Readiness Challenge: How Las Vegas's spirit of innovation will benefit all

Thu, 2018-08-02 21:03 -- Kevin Ebi

This week we were in Las Vegas, one of the winners of this year’s Smart Cities Council Readiness Challenge. We were impressed with the city’s spirit of innovation. It’s already proving a number of smart technologies in its Innovation District.

One is an all-electric autonomous shuttle — the first autonomous public transportation project in the U.S. — which has already transported more than 25,000 riders over a progressively larger route.

But it also realizes that individual technology projects by themselves don’t make a city smart. It’s about how technology and data come together to connect people and places and improve lives — the lives of everyone in the city. That’s what the workshop was about, and you’ll learn about some of the first steps below.

For help making this kind of progress in your own city, get ready to apply for our 2019 Smart Cities Council Readiness Challenge. First step, add yourself to our Readiness Challenge interest list. (Special bonus: participating cities will be among the first to use our new Smart Cities Project Activator.) — Kevin Ebi

When Las Vegas City Manager Scott Adams pulls up to a stoplight at one of the connected intersections in the city’s Innovation District, an indicator on his car’s dash tells him how much longer he will have to wait for the light to turn green.

“Who would have thought we could have had that situation even just a few years ago?” Adams asked the attendees at the city’s Readiness Workshop. Las Vegas is one of five 2018 Smart Cities Council Readiness Challenge winners.

This technology could help improve traffic flow by prompting drivers to pay better attention. But it doesn’t stop there. He urged the participants to think about how to take advantage of new solutions and approaches to deliver results in the city’s three current priority areas: mobility, public safety and civic engagement.

“Technology is moving at such a rate, I believe it’s going to profoundly affect every one of those issues,” Adams said. “And not only those issues, but all the issues we’re experiencing on a day-in and day-out basis. … We as a city need to be ready for this.”

And while projects may begin in Las Vegas’s Innovation District, Don Jacobson, the city’s IT Business Partner for Innovation, says they ultimately need to benefit everyone — everyone from its 650,000 residents to the 42 million visitors. That’s key to its effort to become a truly smart city by 2025.

“It’s not just for the people who have jobs and are tech savvy and are well-educated,” Jacobson said. “We need to benefit the public regardless of what area they live in, their socioeconomic status, their standing in society. We constantly have to keep that at the forefront of our thinking. We need to ensure equitable innovation.”

Solving problems they didn’t know they had
Las Vegas and the surrounding region are already seeing strong results from a predictive traffic congestion system, called WayCare, that forecasts where problems are likely to occur based on sensors at stoplights, security and traffic cameras, weather conditions, data from navigation apps, and event ticket sales.

The result is that traffic managers can now be proactive, rather than reacting to problems they see on traffic cameras. And it’s not just about reducing congestion.

“We were able to identify and respond to incidents before we got the 911 calls,” said David Swallow, Senior Director of Engineering and Technology at the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada. “Not only that, responding to them in an effective way, telling officers how to get there the fastest and to understand what medical services might be needed.

“That’s an example of one of those opportunities where technology comes in to solve one problem and you’re able to solve a problem you didn’t even know you have.”

Focus area: Mobility
The next opportunity, however, is to find a way to reduce pedestrian and bicycle fatalities, which have been climbing. Just this week, a drunken driver killed someone who was waiting for a bus.

Working group participants found the city has some data to work with. For instance, the accidents occur more often in residential areas, rather than areas packed with tourists. But while straight, high-speed corridors seem to be the highest-risk areas, the city has a number of them and within them there are no areas that jump out as problem areas.

Participants in that working group discussed ways of applying finer-grained data — including weather, demographics and other factors — to try to find patterns in what appear to be random incidents. They also suggested the city consider making its crossing signs more consistent and to look at non-technology solutions, such as education campaigns.

Las Vegas would also like to reduce the number of single-occupancy vehicles on its streets. Working group participants suggested the problem is that there aren't a lot of other options for most commuters, though they recommended the city look at developing a comprehensive trip planning app that would bring all forms of transit together, showing comparative costs and travel times. Working more closely with employers to develop or provide incentives to use alternate means of commuting provides another opportunity.

Focus area: Public safety
When somebody has a critical medical emergency, there’s a 6 to 8 minute window of time where first responders have the greatest chance of saving their life.

“Every minute that we’re not there is cell death, and that translates to stroke type situations or cardiac arrest,” said Las Vegas Assistant Fire Chief Sarah McCrea. “There’s a lot of opportunity there for technology.

Working group participants suggested that the city do more to work with homeless, starting with analyzing fire department logs to see where they need help most often. They also encouraged all the jurisdictions to work more closely together, including finding ways to share their data.

Las Vegas is also known for special events, and participants suggested that there are opportunities to do more planning and education around them. One idea is to develop an app to help attendees know where they can go for help. They also suggested the city analyze social media feeds in real-time so that they might be able to identify more quickly where there are public safety hazards.

Focus area: Civic engagement
Las Vegas has already made incredible progress in the area of social media. A Facebook Messenger widget on its site can generate 8,000 messages a month. Even more messages come through Twitter and other forms of social media. And the city is often able to respond to them within an hour.

But there is more that can be done, especially in the area of gathering feedback from the community, giving them an option other than taking time off work to participate in a long, midday city council meeting.

“We all know that unfortunately because there is a lack of participation in government, elected officials make decisions all the time based on insufficient data,” said Jennifer Davies, the city’s Public Information Officer. “They might get a couple of emails, a couple of phone calls, that are often times going to allocate resources and staff time that may not reflect what the community as a whole cares about. Social media has the power to change that.”

During the break-out session, participants suggested that Las Vegas help people feel better connected to city by making it easier for people to use servicers — everything from renting a facility to figuring out which of 60 business licenses they need.

Because of many different jurisdictions in the region and many different departments within them, a digital front door to the city might be useful to help guide people to the right resource so they get the right help on the first try. Participants found an opportunity to do better tracking around whether people got their issues resolved and how long it took.

(View infographics created during the Readiness Workshop here.)