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Construction Corner: New York becoming the next ‘smart city’

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You’ve got to pay attention if you want to keep up with technology nowadays.

When most people think of Google, they think of the search engine whose name has become a verb, as in "Google it and see what shows up."

Want to find an address in a strange part of town? Google Maps will get you there.

Google has been with us since 1998 and since then has served customers with many products. There’s productivity software (Google Docs), email (Gmail), cloud storage (Google Drive), a web browser (Chrome) and on and on.

Google, it seems, is everywhere gathering the data that drives its innovative products, never making much noise. Its achievements tend to sneak up on anyone who isn’t watching the company. Then, hey, when did that happen?

It reminds me of the old comedian Flip Wilson, who after a long career, finally landed a weekly network television program. Not long afterwards, he mused that he’d been "working my butt off for 25 years to become an overnight sensation."

Technology can be the same. About a year ago, a corporate reorganization resulted in Alphabet, of which Google is but one unit. Another is Sidewalk Labs, a city-focused innovation company with the task of pursuing technologies "to cut pollution, curb energy use, streamline transportation, and reduce the cost of city living."

This spring, Sidewalk Labs and the city of New York rolled out LinkNYC, a network of kiosks that replace obsolete phone booths with public Wi-Fi hubs.

It’s a new kind of communication infrastructure. It offers free public Wi-Fi and phone calls, an Android tablet computer for web browsing, USB charging for mobile devices, and a wayfinding tool that bears an uncanny resemblance to Google Maps.

All this is happening at a time when there is a big push underway to develop the devices and infrastructure needed for "smart cities."

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Santander, Spain, which is leading the way to smart cities in Europe. On this side of the Atlantic, the leadership role might fall to New York City, although others are being urged by the U.S. government to launch smart city projects.

New York City is offering assistance. Lessons learned from the LinkNYC system will be passed along.

About 500 of the kiosks have been installed so far and the city is aiming for 7,500 or more, spread over all five city boroughs. Through a partnership with Vonage, New Yorkers and visitors will be able to use the kiosks to make free phone calls to anywhere in the U.S. Each kiosk will have a red 911 call button. Each will have two free charging ports for mobile devices.

Sidewalk Labs CEO Dan Doctoroff, said in a recent interview that the firm is working on a "completely connected streets platform."

It will enable cities to use real-time data to understand street activity like parking, lane changing and traffic enforcement. Once you understand what’s happening, you can help people find a parking spot more quickly, which reduces the time they spend circling, as that has a big impact on traffic congestion.

The connected streets platform will be only one of the tech tools smart cities will be able to use.  The ability to monitor things like noise or vibrations means that information can be used in zoning decisions, or to adjudicate noise complaints. Monitoring traffic on arterial roadways might point up the need for high-occupancy vehicle lanes.

Technology will also be able to monitor flows in water lines and detect leaks. It will be able to monitor the operation of subway systems. Technology is not meant to bewilder would-be users, nor is it meant to hamper people’s efforts.

"The people who plan cities don’t really understand technology," Doctoroff said, "and the technologists don’t really understand cities.

"We hope to play a role in bridging that gulf."

Korky Koroluk is an Ottawa-based freelance writer. Send comments to

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