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  • Matthew Chang

Insights on Data’s Role in a Smart City: Interview with Drew Messer

Updated: Aug 1, 2022

Drew Messer is a Smart City advocate with Urban SDK. We asked Drew what it means for a city to be smart and what Jacksonville is doing to become smart. Drew explains the big picture of what smart cities are all about, but the foundation is the data exchange. Here he explains the 5 steps of making the data useful so a city can become smart.

Drew explains that the data is out there, but the challenge is turning that information into an asset. Drew gives 5 steps that shape Urban SDK’s plan to make data an asset:

  1. Collect the data (pretty self-explanatory)

  2. Connect the systems together (create a common language)

  3. Make it a useful good (usually by creating visual analytics)

  4. Automation based on the data (for example: flood sensors will automatically alert citizens when the water rises to a certain level)

  5. Predictive intelligence (use the data of today and data from history to make educated decisions about the future based on past patterns)

But before you can get to those steps you have to first decide you want to become a smart city. First, Drew explains the general process any city would need to undergo in order to become “smart.” The first step for any city is to decide what it means for them to become smart. Smart city can have a different definition for each city. Being “smart” looks different for every city. There is always one common thread, though. Every city that desires to be smart is aspiring to do something greater, by leveraging digital best practices. Once a city realizes they want to become greater, better, more advanced then they must ask the question, “Why?” Then the next step is figuring out what that looks like in practice. What is the road map? What are the steps? What technologies can be used? After a plan is made, a city has to decide what the ROI, or benefits, of this new plan to become smart actually means for the city. What do we gain as a city? How will this help our citizens?

We then asked Drew how new this idea of a “smart city” was, and his answer, in short, was “not that new.” Private sector companies have already been shifting towards high tech, Internet of Things, and data exchange programs, but the public sector has not been as fast on the up take. Smart city is just the name for the public sector becoming techier. The phrase “data is the new oil” is key to the formula, but as with oil, data must be refined into something usable. The ultimate realization with either sector is simple: there is a better way to do what we are already doing. The next step is just deciding what a road map looks like to get to that “better way.”

Now that we have a foundation of what a smart city is, let’s talk Jacksonville. Drew explains that Jacksonville is well on its way to becoming a smart city with the help of North Florida TPO, Urban SDK, JTA, JEA, and other authorities in the city. Urban SDK has designed a product, Smart Sync, which will allow public sector data to be shared not only with other public sector departments but also with private sector data. They call this data structure an “Integrated Data Exchange” or “IDE.” The foundation of Jacksonville being a smart city all starts with IDE. The autonomous vehicles coming to Jacksonville are just the face, if you will, of the smart city, but the back bone of a smart city is the data exchange. In essence, Jacksonville is bringing IoT (Internet of Things) into its functionality as a city.

What would an example of this development look like for Jacksonville? Drew used flood sensors as an example of how this connect ability would benefit citizens in real time. Flood sensors would have the ability to detect higher levels of water and directly notify citizens in the area giving them ample time to prepare for floods or evacuate if necessary. This type of technology isn’t deployed in flood prone parts of the country. Having a person go check the data of a flood sensor periodically during a known event does no good for the citizens in the moment. Smart Sync will be able to produce real time data that will be useful to citizens in real time, and combine other data sets that would be useful, such as evacuation routes, road closures, and gasoline availability. This is where the 5 steps of making the data useful come in.

What is the biggest con to have a smart city? Drew says that what he has seen from other cities integrating this connect ability is people’s concern about their privacy. There is a way to protect personalized data, but it won’t be bulletproof on day one. Drew also explains, though, that Smart Sync isn’t collecting personally identifiable information (PII) so there will be substantially less privacy concerns with the integrated data exchange happening in Jacksonville through Urban SDK. This con of privacy can be transformed into a pro when you consider how much public data is accessible, yet extremely hard to get your hands on. Smart Sync will be able to make any public sector data easily accessible to citizens, which is not the case now. This adds tremendous value to existing legacy systems and digital investments that citizens have already paid for.

Where does that leave Jacksonville? The technology is ready, but the community has to be ready to use it to its full potential. The general goal of smart city, as explained by Drew, is just to bring the public sector up to speed. Government and public departments will no longer be seen as archaic or slow. Smart city will make the government more nimble and responsive to citizens by injecting private sector innovation and speed into government services and decision making processes. Drew uses an analogy of the Apple store and a tax collector’s office. The Apple store is high tech, efficient, and usually more advanced than any store you may choose to shop in. Smart city will give the tax collector’s office the ability to function as highly as an Apple store with the same technology, efficiency, and customer experience. The technology has the power to make the city function as one big brain making services much more efficient and enjoyable, but will the city adopt these new ways?

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