Economic Development, Small Business & Startups, and Technology

City turns to sensors for data

Grand Rapids takes first step toward becoming smart city with installation of antenna to gather traffic, energy data.

January 13, 2017
| By Pat Evans |
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A new technology in Grand Rapids launched last weekend could help the city become more efficient.

Grand Rapids joined cities across the globe attempting to become a smart city, using data collected from sensors to make more informed decisions on how to use resources. The process starts with an antenna purchased by Steelcase and placed atop a downtown parking garage, said Austin Dean, operations director of Start Garden.

Start Garden helped facilitate the launch of becoming a smart city with a theme around Startup Weekend, Jan. 13-15, to encourage developers and engineers across the city to develop sensors to measure various data ranging from traffic flow to storm water runoff. Other uses could be how much tree canopy cover or energy a building, such as a parking garage, uses throughout a time frame.

Dean said there are cities across the globe, particularly Amsterdam, focusing on collecting data and using it positively for the betterment of the city. In the United States, Dean mentioned Louisville, Kentucky; Austin, Texas; and San Diego as pockets doing really well with data collection.

“You can monitor how many cars come down a road, track in real time where buses are — really the sky is the limit in data collected,” Dean said. “The concept is to help the city utilize its resources better and to improve how cities are built and maintained by using cash and personnel better.”

While the ultimate uses and benefits of collecting an unlimited amount of data is yet to be seen, there has to be a starting point, Dean said. That starting point is the approximately $1,200 antenna on the parking garage and sensors can be built by anyone for virtually no cost, he said.

Data collected by the sensors are sent, encrypted, to the antenna, or gateway, and from there sent to a server where the data can be analyzed.

Eventually, Dean said the idea would be to have Grand Rapids blanketed in five or six gateways to collect data from across the city for less than $10,000. Steelcase purchased the first gateway because it was interested in learning more about the technology, Dean said.

“It’s a true public-private partnership,” Dean said. “The unit was installed by the city, and we’re at the table hoping to get people interested in creating the sensors. It’s all about making the city more efficient and having useful information on the status of the resources we use.”

Sensors created by the public will be interesting, Dean said, because of the varied information subjects that may range from data on energy and traffic to environmental factors.

“We’re curious to see the concept people come up with,” he said. “If you have a blank canvas and connectivity, what solutions can you come up with to make the city more efficient?”

Despite cities existing for generations without this smart technology, Dean said it’s a good way to save money and resources and is an effort to stay ahead of advancement.

“Eventually, everything will be connected to the internet,” he said. “We’re just on the cusp of it, the very first steps. This is where things are headed, and you can’t stop momentum. There’s just a ton of efficiency to be gained on how we conduct day-to-day operations.”

Startup Weekend launched the technology and encouraged the 150 or so technology professionals in attendance to begin experimenting with the system. Dean said it could be weeks or months before the use of the sensors is fully understood.

There is no timeline or ultimate goal for the system, he said.

“We don’t know if we’re adding more gateways or how many people will start developing the sensors; it’s all uncharted,” Dean said. “Right now, we don’t know what the next step is.”

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