November 16, 2012
While it’s still not possible to definitively predict the course a nasty storm will take, we can say with absolute certainty that once it does arrive, two things will happen.
First, we will be treated to the last remaining example of slapstick on TV–weather reporters trying to remain upright in a gale. And second, we’ll see footage of a convoy of utility vehicles headed to the scene of the storm, the cavalry as bucket trucks.
The former is always loony, the latter usually reassuring. Yet there’s something oddly low tech about waiting for help from people driving hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles. Yes, our power grid has been described as a “model of 20th century engineering,” but what has it done to impress us lately?
Sadly, not much.
In fairness, no amount of innovation could have prevented the havoc created by Superstorm Sandy, when more than than 8.5 million homes and businesses lost power. But this is an industry for which, until very recently, the only way an electric company would find out about an outage was when a customer called it in. Not quite cutting edge.
Given the likelihood that more frequent extreme weather will bring more blackouts–the number of major outages in the U.S. has already doubled in past 10 years–power companies know they need to go about their business in different ways, that they need systems that can predict problems and respond automatically.
And it’s not as simple as burying all power lines. That’s really not a very good option in many places, particularly cities, where the cost, according to the Energy Information Administration, could be more than $2 million per mile–almost six times what overhead lines cost. Plus, repair costs can be higher for underground lines and, of course, they’re more vulnerable to flooding.
So what’s the solution? Well, as they say in the relationship business, it’s complicated. But it undoubtedly will involve making power systems much smarter and also using, in a much more strategic way, the enormous amount of data becoming available on how consumers consume and how grids perform.
Here are five examples of companies and governments exploring new ways to keep the lights on.
1) Is your grid smarter than a fifth grader? With a boost of more than $100 million in federal stimulus money, the city of Chattanooga, Tennessee converted its power grid into what’s known as a “self-healing network,” which uses high-speed fiber optic lines to report what’s happening on the system. About 1,200 new “smart switches” track what’s going on with the power lines and make adjustments, if necessary.
Say a falling tree takes out a line. The nearest switch would cut off power to that immediate area and reroute it around the problem. Which means fewer homes and businesses would be affected.
That’s just how it played out during a big windstorm in the city last summer. About 35,000 homes went dark, but city officials say that without the smart switches, another 45,000 houses and businesses would have joined them. The city’s utility estimates that the new system saved it $1.4 million during that one storm alone.
2) Your lights may go out. Oh, and it’s 73 degrees: To get better real-time data on how weather affects its grid, San Diego Gas & Electric Company built 140 little weather stations throughout its network.
They provide up-to-date readings on the temperature, humidity and wind speed and direction, and pay particular attention to any signs of wildfires that could bring down the network.
3) Where you go off the grid to stay on the grid: Next year, Connecticut will become the first state to help its cities and towns start building their own “microgrids.” These will be small, self-sustaining islands of power that run on state-of-the-art fuel cells.
The idea is that these systems, able to disconnect from the main grid, will be capable of providing electricity to police and fire departments, hospitals, pharmacies, grocery stores, college campuses, shelters and other key businesses, even if the rest of the city loses juice.
4) Welcome to Texas, where even Big Data is bigger: By the end of the year, Oncor, the utility serving most of north Texas, will have installed more than 3 million smart meters in homes and businesses. When you consider that each of them sends data to Oncor every 15 minutes–in the old days the utility took a reading just once a month–well, that’s a whole lot of data. Add in all the grid sensors along the system’s 118,000 miles of power lines and that’s more data than…well, that’s a whole lot of data.
So Oncor has partnered with IBM, the King of Big Data, to install software that will make sense of the all that information and, in the process, allow the company to detect outages much more quickly.
5) A tweet in the dark: Finally, it should probably come as no surprise that now one of the more effective ways for utility companies to track outages is through Facebook and Twitter.
So in January, GE will make available new software called Grid IQ Insight and one of its features is the ability to superimpose social media data–namely tweets and Facebook posts–over a power company’s network. So utilities won’t have to wait for customers to call in blackouts; they’ll just see their tweets pop up on a map.
Video bonus: So, what is a smart grid, any how? Scientific American lays it all out for you.
Video bonus bonus: And I ask again: What is it about hurricanes that makes people act stupid?
More from Smithsonian.com
July 16, 2012
But Sherlock Holmes, now he would have been impressed. The logic, the science, the compilation of data–all the stuff of Holmesian detective work.
