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New tech paves the way for big changes in how we interact with our city ... and how it interacts with us

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JOSHUA KULLA - A nightscape of Portland from the Hawthorne Bridge.A city the size of Portland is almost like its own living organism: It has arteries of traffic, multiplication of buildings, and the respiration of buying and selling.

But could it also have a brain?

That’s the new challenge that cities across the nation are scrambling to meet as technology described as the Internet of Things makes it possible to have “smart cities.” The automation, sensors and data analysis could have huge impacts on citizens’ daily lives in coming decades.

Imagine having a single smartphone app that would show you the fastest or most affordable route across any form of transportation — TriMet, Uber, bikeshare, car, walking, or a combination thereof — in real time.

Imagine walking alone at night and being able to shout “Help!” to a microphone in a lamppost and have a police car automatically routed to your location.

Imagine streets that could self-report potholes, or car crashes, or unusually high levels of air pollutants.

These are all dreams of the future, kernels of ideas that could be possible thanks to a new computer lab and data center being installed at Portland State University. Called FIWARE — for “Future Internet”-ware — this is the first time the open-source technology used all over the European Union for its smart cities will appear in the United States.

FIWARE is basically a group of standards, a platform for creating applications that would power a smart city. With it, nonprofit groups, private businesses, or teenagers in their garages can begin to build software that takes advantage of all the data being collected all around us. With the open-source and widely used FIWARE as the parameters, these ideas could then scale up across the nation and the globe.

“There is a very large potential market,” says Portland State University research professor Wilfred Pinfold, who is leading the FIWARE Lab project. “Portland is incubating some very interesting businesses in this space. And not only at the big level, the Intel level, but all the way down to the start-ups.”

Pinfold believes that technologists and city planners are on the cusp of something as big as the Internet, mother of Google, Amazon and Facebook.

“Something of the similar ilk is going to happen, and right at the heart of that is smart cities,” he says. “This same opportunity is here, and as a city we want to be able to take advantage of it.”

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Portland State University research professor Wilfred Pinfold in the new FIWARE Lab.

Smart Cities Challenge

Portland is a leader in this arena, jockeying with only six other cities in the final round of a $50 million prize to become the nation’s first federally funded Smart City.

Skip Newberry, head of the Technology Association of Oregon, says the push to develop standards for smart city technology began about a year and a half ago.

“The standards that would be established as part of this work could really position Portland as a global leader in this space,” Newberry says. The idea of the federal grant process, pushed by the Obama administration, was to bring a lot of players to the table to create a common language.

“The cities will start to come together and say: Here are some emerging standards. Private companies will then follow the needs of the cities,” Newberry says.

There are several possible ways the standards could still go in this country, but FIWARE seems to be leading the pack so far.

“FIWARE has already received considerable investment in Europe and has the advantage of not being tied to a particular company that may be more interested in sales than service,” Jonathan Fink, vice president for research and strategy at Portland State University, says in an email. “Having Portland as the first U.S. city to implement FIWARE gives us some first-mover advantages in the highly competitive world of integrating big data with urban services.”

With the new FIWARE lab, Portland has also bolstered its position in the federal grant process called the Smart Cities Challenge. The U.S. Department of Transportation has put up $40 million with billionaire Paul Allen of Microsoft fame offering another $10 million. The city is one of seven finalists, with the final round of plans due May 24.

John Brady, spokesman for the Portland Bureau of Transportation, says even if the city doesn’t win, the process of bringing together stakeholders for its grant proposal has already catalyzed change.

“It’s fantastic in that respect,” Brady says. “The hope is, win or lose, we’re really laying the foundation for future collaboration.”

If they do win the $50 million jackpot, PBOT’s proposal is to build a “personal mobility platform” currently called UB Mobile PDX. The idea is to take all the different forms of transportation currently available in Portland and mash them into a single app that will calculate the best way to get from point A to point B, whether that’s through TriMet, Uber, Lyft, driving, walking or biking.

The way to integrate all of that in a common network would be through Portland’s FIWARE.

Surveillance state?

But as with any new technology, the potential for unintended consequences also exists. Critics of FIWARE say the technology could lead to a powerful government surveillance system and omnipresent law enforcement.

Pinfold, who is leading the new PSU lab, says the safeguard against that is to simply keep a priority focus on what the people of Portland want and what they don’t.

“It’s a matter of getting it right, and getting it right means we have to do what the people in Portland want us to do,” he says, noting that technologists often don’t understand cities in the way that city planners do — that they are a series of communities and neighborhoods. Solutions have to be unique because neighborhoods are.

“We think the (FIWARE-based) services need to be available really at a community level,” Pinfold says.

He says the new PSU lab also will include a “decision theater” that will help developers play with the data and see what’s possible.

“When we talk about changing Portland,” he says, “it’s really about enhancing the things we love about Portland.”

Shasta Kearns Moore
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