The light bulbs in the CNET Smart Apartment talk to the city of Louisville, Ky. So does the Amazon Echo smart speaker that lives in the apartment. And eventually, these conversations will happen in the homes of Louisville residents in an effort to connect the city and its services to the folks who need them.
Louisville, like other cities across the globe, is trying to become a smart city. The local government here has started to work with residents to find creative ways to use all the data that the city collects and connect it directly to the people who need it. Those connections will take place through devices and platforms that are a part of the Internet of Things -- the collection of seemingly normal household items like light bulbs and thermostats that connect to the internet and each other.
Louisville is still in its infancy when it comes to smart-city connections, and the city is relying on residents to tell them what they want and volunteers with coding know-how to make the integrations. But Louisville "has punched above [its] weight" when it comes to smart-city innovations, said Ed Blayney from the city's Office of Performance Improvement and Innovation.
"We've got little scrappy projects that show that we not only think about a problem, but we know how to deploy it out in the field," he said.
We get to see these smart city/home mashups in action in the CNET Smart Apartment, a two-bedroom space in downtown Louisville that we use to test and review smart home devices in a real-world setting. Here's what's working so far in the apartment:
- The city and developers have finished a project in which Philips Hue bulbs will change colors based on the air quality in Louisville that day. That's possible thanks to IFTTT, a free online service that lets you build "If this, then that"-style automation called "recipes" between different devices, social networks and services (for example, if the city of Louisville issues an ozone alert, then Philips Hue bulbs will turn red). Michael Schnuerle, the data officer for the city, said IFTTT just granted approval for the city's recipes on the service, so they should be available for users soon.
- You can ask for the daily flash briefing from Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer if you have a smart speaker connected to Alexa, Amazon's digital, voice-activated assistant. Once you enable this Alexa "Skill," you can ask, "Alexa, what's my flash briefing?" to find out the latest from the mayor's office.
- Similar to the daily flash briefing Skill, there's a Skill that enables you to ask Alexa the date of the next junk pickup in your neighborhood.
- This last one isn't in the apartment, but it's worth mentioning: The city has installed smoke detectors in vacant and abandoned properties that are connected to a wireless 3G network. These detectors will alert authorities if they detect a fire in the vacant property.
The city relies on individual volunteers and civic data groups such as the Civic Data Alliance to develop more integrations between city data and smart home services. This helps save tax dollars, but it also gives control to the people most impacted by city services, Schnuerle said.
"I would rather have the community build these tools and own them and make them open source and available to everyone," he said. "If the community owns it, it just builds momentum."
But there are some other issues Louisville has to address before Kentucky's largest city graduates to smart. Specifically, Schnuerle said the city is working to ensure that every resident has access to reliable, high-speed internet that they can afford. And the price of smart home devices like smart speakers will need to decrease so they can become more accessible to all Louisville residents.
"When those become more common and flushed out, that's how Louisville will become more connected to the average citizen," Schnuerle said.
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