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Greater Cincinnati mines tech resources to become next "smart city"

Kevin Kirby, dean of NKU's College of Informatics

Jon Salisbury heads up local tech and cybersecurity firm Nexigen.

The area's first smartLINK portal was installed at Newport On the Levee last December.

More than free Wi-Fi, smartLINK nodes help leaders and businesses collect important community data.

NKU's Griffin Hall houses the award-winning College of Informatics


It's a race: Which major city is going to have the biggest, fastest, most sustainable technology to solidify its position on the “smart cities” map?
 
Greater Cincinnati is not just hoping to be first; behind-the-scenes leaders are planning on it, and they’re researching and working full-speed ahead to make it happen.
 
Experts from Cincinnati Bell, local universities, governmental agencies and companies like Newport-based Nexigen — a driving force behind that city’s recent smart-technology endeavors — are working on moving the tech forward while analyzing resulting data and its impact on users.
 
These developments are happening even faster than Jon Salisbury, Nexigen co-founder and creator of the smartLINK network, thought they would. Salisbury is working with groups across the region toward innovation in everything from technology and communication platforms to cyber-security issues.

The City of Newport is already installing user-friendly smartLINK nodes — or MyLo kiosks — along its main thoroughfare as a first step. Cincinnati Bell has installed subsequent fiber optics and business customers have signed on. Meanwhile, Bell offers free Wi-Fi hotspots at retail locations including The Banks, Fountain Square and Findlay Market. The company has also launched a mobile app called Connect Cincinnati, said a company spokesperson. It connects users with special offers from more than 200 participating businesses.
 
The spokesperson said Cincinnati Bell’s biggest contribution is their fiber initiative, which feeds a wireless communication such as WiFi or cellular.
 
NKU's Griffin Hall houses the award-winning College of Informatics.Kevin Kirby, dean of NKU’s College of Informatics, said Cincinnati is ahead of the curve, thanks to the technology coming from Nexigen along with Cincinnati Bell’s efforts to bolster infrastructure.
 
Does it mean everyone will have free Wi-Fi? It turns out that even free isn't free. Someone is paying for it, and in business and retail districts, it's those companies that are paying. Advertising will be a contributor, or businesses accessing other services will pay a fee.

SmartLINK technology 'much more' than free Wi-Fi
 
To most users, it may seem like it's just access to a giant Wi-Fi signal that they can get anywhere. Or technology that drives a car. Or advertising in a parking space about their interests.
 
But experts say these efforts entail so much more. Smart city technology can use visuals to make assumptions about the person traveling on foot past a node, for example. The technology can “sense” if that person is young, old, fashionably dressed, a parent — or dozens of other demographic components.  
 
It's the same technology that businesses use to analyze data about consumers. What are they looking at, what made them pause — that's more than data from a point of sale.
 
On one level, it seems like totally new technology, but it's really part of something very old. Smart technology taps into satellite signals, cellular and wireless data, Bluetooth, TV and any other device that uses radio waves. It's just that technology is evolving to use them better and more efficiently.
 
Harnessing this technology calls for adapting new technologies on a dime and making them useful for businesses and cities who are likely to foot a chunk of the bill — all while being respectful of privacy rights and user security.
 
"It would change the landscape of the city," says Kirby, who offers the example of helping people get to work easier, via smart buses, smart cars, etc. "It would be a workable, livable space. It can reduce the carbon footprint."
 
The potential for this technology is practically limitless, but Kirby feels it should be approached with some caution. "Advertisers will want to reach citizens as consumers," he says. "If every device is a tool for marketing to you, then we'll want to reflect on that. Consumer analytics are good for use, good for the companies, but there are still limits, right?"
 
NKU plans to make MyLo kiosks available to students on campus as soon as the units are available from Nexigen. The university will then study the impact on the campus community as a result of the technology.
 
"As the College of Informatics, it gives us the ability to experiment with how we mine data," says Kirby. “They'll serve a laboratory of sorts to see how the campus responds — including feedback on whether users think it's a little too ‘big brother.’”

Streamlining the user experience
 
Zack HuhnThere's now an initiative in Cincinnati to standardize the technology. For Zack Huhn, director of the Regional Smart Cities Initiative, that means establishing Cincinnati as the central point for decision making and ensuring, along with others involved in smart cities initiatives, that communication works from place to place, city to city, state to state.

Salisbury says standards and communication is a national issue; that’s why Nexigen is trying to create a process to help city officials pick from a “menu” or wish list of available technology for their cities.
 
For example, setting the standard so that traffic lights can talk to each other — can the next light turn green sooner, or do lights farther down the road need to readjust timing to the traffic?
 
Once a city official understands the capabilities and outlines its top priorities, the projects go out to RFP and vendors begin bidding to take on the work.
 
The hope is to create a global model for regional and national smart growth, says Huhn, noting that some things — like regional transportation plans — are already outdated when it comes to smart cities. "We need to be more agile and better able to adapt," he says.
 
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