I’m talking about something known as predictive policing–gathering loads of data and applying algorithms to deduce where and when crimes are most likely to occur. Late last month, the Los Angeles Police Department announced that it will be expanding its use of software created by a California startup named PredPol.
For the past six months, police in that city’s Foothill precinct have been following the advice of a computer and the result, according the the LAPD, is a 25 percent drop in reported burglaries in the neighborhoods to which they were directed. Now the LAPD has started using algorithm-driven policing in five more precincts covering more than 1 million people.
PredPol’s software, which previously had been tested in Santa Cruz–burglaries there dropped by 19 percent–actually evolved from a program used to predict earthquakes. Now it crunches years of crime data, particularly location and time, and refines it with what’s known about criminal behavior, such as the tendency of burglars to work the neighborhoods they know best.
Before each shift, officers are given maps marked with red boxes of likely hot spots for property crimes, in some cases zeroing in on areas as small as 500 feet wide. They’re told that whenever they’re not on calls, they should spend time in one of the boxes, preferably at least 15 minutes of every two hours. The focus is less on solving crimes, and more on preventing them by establishing a high profile in crime zones the computer has targeted.
Taking it to the streets
So, isn’t this pretty much what police always have done? Don’t they figure out patterns and spend most of their time patrolling high-crime areas? Well, yes and no. Good cops know trouble spots and veteran ones rely on what they’ve learned about a place over the years. But that’s largely based on personal experience and instinct, not statistical analysis.
It’s also true that many cities already have embraced CompStat, a law enforcement strategy launched in New York City in the mid-1990s and built around analysis of crime reports. CompStat was a big leap forward in applying data to crime-fighting, but it was still more about looking back than projecting forward.
PredPol and similar software that IBM has developed for police departments in Memphis and just recently, in Charleston, South Carolina, is far more precise and timely, with the data recalibrated daily. And while it might take a human analyst hours or even days to spot a pattern, the computer can connect the dots in seconds.
At the very least, say boosters of predictive policing, the software allows police to spend more time on the street instead of sitting in strategy sessions. Computers can handle more of the planning–which make this even more appealing to all the police departments losing officers to budget cuts.
Bad search results
But, as is often the case when computers call the shots, algorithmic crime-fighting makes some people nervous. Critics say it could easily lead to racial profiling or reinforcing stereotypes about certain neighborhoods, that once a computer identifies an area as a hot spot, it lowers the bar for what qualifies as suspicious behavior.
It’s only a matter of time, argues Andrew Ferguson, a Washington D.C. law professor, before a search based on predictive policing gets challenged in court. Here’s his take, from a recent interview with the Charleston (S.C.) City Paper:
“I think what you would say is the worst case — and I don’t even think this is that far-fetched — is that there will be a case where someone gets stopped on a street corner for suspicion of burglary. It’ll go before a court, and they’ll say, ‘OK, officer, what was your reasonable suspicion for stopping this person?’
“And he’ll say, ‘The computer told me,’ essentially, right? ‘The computer said look out for burglaries, I saw this guy in the location, so I stopped him because he looked like a burglar.’ And race, class, all of those things obviously are a part of it. And the judge will then just defer.
“How are you going to cross-examine the computer?”
21st century crime busting
Here are more examples of how technology is changing law enforcement:
- The eyes have it: As part of a project to expand on its old fingerprint database, the FBI is adding server space to store iris scans. More jails now are using high-res cameras to create images of prisoners’ irises when they’re booked.
- Smartphone justice: Britain’s Scotland Yard has created a smartphone app called Facewatch that encourages Londoners to help find criminals. Users enter their postal code and they’re shown pictures of suspects who may be in their areas. If they recognize somebody, they can tap on the image and send in that person’s name.
- Face to face: Engineers at Michigan State University have created algorithms that could make it easier to track down criminals by matching sketches made by police artists with images in a database of mug shots. That can make sketches, often based on unreliable traumamtic memories, more effective in solving crimes.
- Let’s go toss some robots: Police and firefighters have started using the Recon Scout Throwbot, an eight-inch long robot that can be thrown like a football, but lands upright and transmits video through its camera.
- The devil made me not do it: Researchers in Oregon say their analysis of more than 25 years of data suggests that crime rates tend to be lower in societies where many people believe in Hell and God’s punitive nature than in those where most people put their faith in a forgiving God.
Video bonus: For old times sake, spend a little time with Peter Falk as Columbo, the ultimate low-tech detective.
