November 22, 2019

Citizens come first in Chattanooga's smart city efforts

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This summer, a detective approached Austin Harris, a computer scientist at UTC’s Center for Urban Informatics and Progress (CUIP) looking for help on a murder case.

The detective knew that CUIP manages about 30 cameras along MLK Blvd that they use to study urban life. He was hoping that Harris could provide footage that would be useful to the Chattanooga Police Department in the case of the fatal shooting at the Douglas Heights apartments that took place in July.

But Harris had to tell the police sorry, we can’t help.

“We don’t store video data at all, we only store meta-data,” says Austin Harris, who manages the testbed at CUIP.

When CUIP first installed the cameras as part of an “urban testbed” research tool on MLK Blvd about a year ago, they decided to honor people’s privacy and never keep any of the raw footage they recorded.

“We told the community that we wouldn’t store the video, so we don’t,” says Dr. Mina Sartipi, who runs CUIP.

The testbed is built on a series of existing poles along a mile and a half section of MLK Blvd., each outfitted with cameras as well as radar, lidar, audio, and air quality sensors. The “smart corridor” is a project of the Chattanooga Smart Community Collaborative, which is a research partnership between CUIP and UTC, city and county governments, EPB, Erlanger Health Systems, The Enterprise Center, and the business accelerator Co.Lab. Researchers are using the tool to study things like traffic flow, accidents, pedestrian routes, air quality, and much more, with a goal of finding solutions to complex issues that impact quality of life in our community.

Center for Urban Informatics and Progress from The Enterprise Center on Vimeo.

Other cities have testbeds, too, but a few things make Chattanooga’s unique. First, it’s plugged into the city’s fiber optic network, which allows for instant communication between the testbed infrastructure and vehicles or people on the street. Second, it’s a real-world environment, whereas many other testbeds are built in a closed environment, without pedestrians, bicycles, or other typical traffic conditions..

Finally, Chattanooga’s testbed has ethical considerations, like the community’s privacy, built into its design. Video images are processed into anonymized data as they are collected, and the footage is deleted. The community has also been involved in determining the direction of some of CUIP’s work. The center is not just made up of computer scientists, but social scientists as well, who advise on ethics and have helped lead focus groups on how they think the center’s research can improve their quality of life.

“In the beginning, we went out and spoke to all the residents and businesses along the corridor, and communicated with them what we were going to be deploying,” says Harris.

CUIP has also been intentional about how they manage the data. The data, which grow more robust each day, represent a real monetary value to private businesses, and companies have approached CUIP about collaborating. CUIP has created a specific set of terms about how the data can be used and will only consider collaborating with businesses who adhere to those guidelines. All the data is owned locally and stored at UTC.

“A lot of the data management strategies out there are not public, they might not be as transparent as we have been,” says Dr. Sartipi.

Dr. Sartipi believes that eventually, the infrastructure they built on MLK Blvd will be deployed around the entire city. Installing the sensors at a large scale would allow for applications like optimizing traffic flow, making sure emergency vehicles always have green lights, or predicting where accidents were most likely to happen and making sure emergency response was already nearby.

“The police department sees it as a preemptive measure,” Harris says. “They can place a police car at a dangerous intersection, which motivates people to drive more safely.”

The solutions being developed in Chattanooga could certainly be replicated in other communities across the state and country. And for other communities who wish to engage in the research and development, we hope they will consider taking Chattanooga’s approach to the work by keeping citizens’ needs and privacy at the center.