Readiness Challenge Update: Turning Newport News into an innovation hub

Tue, 2018-02-06 19:57 -- Kevin Ebi

Last week we were in Newport News, Virginia, one of the finalists in our 2017 Readiness Challenge program. While it wasn’t ultimately selected as one of the five winning cities, it delivered a very strong application. With the support of Council partners Gannett Fleming and Sensus, we were able to work hands-on with the city to help it build the beginnings of a smart cities action plan and develop a shared understanding of what it means to be a smart city.

In some ways, the region is already a smart cities success story. As you’ll read below, the area is much better prepared for flooding thanks to a network of sensors and a digital model. But there’s also room for improvement. Congestion, for one, can be such a problem it keeps people from stores.

Read on for some of ideas from the workshop, which you may want to consider in your own city. We also have posted infographics that we created during the sessions. And stay tuned: We will announce our 2018 Readiness Challenge winners next month. — Kevin Ebi

Traffic is driving Newport News, Virginia, to get smarter. It doesn’t really have any other option. Congestion is constantly at the top of complaints from citizens, but due to the nature of its geography and the needs of one of its largest employers, it can’t just build fast lanes.

The city is long and narrow with an interstate and railroad line bisecting it, which limits construction options. And that large employer — a shipyard — has everyone arriving to and leaving from work at the same time. It can’t operate with staggered shifts.

So Newport News is looking to smart cities strategies to find a way out of that traffic crunch, although it doesn’t plan to stop there.

“This workshop is about sharing ideas, concepts and solutions to take this region to new heights and I am excited about the possibilities,” said Newport News Mayor McKinley Price. “It will also help to solidify the Hampton Roads region as a hub for technology and innovation.”

Getting traffic flowing
Greatly expanding its use of adaptive traffic signals remains a priority for Newport News, though it also plans to explore the use of more extensive data to do more scenario-based traffic planning. This would help it gauge and minimize the impacts of work zones, traffic incidents, and so on.

There is a definite need to do more. Congestion, in addition to being a frustration for commuters, has kept some shoppers from patronizing its major retail district.

Keeping residents safe from flooding and other threats
Newport News is part of the Hampton Roads region — the second-largest population center that’s threated by rising sea levels. To help keep residents safe, Newport News played an integral role in the StormSense project, which uses a network of sensors, data modelling and predictive analytics to know which individual homes and businesses are most at risk during a storm.

The primary work of the system is done through a network of several dozen rain gauges, connected to the analytics platform through a low-cost cellular data plan.

But city leaders believe they can leverage smart cities technologies to do even more to keep residents safe. At the Readiness Workshop, stakeholders discussed ways of aggregating numerous video feeds to provide better real-time information to first responders as they arrive on the scene of an incident.

Navigating complex buildings can also pose a difficult challenge for responding officers. Another area of focus involves using GIS to map buildings. Firefighters and police officers would be able to use the information to plan a more effective, safer response.

Sharing data with the public
Open data is also a priority area. Following the workshop, city staff will evaluate interoperability standards and other methods for sharing data.

Leaders do not want those benefits to be exclusively for those who have the means to access open data portals at home or at work. A follow-up task is to evaluate the use of kiosk or other devices to provide free Wi-Fi and open data access to those who don’t have Internet access at home.

It’s all about the partnerships
Newport News will also work to explore partnerships to deliver more value to its citizens faster. One potential opportunity is to work with the local utility, Dominion Energy, to convert all of the city’s street lights to energy-efficient LEDs.

Following the workshop, it plans to discuss the assets that it has that could be valuable to potential partners so it can gauge opportunities and open discussions. And workshop participants stress that partnership opportunities shouldn’t be limited to the private-sector; there may be opportunities to partner with other public jurisdictions, as it did for the StormSense project.

The following are infographics created during the workshop sessions. Join our LinkedIn group to see larger versions and keep-up-to-date with our work in other cities.