I Bet Your In The Dark About Your City’s Plan For ‘Surveillance Streetlights’

st130117144840By Rebecca Bowe

In the Netherlands city of Eindhoven, the streetlights lining a central commercial strip will glow red if a storm is coming.

It’s a subtle cue that harkens back to an old phrase about a red sky warning mariners that bad weather is on the way. The automated color change is possible because satellite weather data flows over a network to tiny processors installed inside the lampposts, which are linked by an integrated wireless system.

Lighting hues reflecting atmospheric changes are only the beginning of myriad functions these so-called “smart streetlights” can perform. Each light has something akin to a smartphone embedded inside of it, and the interconnected network of lights can be controlled by a central command center.

Since they have built-in flexibility for multiple adaptations, the systems can be programmed to serve a wide variety of purposes. Aside from merely illuminating public space, possible uses could include street surveillance with tiny cameras, monitoring pedestrian or vehicle traffic, or issuing emergency broadcasts via internal speaker systems.

The smart streetlights aren’t just streetlights — they’re data collection devices that have the potential to track anything from pedestrian movements to vehicle license plate numbers. And, through a curious process distinctly lacking in transparency, these spylights are on their way to San Francisco.

BIG PLANS

On Minna between Fourth and Sixth streets in downtown San Francisco, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission has installed a pilot project to test 14 streetlights that are connected by a wireless control system. The city agency plans to gauge how well this system can remotely read city-owned electric meters, wirelessly transmit data from tiny traffic cameras owned by the Municipal Transportation Agency, and transmit data from traffic signals.

The pilot grew out of San Francisco’s participation in an international program called the Living Labs Global Award, an annual contest that pairs technology vendors with officials representing 22 cities from around the world. At a May 2012 LLGA awards summit in Rio de Janeiro, far outside the scope of the city’s normal bidding processes, a Swiss company called Paradox Engineering won the right to start testing the high-tech lights in San Francisco. Within six months, Paradox Engineering and the SFPUC had the Minna streetlights test up and running.

Meanwhile, the city has issued a separate Request for Proposals for a similar pilot, which will test out “adaptive lighting” that can be dimmed or brightened in response to sensors that register pedestrian activity or traffic volume. The city is negotiating contracts with five firms that will test out this technology in three different locations, according to Mary Tienken, Project Manager for LED Streetlight Conversion Project for the SFPUC.

Under the program, five vendors will be chosen to demonstrate their wireless streetlights on 18 city-owned lights at three test sites: Washington Street between Lyon and Maple streets; Irving Street between 9th and 19th avenues; and Pine Street between Front and Stockton streets.

LED streetlights are energy-efficient and could yield big savings — but the lights do far more than shine. The RFP indicates that “future needs for the secure wireless transmission of data throughout the city” could include traffic monitoring, street surveillance, gunshot monitoring and street parking monitoring devices.

So far, the implications of using this technology for such wide-ranging objectives have barely been explored. “San Francisco thought they were upgrading their 18,000 lamps with LEDs and a wireless control system, when they realized that they were in fact laying the groundwork for the future intelligent public space,” LLGA cofounder Sascha Haselmeyer stated in an interview with Open Source Cities. “Eindhoven is pioneering this with … completely new, intelligent lighting concepts that adapt to the citizen not just as a utility, but a cultural and ambient experience. So many questions remain,” he added, and offered a key starting point: “Who owns all that data?”

LUMINARIES IN LIGHTING

Phillips Lighting, which was involved in installing the Eindhoven smart streetlights system, played a role in launching the San Francisco pilot. Paradox Engineering recently opened a local office. Oracle, a Silicon Valley tech giant, is also involved — even though it’s not a lighting company.

“Oracle, of course, manages data,” Haselmeyer explained to the Guardian when reached by phone in his Barcelona office. “They were the first to say, ‘We need to understand how data collected from lampposts will be controlled in the city.’”

According to a press release issued by Paradox Engineering, “Oracle will help managing and analyzing data coming from this ground-breaking system.” Oracle is also a corporate sponsor of the LLGA program. It has been tangentially involved in the pilot project “because of a longstanding relationship we had with the city of San Francisco,” Oracle spokesperson Scott Frendt told us.

Paradox was selected as the winner for San Francisco’s “sustainability challenge” through LLGA, which is now housed under CityMart.com, “a technology start-up offering a professional networking and market exchange platform,” according to the company website.

In May of 2012, the SFPUC sent one of its top-ranking officials, Assistant General Manager Barbara Hale, to Rio for the LLGA awards summit. There, technology vendors of all stripes showcased their products and mingled with local officials from Barcelona, Cape Town, Glasgow, Fukuoka and other international cities. San Francisco was the only US city in attendance. San Francisco will even host the next summit this coming May at Fort Mason.

In Rio, Paradox was lauded as the winning vendor for San Francisco’s LLGA streetlights “challenge.” It didn’t take long for the company to hit the ground running. “Soon after the Rio Summit on Service Innovation in Cities, where we were announced winners for San Francisco, we started discussing with the SFPUC the objectives and features of the pilot project,” Paradox announced on the LLGA website. “Working closely with the SFPUC, we also had the opportunity to build solid partnerships with notable industry players such as Philips Lighting and Oracle.”

WINNERS’ CIRCLE

On Nov. 15, Paradox hosted an invite-only “networking gala” titled “Smart Cities: The Making Of.” The event brought together representatives from Oracle, the SFPUC, Phillips, LLGA, and the Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation, “to learn about the challenges of urban sustainability in the Internet of Things era,” according to an event announcement.

“The project we’re piloting with the SFPUC is highly innovative since it puts into practice the new paradigm of the ‘Internet of Things,’ where any object can be associated with an IP address and integrated into a wider network to transmit and receive relevant information,” Gianni Minetti, president and CEO at Paradox, stated in a press release.

The event was also meant to celebrate Paradox’s expansion into the North American urban lighting space, a feat that was greatly helped along by the LLGA endeavor. But how did a Swiss company manage to hook up with a San Francisco city agency in the first place — and win a deal without ever going through the normal procurement process?

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