Politics & Government

From driverless trolleys to free hot spots, Wichita looks to technology to help residents

Fans who take a trolley from a downtown parking garage to Wichita’s new baseball stadium next season may notice something unique about their journey.

There’s no driver.

City officials want to use autonomous trolleys downtown next year as part of a concerted effort to increase the use of machine-learning, or “smart,” technology across Wichita.

“The idea is to insert one or two of these along the Q Line…to demonstrate the technology is coming, help citizens feel more comfortable and to drive usage,” said Michael Barnett, Smart City coordinator for the city of Wichita.

Cities that have deployed autonomous buses – such as San Francisco, Atlanta and Las Vegas – have seen an increase in usage, Barnett said.

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The hope is to have the new trolleys in use before the baseball season opens next spring, he said, but that goal may prove too ambitious.

The city is exploring a variety of initiatives using sensors to collect and synthesize data that will ultimately make operations — from synchronizing stoplights to emptying trash cans — more efficient and thus less costly, said Mike Mayta, chief information officer for the city of Wichita. At this stage, most are still in the exploratory phase.

Unlike many other cities, Wichita hasn’t created an “innovation district” or technology hub and filled it with sensors, Barnett said. Instead, the technology is being used across the city.

“Our efforts are community focused and community driven,” he said. “They’re being put in place where the community has that need.”

Mirroring national trends

Wichita is just one of many cities across the nation that has adopted Smart City planning and utilization for the entire municipality, said Stephanie Atkinson, founder and CEO of Compass Intelligence in Bandera, Texas, who has chaired the IoT, or Internet of Things, Smart City Summit for the past three years.

In the Internet of Things, objects are connected by sensors, which collect data and send it to software, which then takes an action, such as sending an alert or changing a traffic light.

Thus far, Atkinson said, cities are typically using sensors to improve traffic management and street lighting as well as track assets and manage their fleets.

“Technology for managing city assets, infrastructure, and vehicle fleets is very mature and the business models prove major cost savings, predictive maintenance and repair, and the automatic location of assets across the city for better planning and protection,” Atkinson said in an e-mail response to questions.

In many ways, Wichita has mirrored those most common uses. Engineers have used sensors to track traffic flow along the Maple Street Corridor between McLean and Maize Road and synchronize the traffic lights.

The analysis of traffic flow and resulting adjustments improved commute times for eastbound traffic by nearly four minutes in the morning and by almost six minutes for the westbound evening commute, Barnett said.

“Maple is an interesting corridor for us,” he said. “You can’t always green light Maple as a priority because you have Ridge, West and debateably Tyler – all major thoroughfares – intersecting with it.”

That means there are times those cross streets have to receive priority because of traffic flow.

The city is poised to launch a similar study along K-15 between Derby and Wichita. The project is a collaboration between the Kansas Department of Transportation, Sedgwick County and the cities of Derby and Wichita.

Traffic signals along the K-15 corridor will be retrofitted with new controllers, GPS clocks, ethernet/fiber capable switches and cameras with fiber optic or modem connections. As many as 15 intersections will be upgraded.

“We took what we’ve learned from Maple and we’re applying it there,” Barnett said.

Gunfire detection to help police

City officials also are using smart technology to assist local law enforcement. One of the pilot projects is gunfire detection.

Police officials have identified two areas of the city with unusually high volumes of gun violence – in southeast and north-central sectors of Wichita – and have sensors that will listen for and record gunshots and alert law enforcement.

“We’ve deployed these sensors in a way that they’re always on and they’re always hearing,” Barnett said. “But we want to differentiate between hearing and recording.”

The sensors were deployed after receiving feedback from residents about how they would be used. The sensors only record the gunshot itself, he said, with the data saved onsite for 30 days before being erased.

Most gunfire detection products on the market today record “everything,” including voices, Mayta said. In some cases, those recordings have been used in court cases.

Wichita residents voiced concerns about that happening here, fearing a “Big Brother” scenario where privacy has been all but eliminated. City officials found a vendor able to filter out everything but the sound of gunfire.

“We’re trying our best not to invade citizen privacy,” Mayta said.

Closing the digital divide

One of the most successful uses of smart technology in Wichita to date is the neighborhood hotspot program. Last February, in a trial program, the city deployed 20 hotspots to Colvin and Atwater resource centers.

