The IoT in Palo Alto: connecting America’s digital city

jonathan_reichental_headshot_banffPalo Alto is not your average city. Established by the founder of Stanford University, it was the soil from which Google, Facebook, Pinterest and PayPal (to name a few) have sprung forth. Indeed, Palo Alto has probably done more to transform human life in the last quarter century than any other. So, when we think of how the Internet of Things is going to affect life in the coming decades, we can be reasonably sure where much of expected disruption will originate.

All of which makes Palo Alto a great place to host the first IoT Data Analytics & Visualization event (February 9 – 11, 2016). Additionally fitting: the event is set to be kicked off by Dr. Jonathan Reichental, the city’s Chief Information Officer: Reichental is the man entrusted with the hefty task of ensuring the city is as digital, smart and technologically up-to-date as a place should be that has been called home by the likes of Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckberg, Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

Thus far, Reichental’s tenure has been a great success. In 2013, Palo Alto was credited with being the number one digital city in the US, and has made the top five year upon year – in fact, it so happens that, following our long and intriguing telephone interview, Reichental is looking forward to a small celebration to mark its latest nationwide ranking.

BCN: Jonathan, you’ve been Palo Alto’s CIO now for four years. What’s changed most during that time span?

Dr Jonathan Reichental: I think the first new area of substance would be open government. I recognise open government’s been a phenomenon for some time, but over the course of the last four years, it has become a mainstream topic that city and government data should be easily available to the people. That it should be machine readable, and that an API should be made available to anyone that wants the data. That we have a richer democracy by being open and available.

We’re still at the beginning however. I have heard that there are approximately 90,000 public agencies in the US alone. And every day and week I hear about a new federal agency or state or city of significance who are saying, ‘you can now go to our data portal and you can access freely the data of the city or the public agency. The shift is happening but it’s got some way to go.

Has this been a purely technical shift, or have attitudes had to evolve as well?

I think if you kind of look at something like cloud, cloud computing and cloud as a capability for government – back when I started ‘cloud’ was a dirty word. Many government leaders and government technology leaders just weren’t open to the option of putting major systems off-premise. That has begun to shift quite positively.

I was one of the first to say that cloud computing is a gift to government. Cloud eliminates the need to have all the maintenance that goes with keeping systems current and keeping them backed up and having disaster recovery. I’ve been a very strong proponent of that.

Then there’s social media  – government has fully embraced that now, having been reluctant early on. Mobile is beginning to emerge though it’s still very nascent. Here in Palo Alto we’re trying to make all services that make sense accessible via smart phone. I call it ‘city in a box.’ Basically, bringing up an app on the smart phone you should be able to interact with government – get a pet license, pay a parking fee, pay your electrical bill: everything should really be right there on the smartphone, you shouldn’t need to go to City Hall for many things any more.

The last thing I’d say is there has been an uptake in community participation in government. Part of it is it’s more accessible today, and part of it is there’s more ways to do so, but I think we’re beginning also to see the fruits of the millennial generation – the democratic shift in people wanting to have more of a voice and a say in their communities. We’re seeing much more in what is traditionally called civic engagement. But ‘much more’ is still not a lot. We need to have a revolution in this space for there to be significant change to the way cities operate and communities are effective.

Palo Alto is hosting the IoT Data Analytics & Visualization in February. How have you innovated in this area as a city?

One of the things we did with data is make it easily available. Now we’re seeing a community of people in the city and beyond, building solutions for communities. One example of that is a product called Civic Insight. This app consumes the permit data we make available and enables users to type in an address and find out what’s going on in their neighbourhood with regard to construction and related matters.

That’s a clear example of where we didn’t build the thing, we just made the data available and someone else built it. There’s an economic benefit to this. It creates jobs and innovation – we’ve seen that time and time again. We saw a company build a business around Palo Alto releasing our budget information. Today they are called OpenGov, and they sell the solution to over 500 cities in America, making it easy for communities to understand where their tax payer dollars are being spent. That was born and created in Palo Alto because of what we did making our data available.

