Smarter DC Project Taps IoT to Ease Capital Congestion

Create: 05/23/2017 - 13:45
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Washington D.C. is a sprawling urban metropolis that has a unique portfolio of challenges. The area is home to 297 foreign embassies, millions of visitors and 90 government agencies with 33,000 employees. Recent growth of more than 17 percent in the past 15 years has brought prosperity but also created a digital divide, as 18 percent of the District population is living below poverty.

With the flux in population and growth, the city’s infrastructure constantly needs attention and upgrades. The region’s water system has 1,350 miles of aging pipes that date back to the Civil War. And the transportation system is continually clogged, making movement around the city a challenge. The Urban Mobility Scorecard reports that DC Metrobus speeds average less than 11 mph system-wide.

The good news is that DC is home to plenty of people who know how to implement policy and change, including Archana Vemulapalli, chief technology officer. She is leading an interagency, multi-partner project called Smarter DC that begins with several IoT pilot programs that will lay the groundwork for the transformation of DC to a smart city.

One of Vemulapalli’s guiding principles with the Smarter DC initiative is to be transparent and collaborative. “A smart city requires transparent and engaging governance, a culture of participation, visionary city leaders and empowered and active citizens,” she said at a recent conference in Santa Clara, CA. “Real efficiency is when transparency happens within departments, when we look at what we have and what we can spend.”

She notes that other guiding factors for the Smarter DC project are resilience, sustainability and equitable, citizen-focused solutions. “Equity is a lens we can’t lose track of in our DC community. The solution has to work for everyone, regardless of their job, age or socio-economic status.”

Bringing the IoT to America’s Main Street

One of the initial Smarter DC projects her team is focused on is working with the business improvement district for Pennsylvania Avenue. The project is called PA 2040, a name that is derived from its mission to actualize today what Pennsylvania Avenue could look like in 2040.

A busy thoroughfare often dubbed “America’s Main Street,” Pennsylvania Avenue serves as an aorta for D.C., running through the business district and grazing important landmarks. The street creates a hub for restaurants, bars, museums and monuments that attract locals and tourists in droves.

To launch the technology needed for the PA 2040 pilot, Vemulapalli gathered team members from multiple areas, including the D.C. Office of the Chief Technology Officer, the National Capital Planning Commission and George Washington University. To enlist new technology vendors and solution providers, the DC IT department held regular Demo Days events to accelerate its smart city experimentation.

Vemulapalli also got citizen input. She encouraged various city agencies to provide volunteer staff to get feedback from DC residents, asking them what type of services would improve not just this corridor, but their quality of life in D.C. “Did they want kiosks, public Wi-Fi, better transportation or safer streets? We needed to know what was top of mind,” said Vemulapalli. 

Smart DC

Image: District Department of Transportation

Tiny Bits of Data in the District

Once they had input and determined the top priorities for constituents, the PA 2040 team set out to monitor everything from energy consumption to road degradation and—in some stretches—the hotspots for petty crime. It looked to address these issues through the use of hybrid video and sensor technology on Pennsylvania Avenue lampposts, which light up nearly 6 miles of roadway and sidewalks and consume massive quantities of energy.

The first phase was to install gigabit Wi-Fi to one section of Pennsylvania Avenue to enable the data transfer needed for the smart streetlights. The team then installed an LED smart streetlight capable of monitoring its surroundings to detect everything from car crashes to pedestrian traffic levels. The District used Sensity and Cisco within the pilot area as the solution providers. The smart light technology (which can dim on cloudy days) has already reduced energy consumption 30 to 40 percent, and it has optimized operative efficiency for maintenance crews, notes Vemulapalli.

In the next phase of PA 2040, the team wants to use the sensors on the street lights to enable smart parking systems and add in a variety of video nodes attached to each street light for public safety purposes.

Moving from Smart Silos to a Smart City

Vemulapalli intends to take the learnings from this initial pilot and use them as a template in the next round of projects. “Just from our Wi-Fi and lighting project, we’ve learned so much about what it takes to get permits, what kind of connectivity you need, what kind of backhaul you need,” she said.

In future Smarter DC projects, the District is looking into using IoT sensors in the sewage system to help detect infectious diseases. It also has plans to have a GPS-optimized city grid that will turn all the street lights green to make a clear path for emergency vehicle transit.  

To learn about the programs and technology rollouts in Washington, D.C., visit Download the smart city plan from the District Department of Transportation, “Smart DC: Making the District a Smart City.”

About Author

Melanie McMullen's picture
Melanie McMullen
Melanie is an expert technology writer who specializes in covering the IoT, cloud, mobile computing, and emerging technology markets. Melanie has held top editorial and content development positions at, Internet Business magazine, and LAN Magazine. She has written hundreds of global business technology articles and blogs and co-authored The Standard for Internet Commerce.

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