challenges. 

As the Internet of Things continues to take hold and billions of devices become networked, concerns mount over hacking, privacy and quality of life. In Arkansas, for example, prosecutors have issued a warrant to access an Amazon Echo’s history logs to shed light on a murder case. Recently, the American Medical Association entered the discussion, issuing guidelines on LED lighting that warned about potential health and safety issues of high-intensity street illumination. 

In the security industry, “safe cities” have been a hot topic for many years. In the broadest definition, they incorporate surveillance from points throughout a city to fusion or emergency management centers that can interpret and react to data in real time. Safe-city initiatives, which vary by state, primarily involve public-private partnerships and collaboration. 

Audio analytics adds intelligence

Safe cities are all about using technology, such as threat detection and data analytics, for better public security. 

“However, these elements only focus on the visual factors,” said Richard Brent, CEO, Louroe Electronics, Van Nuys, Calif., an audio security company. “A truly comprehensive city-security solution must include sound detection, as audio analytics provides additional situational awareness, proactive evaluation and early warnings.” 

Adding audio to a surveillance solution is the first step in deploying smart city security.

“These solutions allow for proactive and real-time monitoring in both one- and two-way audio,” Brent said. “Security staff can remotely interact with suspicious persons in real time, rather than needing to physically dispatch a guard or law enforcement official to the area. However, it is not enough for a system to just listen. The monitoring solution must listen intelligently. In other words, a city surveillance system should also be capable of running audio analytics.”

Audio-analytics technology works similarly to how the human ear processes sound. When an audio signal comes in, the sound detection software analyzes the noise based on advanced algorithms and determines whether it is a match for other sound patterns from preclassified sources. Once a sound is identified as a positive detection, the software sends an immediate alert to security staff through the video management system. These solutions are now network savvy and software-based, so analytics can be effectively incorporated.

According to Brent, sound can be one of the earliest indicators to first responders that something is wrong.

“Audio analytics are useful to municipalities because they identify the acoustic events commonly associated with crimes,” he said. “The information provided by knowing a gunshot was detected or an individual was yelling for help is invaluable and, in some cases, could be the determining factor in effectively responding to and handling a life or death situation.”

Technology continues to migrate to a multilayered, multifaceted approach with new projects such as the Array of Things (AoT) that launched last fall in Chicago. The AoT is funded by a $3.1 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), Arlington, Va., with investments from Argonne National Laboratory (ANL), Lemont, Ill., and the Chicago Innovation Exchange, University of Chicago.

Jim Kurose, head of computer and information science and engineering at the NSF, said the first nodes installed in The Loop, the neighborhoods of Pilsen and Logan Square, and along Lake Michigan are designed to yield information and data-driven insights about the health of cities and residents.

“[They also] illustrate how fundamental research is vital to the transformation of our local communities envisioned by the National Smart Cities Initiative,” he said.

In September 2015, the White House launched the Smart Cities Initiative to make it more attainable for cities, federal agencies, universities and the private sector to work together to research, develop, deploy and test bed new technologies to make cities more livable and desirable. In addition, the Obama administration took several complementary steps such as the Advanced Wireless Research Initiative, through which the NSF is working with the private sector to invest nearly $100 million to develop four city-scale testing platforms for wireless technologies, including 5G cellular and beyond.

Another notable, related initiative is the Department of Energy’s Better Buildings Initiative and Smart Energy Analytics campaign. It uses building management technologies and analytic tools to reduce reliance on energy. 

Array of Things

Rob Mitchum, communications manager for the University of Chicago’s Computation Institute, said the concept originated with Charlie Catlett, a senior computer scientist at ANL and director of the Urban Center for Computation and Data. Catlett installed devices around his home, for example, monitoring the activity of his basement sump pump. He became interested in how sensors could help cities collect information about their environment and infrastructure, new data sources that could improve city services, development and livability for citizens. Catlett approached the city of Chicago, which signed on.

The AoT partnership benefits from contributions from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago on node design and educational curricula. 

Also called an urban sensing project and fitness tracker for the city, the AoT began with node installation in August 2016.

“Currently, we have six nodes installed on Chicago streets and another two dozen or so being tested at Argonne and other private property sites,” Mitchum said. “The plan is still to have 500 installed in Chicago by the end of 2018, and we will also send additional nodes periodically to other cities, which would like to test the nodes in their locations.”

The nodes contain sensors for measuring air and surface temperature, barometric pressure, light, vibration, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, ozone and ambient sound intensity. 

The Waggle sensing technology used in the nodes is an open platform that runs open source software. The AoT nodes use Waggle, but the platform is also being deployed for other sensor-based research projects, including the urban climate study WxSeNet and a pilot running at the Chicago Botanical Garden in Highland Park, Ill. Currently, nodes conduct communications over an AT&T cellular network. 

Mitchum said the Computation Institute has been contacted by either researchers or government officials from more than 100 cities around the world interested in deploying some form of AoT in their location. In early 2017, they will send nodes to Denver; Seattle; Bristol and Newcastle, England; and Delhi, India. 

“Each city has its own priorities on what types of data they want to collect and problems they want to solve, but in order to participate, all must share their data openly with the AoT project and the public,” he said.

About the Author

Deborah L. O'Mara

Freelance Writer
Deborah L. O’Mara is a journalist with more than two decades experience writing about security, life safety and systems integration, and she is the managing director of DLO Communications in Chicago. She can be reached at

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