Free WiFi, public safety key to turning Baltimore into a ‘smart city,’ residents say

This article originally appeared on The Baltimore Sun by Chaim Gartenberg.

The people of West Baltimore want more WiFi, preferably free public WiFi.

They also support WiFi access on buses, so students can do homework and adults can stay connected on their commutes, said Sheri Parks, vice president for strategic initiatives at the Maryland Institute College of Art. Some might accept trash cans with WiFi hotspots that alert city employees when they’re full.

But they were concerned about the idea of autonomous buses without a driver, which some worried would become a “party bus” if there wasn’t an authority figure behind the wheel, Parks said.

Armed with a $100,000 National Science Foundation grant and a list of questions, researchers from the University of Maryland, College Park went to West Baltimore and asked residents what the city’s future should look like.

The study was part of Baltimore’s smart cities initiative, an effort to improve life in Baltimore in areas including broadband availability, traffic, air quality, public safety and economic equality. The first round of findings was released Thursday.

Researchers are sharing the findings with city officials, who are conducting their own research as they apply for grants and make plans for the city’s digital strategy over the next five years.

Though 59 percent of residents surveyed said public safety was important to them, technologies such as the Baltimore Police Department’s ShotSpotter — a network of audio sensors meant to detect shootings and alert police — raised privacy concerns regarding how much audio the sensors could capture.

As for Baltimore’s present: More than two-thirds of people surveyed said they use their phone to access the internet most often, said Willow Lung-Amam, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland, College Park’s National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education.

Some of them relied on prepaid plans, which means they have to ration their data usage, Parks said.

“They’re very, very astute; they know what technology they don’t have,” Parks said. “But they’re not wasting time thinking about what they don’t have, they’re using what they do have to its full capacity.”

Shonte Eldridge, the city’s deputy chief of operations, said smart cities conversations can be about anything that makes a city easier and better to live in.

“Smart cities is bigger than broadband, free WiFi and the lights,” she said. “What about air quality? What about parking? Or being able to get from the west side to the east side in 15 minutes?”

She compared Baltimore to Pittsburgh. Both are cities with industrial backgrounds that stagnated in the late 20th century. Today, both cities have universities and professional sports teams that can draw crowds, she said.

“They were where we were, but yet they’re now in the smart cities conversation,” Eldridge said. “Why aren’t we?”

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