Welcome to San Francisco’s 'Internet of Things'

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A screen grab from a Phillips Lighting promotional video shows what the inside of a control center might look like.

In this week’s issue of the Guardian, we spotlight a pair of pilot projects that introduce a new technology to San Francisco.

Using converted streetlights that can do a lot more than just illuminate city blocks, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) ultimately hopes to link a variety of city operations and infrastructure into a centralized, digitally integrated network. Proponents have pronounced the initiative to be an exciting venture into an “Internet of Things” paradigm, in which services are organized around real-time data sharing.

With the pilot projects that are described in greater depth in this week’s issue, the SFPUC is testing clusters of energy-efficient LED streetlights that are linked via a wireless network. These “smart” streetlights will initially be used to remotely read city-owned electric meters, and to transmit data from previously installed Municipal Transportation Agency-owned traffic cameras.

The pilots will test how well the “smart” streetlights can manage tasks such as electric vehicle charging monitoring, MTA traffic signal data transmission, “adaptive lighting” that can respond to conditions, and other functions.

But according to a request for proposals (RFP) issued last June by the SFPUC to seek applications for one of these pilots, the list of uses could grow. “Future needs for the secure wireless transmission of data throughout the city,” the RFP states, may include “gunshot monitoring,” “street surveillance,” or “public information broadcasts.”

Marketing pitches from the companies that develop these systems and ancillary services provide an idea of the broader visions that are being presented to city governments. Here’s a promotional video by IntelliStreets, a firm that applied to test out its product with the SFPUC pilot program, showcasing internal cameras and speakers that a city could opt to add in as part of the package. The SFPUC rejected IntelliStreets’ application.

Phillips, a lighting company that is working with Paradox Engineering on a pilot that's currently up and running in San Francisco, has some bright ideas for municipal use of “intelligent outdoor lighting systems.” And even Oracle has a plan for cash-strapped city governments that could use its tailored data-management platform in combination with "intelligent" infrastructure, according to the marketing brochure.

The use of “intelligent” digital systems for urban infrastructure still remains largely in the realm of big ideas. And so far, the city’s process of introducing this whole concept to the public has barely gotten underway. The SFPUC has initiated some outreach efforts  – via newsletters issued by local police captains  – in neighborhoods where dimmable “adaptive lighting” would be tested in the forthcoming pilot program.

Depending on whether the SFPUC decides to pursue a broader implementation of the integrated streetlights based on the results of the pilots, the potential exists for these digitally connected systems to be used for monitoring everything from street parking, to traffic flows, to activity on the street. This means a great deal of information could be gathered from public space in real time – and that raises a host of questions.

“Technology can be used for good and for ill,” points out American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Staff Attorney Linda Lye. It’s important to ask questions from the outset, she added, to avoid a scenario where “you have a government deploying new technology for one purpose, and using it for other purposes.”

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