This article originally appeared on EdSurge by Jenny Abamu.
Approximately 2,000 policy makers, technologist, tinkerers, designers, educators, and students from around the world gathered at the nation’s first Smart Cities conference in New York City to tackle some wicked problems facing humanity’s rapidly-growing urban populations.
According to data from the United Nations, 54 percent of the world’s population live in cities, and experts estimate that percentage will swell to 70 percent by 2050. Researchers worry that this population growth can negatively contribute to rising global temperatures, growing piles of toxic waste, food shortages, and strains on educational systems if there is not a collaborative effort to spur immediate change.
Among the fixes officials discussed were changing school buildings, rethinking teaching and transforming the way schools interact with their surrounding communities.
Schools as ‘Research Platforms’
When Chicago’s Array of Things (AoT) project launched in 2014, it caused a lot of buzz, as experts mused at how installing data-collection sensors around the city could transform how it operated. Three years later, with several sensors in place and picking up data, Brenna Berman, executive director at City Digital and former chief innovation officer for the city of Chicago, now says data collected from the AoT project will not impact the city as much as it will affect research and learning. “It is a research platform,” explains Berman. “The kind of research people are able to do with the data is extraordinary.”
Berman sees educators, students and researchers in the higher-education sector utilizing data from IOT projects to expand understanding of urban and environmental issues such as asthma from city pollution and bird migrations patterns.
Samir Saini, CIO for the city of Atlanta, is also turning to higher education institutions to interpret and make use of the data his city plans to collect, but his motives are monetary.
“It is difficult for us to attract data scientists with the salary caps that we have within our city, so we have no choice but to reach out to various communities,” says Saini. “It just happens to be that Georgia Tech is interested in resolving urban challenges, and they happen to have a huge pipeline of data scientist that is easy to access.”
Financial constraints helped build Saini’s partnership with Georgia Tech, but if his department gets more funds that could change. “We are probably going to stick with the university play, there is not much else we can do to attract talent,” he continued.
K-12 schools are also getting a slice of the big data pie, as high schools in Chicago run sister AoT projects. Berman explains that high school students in neighborhoods, where data-collection devices have gone up, create and put up their versions of the data collection devices during their science classes so they can compare the data they gather to the city’s data.
“It is an open-source instrument, so anyone can go and build one,” explains Berman. “Students use this as a way within the curriculum both to increase the STEM skills they are learning—and what they know about their community based on that data.”
School Operations and the Cloud
Not only are students helping cities analyze data, but data is also helping education officials restructure school operations to improve student experiences.
“We have really high rates of asthma in specific neighborhoods, and so we are looking at wind patterns,” explains Berman. She says that with IoT data, researchers in Chicago can track floating air pollen driven by winds and have students enter and exit school buildings based on that information.
“This can actually decrease specific rates of asthma attacks on given days, so students have fewer absences,” says Berman, noting that pairing absentee rates with environmental data can help keep kids learning in schools.
In New York City, 600,000 students use public transportation, and though 400,000 of those students use the public metro system, 200,000 use the school bus system—a complex network of about 50 private school bus companies under contract with the city. Timothy Calabrese, the manager of business intelligence at NYC Department of Education, is hoping to use cloud data to make tracking students and designing bus routes more efficient.
“We want to get a little smarter about how students use the services every day and how to customize for those students,” says Calabrese. His team is rolling out GPS tracking devices on all of the buses to monitor their routes. That way the central office can compare the location of buses to NYPD accident feeds. He hopes that this new development will allow the education department to understand whether buses are delayed because of serious incidents or if there is simply a slow garbage truck in front of the bus.
Calabrese’s office also hopes to add a device to buses that can help them track when each student gets on or off a bus. “We want to use facial or voice recognition when students get onto buses because they frequently lose or forget IDs,” explains Calabrese.
His goal is to provide parents tracking data through an app, so they know their student’s bus usage in the future. However, he also notes that a pilot of the app he ran with a small group of parents before was not successful.
“They didn’t use their phones in the way we thought they would,” says Calabrese, noting how many parents tried to use the bus-tracking app as an on-demand car service (similar to the way one would use Uber) instead of like a timer, telling them to be ready to drop-off or pick-up their student. He hopes to find a way to properly train and motivate parents to use the new app as intended.
Many of the attendees had big ideas that they imagined would transform spaces and systems. But a lack of recycling bins for hundreds of free bottles of water given out at the event was a reminder that the path to solutions discussed at the event—even in the most advanced societies—was still part of a learning process. Luckily many students in the room came to learn. “I study urban hinterlands, the fact that cities are hotter than rural areas,” Maud Fouqerand, a French exchange student completing her Master’s degree at the New York Institute of Technology, said. “I want to learn about the impact of climate change on cities and how innovation can impact the city of tomorrow.”