Problem solving with real-time data: The projects behind GR's Smart City status

Last month, we discussed GRand Rapids' progress toward becoming a Smart City. This month, we take a look at the projects powering that progress as the city looks to data to solve real world problems.
It's no secret that as Grand Rapids grows, adds more people and more jobs, it's also facing new problems like where to park those people and how to get them to their jobs. The parking and transportation conversation is one that comes up consistently and as the community looks for new ways to solve recurring problems, they are turning to data for answers.

As more and more people are attracted to downtown for work or recreation, they're creating a more people than spaces problem. More spots are being added and infrastructures are being built, but eventually, the city will run out of space. So, what then?
In last month's article, we discussed Grand Rapids' progress toward becoming a Smart City by turning to data to solve problems. The parking and transportation problem is only one issue organizations are hoping to solve using data. This month, we'll look at the Smart City projects and collaborations that are popping up around the city.

Transportation woes

At first glance, the parking and transportation problem may seem more like an inconvenience than an actual problem, but data shows that poor transportation can mean big problems for a city's citizens. Car ownership is the best predictor of upward mobility in a city and transportation has been called out as crucial to escaping poverty. To solve Grand Rapids' transportation problems, Grand Rapids is looking to Ann Arbor. The two cities are in conversations about how to duplicate the following project in Grand Rapids.

According to Pascal Van Hentenryck, professor of engineering at the University of Michigan, a lack of transportation accessibility affects jobs, healthcare, nutrition, education, and more. Research has found that 3.6 million do not obtain medical care because of a lack of transportation in a given year and 23 million have no supermarket within a mile of their homes. His project, the RITMO (Reinventing Urban Transportation & Mobility) project, believes that data science presents a unique opportunity to transform urban mobility. They are using already available data sets to help inform the design and operation of an on-demand transportation system.

Using data collected from the campus bus system at U of M, Van Hentenryck and his team found that there were multiple buses running the same route with low ridership and that wait times for buses were extremely high. And, not only in Ann Arbor but in Grand Rapids as well, large amounts of valuable property are being used for parking lots that are only occupied part of the time. Van Hentenryck says the next generation of parking needs to be "on demand, multi-modal, customer centric, and city smart."

This means a service that is only used when riders need it, takes advantage of multiple forms of transportation, and is easy to use.

Sensors that collect data, like one this one on a food truck, can be used on many different types of transportation.

Using data to reveal the busiest times on campus, the most populated stations, and the longest wait times, Van Hentenryck hopes to deploy a multimodal system that includes a high frequency bus line and additional shuttles that feed the bus system but run on demand.

Buses will run in the corridor and the shuttles will feed the buses, in turn solving the common "first/last mile problem" that many encounter when trying to get to and from ports or stations. "It's like Uber on steroids," he says.

Van Hentenryck is deploying a case study in Ann Arbor with plans to do the same in Grand Rapids.

"It's a convergence of technology and societal benefits," says Van Hentenryck, which is the core value at the heart of Smart Cities.

He adds, "Start Garden is working on several projects with U-M that share a common theme. Smart City technologies incubated on the Ann Arbor campus that need to be tested against the complex dynamics of a city. Grand Rapids is a right-sized 'sandbox,' which makes our whole city a startup incubator."

The future of food

Looking beyond the cars facing parking problems in downtown Grand Rapids, you'll find a new set of vehicles looking to make their way in the city. While food trucks are becoming more and more familiar site in downtown, residents still aren't used to using them, says Abbie Sterling, owner of the Gettin' Fresh Food Truck. "They happen upon them," she says, "They don't seek them out."

This is one problem Sterling hoped could be addressed when she was approached about attaching a data-gathering sensor to her food truck. "If we could help educate people about where we are parked, it might become more of a habit." Data could do that.

Abbie Sterling writes out her menu on the side of her food truck.

And owners aren't the only ones interested in the movement of food trucks. "The city has a lot of interested in how and when they are being deployed," says Josh Naramore, the Mobile GR & Parking Manager. "We want to illuminate and understand how they are utilizing the city and interacting with members."

This summer, they deployed sensors on multiple food trucks in Grand Rapids, tracking where they go and how long they stay in order to begin to recognize optimal times. When she was first approached, Sterling wasn't sure she wanted the sensors tracking her movement, but in the end, "I equated it to the parking meters being able to do everything electronically and hoped it would be something like that."

She hopes if they can create an electronic map of their whereabouts, it will make it easier for customers to find them. "Vending is challenging," she says. Data could be the answer.

Abbie Sterling inside her mobile kitchen.

Lauren D'Angelo, owner of Patty Matters, hopes to eventually cut back on paperwork and make communication with the city easier. While they currently need to monitor their movement and report to the health department in case of foodborne illness, she's hoping with these sensors they'll be able to report this information electronically, like in Chicago where they already send all their location information to the city's health department electronically.

Both D'Angelo and Sterling are hoping this information will reveal more location opportunities and help them be more profitable. "Sometimes, we've found moving ten feet in one direction increases sales, so having data about little things like that would be helpful," says D'Angelo.

The information from these sensors could help the city identify new opportunities for the trucks. "They bring a wealth of knowledge and research," says Naramore.

All parties are also interested in how their trucks are affecting the community and they can see that through air quality sensing. "Because we're a burger truck," says D'Angelo, "I'm curious to see if affects the air quality around the truck. I don't know how else you would get that information."

When it comes to choosing the projects Grand Rapids participates in, according to Naramore, they key is to start small and scale up, which makes Grand Rapids the perfect place to test these projects." A project that starts in New York won't easily scale down to fit Grand Rapids, but one that starts here, can scale up. And, 10 times more people means 10 times the bureaucracy."

Add to these projects the the air quality partnership that was covered by Matthew Russell,a partnership between Open Systems Technologies, Start Garden, the city, and many other organizations, and it's clear Grand Rapids is building a portfolio of projects that will pave its way toward Smart City status.

"Smart cities are people-centered, problem driven, and address real world solutions with technology," says Naramore. These projects represent the real world problems facing Grand Rapids residents every day, and a Smart City mindset will help solve them.

Photography by Kristina Bird of Bird + Bird Studio