Now we get to today, and the Internet of Things. We’re still – like a lot folks, especially in the government context – defining this. It can be as broad or as narrow as you want. There’s definitely a recognition that when infrastructure systems can begin to share data between each other, we can get better outcomes.

The Internet of Things is obviously quite an elastic concept, but are there areas you can point to where the IoT is already very much a reality in Palo Alto?

The clearest example I can give of that today is our traffic signal system here in the city. A year-and-a-half ago, we had a completely analogue system, not connected to anything other than a central computer, which would have created a schedule for the traffic signals. Today, we have a completely IP based traffic system, which means it’s basically a data network. So we have enormous new capability.

For example, we can have schedules that are very dynamic. When schools are being let out traffic systems are one way, at night they can be another way, you can have very granular information. Next you can start to have traffic signals communicate with each other. If there is a long strip of road and five traffic systems down there is some congestion, all the other traffic signals can dynamically change to try and make the flow better.

It goes even further than this. Now we can start to take that data – recording, for example, the frequency and volume of vehicles, as well as weather, and other ambient characteristics of the environment – and we can start to send this to the car companies. Here at Palo Alto, almost every car company has their innovation lab. Whether it’s Ford, General Motors, Volkswagen, BMW, Google (who are getting into the car business now) – they’re all here and they all want our data. They’re like: ‘this is interesting, give us an API, we’ll consume it into our data centres and then we’ll push into cars so maybe they can make better decisions.’

You have the Internet of Things, you’ve got traffic signals, cloud analytics solutions, APIs, and cars as computers and processors. We’re starting to connect all these related items in a way we’ve never done before. We’re going to follow the results.

What’s the overriding ambition would you say?

We’re on this journey to create a smart city vision. We don’t really have one today. It’s not a product or a service, it’s a framework. And within that framework we will have a series of initiatives that focus on things that are important to us. Transportation is really important to us here in Palo Alto. Energy and resources are really important: we’re going to start to put sensors on important flows of water so we can see the amount of consumption at certain times but also be really smart about leak detection, potentially using little sensors connected to pipes throughout the city. We’re also really focused on the environment. We have a chief sustainability officer who is putting together a multi-decade strategy around what PA needs to do to be part of the solution around climate change.

That’s also going to be a lot about sensors, about collecting data, about informing people and creating positive behaviours. Public safety is another key area. Being able to respond intelligently to crimes, terrorism or natural disasters. A series of sensors again sending information back to some sort of decision system that can help both people and machines make decisions around certain types of behaviours.

How do you expect this whole IoT ecosystem to develop over the next decade?

Bill Gates has a really good saying on this: “We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten.”  It’s something that’s informed me in my thinking. I think things are going to move faster and in more surprising ways in the next ten years for sure: to the extent that it’s very hard to anticipate where things are headed.

We’re disrupting the taxi business overnight, the hotel business, the food business. Things are happening at lightning speed. I don’t know if we have a good sense of where it’s all headed. Massive disruption across all domains, across work, play, healthcare, every sort of part of our lives.

It’s clear that – I can say this – ten years from now won’t be the same as today. I think we’ve yet to see the full potential of smart phones – I think they are probably the most central part of this ongoing transformation.

I think we’re going to connect many more things that we’re saying right now. I don’t know what the number will be: I hear five billion, twenty billion in the next five years. It’s going to be more than that. It’s going to become really easy to connect. We’ll stick a little communication device on anything. Whether it’s your key, your wallet, your shoes: everything’s going to be connected.

Palo Alto and the IoT Data Analytics & Visualization event look like a great matchup. What are you looking forward to about taking part?

It’s clearly a developing area and so this is the time when you want to be acquiring knowledge, networking with some of the big thinkers and innovators in the space. I’m pleased to be part of it from that perspective. Also from the perspective of my own personal learning and the ability to network with great people and add to the body of knowledge that’s developing. I’m going to be kicking it off as the CIO for the city.