“There’s a large debate in the Smart City community – the idea of a digital divide” between those who have access to the worldwide web and those who don’t, Barnett said.

“How do we improve that?” he asked. “One of the ideas we have is this program. Other cities deployed out of libraries. We chose resource centers.”

Residents were allowed to check out a hotspot for up to two weeks at a time for free. There was no late fee, either.

“If you can’t afford internet, why are we going to charge you a fee? It doesn’t make sense,” Barnett said. “We’re trying to help people, not hurt them.”

Of the 40 hotspots deployed, he said, only three didn’t come back. One of those three was accidentally dropped into a toilet and couldn’t be revived.

There were few restrictions on how the hotspots could be used: no gambling or adult content or sites that feature gore and extreme violence. Those restrictions are set by law, Barnett said.

It was fine if the residents used the hotspots to watch Netflix or play Fortnite, he said.

“How do you quantify being able to relate to your classmates?” Barnett asked.

Data usage revealed less than 4 percent of searches were to blocked sites, he said, and most of those were for gambling.

“I expected a bit more abuse than I saw” in the program, he said.

The hotspots were only able to meet one-third of the demand, Barnett said, telling city officials much better internet coverage is needed in the city – or it needs to be much more affordable.

“We did see a huge amount of success” with the program, he said, though the data collected on usage “was relatively junky.”

Several people used the hotspots to apply for college or look for jobs.

“If one person got a job, it’s enough to pay for the program,” Barnett said.

The city didn’t budget to continue the hotspot program. But when AARP learned how successful it was during the trial period, the organization provided a grant to extend the program for another year.

The city announced last week that it was expanding the program. Hot spots can now be checked out at three neighborhood resource centers: Atwater, 2755 E. 19th St. ; Colvin, 2820 S. Roosevelt; and Evergreen, 2700 N. Woodland.

“It’s a very low-cost program for the city – only staff hours to provide the service for the citizens,” Barnett said.

Smart trash cans for city parks

Mayta and Barnett are awaiting approval to purchase trash cans for city parks that will be able to send alerts when they need to be emptied. A pilot program that stretched out over a 10-week period this year showed potential.

The sensors can help management reroute city vehicles to empty only the trash cans that are full, “ideally saving man hours and gas,” Mayta said.

It also provides a better park experience for residents.

Local officials are looking to roll out a pilot for a city-run rideshare program similar to Lyft and Uber, too. Users will be able to schedule transport via a small transit vehicle offering curbside to curbside service.

“Our transit services here in the city are not used at a rate we would hope they are,” Barnett said. “Wichita’s huge. It’s very difficult to service a population that’s (spread out over) 164 square miles.”

Utilizing smart technology as much as possible isn’t about chasing after flashy new things, Barnett said. The sensors provide hard data about usage that city officials need.

The city is able to keep costs down because tech companies are willing to provide the materials for the pilot programs at no cost or low cost, making it easier for the city to see a return on its investment.

“The goal here is to do a better job of serving the citizens by giving them services that are more oriented toward them and at the same time saving money along the way,” Mayta said.

Using local firms in Wichita

Where possible, the city is using local tech firms as they expand their Smart City footprint.

“We’re working with the city of Wichita on a whole Smart City platform,” said Jaten Talreja, founder and CEO of Viaanix, a company just across from City Hall that specializes in developing IoT hardware and software.

“A lot of people think, ‘Oh, you’ve got LED lights in your streetlights – you’re a Smart City now,’ but it’s so much more than that,” Talreja said.

One of the city’s goals is to stay local “when it makes sense to do so,” Mayta said.

“Our experience with Viaanix has been very low cost with exceptional quality and expertise,” he said. “It also helps tech to grow here, which is very important to this community.”

One contract for a specific use has the potential to add 40 jobs for Viaanix, officials said, and more ventures could be finalized down the road.

“Some of this could really explode into a large, large venture,” Mayta said. “From an economic development standpoint, we can have an impact there.”

The city is also working with FlagshipKansas.Tech, a new consortium whose mission is to spread awareness about the tech sector in the Sunflower State, develop strategies for retaining and attracting tech talent to the state and develop workforce training and education programs to meet the demand of the tech sector.

“There is a lot happening in the tech sector in Wichita, and we’re excited to see that,” Mayta said.