More from Smithsonian.com
October 11, 2011
The web’s been full of Steve Jobs’ wisdom the past week, but one insight you didn’t see very often was his 2001 prediction that the Segway would be bigger than the personal computer. In fairness, he did hate the way it looked. It was inelegant. It was too traditional. Or, as Jobs put it, “It sucks.”
That said, the Segway got the engineering right and Jobs wasn’t the only one who saw it as an answer to urban congestion. Obviously, it hasn’t worked out that way—Segways are still about as common on city sidewalks as potty-trained pigeons. (Only 30,000 of the two-wheelers were sold in its first seven years on the market.) And that reminds us that no invention, no matter how technologically sound, is a slam dunk in the real world, particularly when that world is as maddeningly complex as a 21st century city.
But what if you could build a city that’s designed to be a laboratory, a place where engineers, government planners and university researchers can test ways of making cities smarter? Not timed-traffic-lights smart, but real digital intelligence, where all the high-tech infrastructure is woven together—you get the power grid talking to the traffic system and then surveillance cameras join the conversation.
That’s what Pegasus Global Holdings has in mind. A few weeks ago the Washington, D.C. tech firm announced that it will build something called the Center for Innovation, Testing and Evaluation in the middle of the New Mexico desert. Sounds like a white-coat wonderland. What it actually will be is more like is a robot ghost town. The place may cover as much as 20 square miles and include enough roads, buildings, homes, water lines and power grids to support 35,000 people. But no one will live there.
Already some are saying Pegasus may end up pulling a Segway. Sure, it’s an ambitious idea that could help urban thinkers fine-tune cities of the future. But without human beings on the premises, some of our more endearing qualities—unpredictability, randomness and irrational behavior—would seemingly be dropped from the equation. What about rampant double-parking? A hacker attack? Mass simultaneous toilet flushes? Flash mobs? A Justin Bieber sighting?
Not to worry, insists Pegagus co-founder Robert Brumley. With enough data and computing power, a city’s complexity can be replicated through algorithms. In fact, he says it has reached the point where human randomness can be built into the mix. For instance, sensors in toilets throughout his faux community can be programmed to mimic human behavior.
No question that keeping cities functioning will be one of the great challenges of the rest of this century. It’s projected that by 2050, 70 percent of the world’s population will live in urban areas. Already, 21 mega-cities have populations of 10 to 20 million.
A lot of experts think the only way to deal with millions of people is to install millions of sensors throughout a city and hook them up to one big operating center. That’s the vision of Living PlanIT, a Portuguese firm which also is planning a model smart city, only it will have people. Nearly everything in that new community, scheduled to be built near Paredes, Portugal by 2015, will be connected to sensors, which will monitor traffic flow, energy consumption, water use, waste processing, even the temperature in individual rooms.
Ideally, its system will work like this: Cameras spot a fire and sensors set off alarms and flashing lights which direct people to safety. At the same time a fire station is alerted and then traffic lights are automatically manipulated so that fire trucks won’t have to slow down.
The trucks, apparently, won’t drive themselves.
Here’s more urban living news:
- Car Talk: A new study found that when cars are able to collect and share information with each other, commute time drops.
- Meter magic: Cities can now install sensors on parking spaces that will allow drivers to use a smartphone app to find open spots.
- Pedal mettle: A bike called the Faraday, which features a 24-volt motor to help with the hills, was selected the best urban utility bike in the Oregon Manifest challenge.
- Smog be gone: Boral Roofing has invented a roof tile that eats smog. Okay, it doesn’t actually eat it. Technically, the tile coating breaks smog down into a substance that washes away in the rain.
- Going underground: Talk about heading in new directions. A Mexican firm has designed an inverted pyramid called an “Earthscraper” that would extend 65 stories underground.
Bonus video: Wrap your head around this one: Cars that fold up, thanks to the whiz kids at the MIT Media Lab.
August 1, 2011
Greetings from the most hated town in America. No one has much good to say about Washington lately. I get that.
But for old times’ sake, I’m here to nurture a little “gov love.” Not for the feds here in D.C.—hey, I’m not a miracle worker. No, to start rebuilding our faith in government, we need to go local.
And yes, there’s an app for that.
Actually, there are several. The one that’s been around the longest is the beautifully simple SeeClickFix. It’s the brainchild of a programmer named Ben Berkowitz , who grew frustrated with the graffiti sprayed on a house in his New Haven, Connecticut neighborhood. He got even more frustrated when he couldn’t get a response from the local government.
So he did what so many people do these days—he turned to his phone for an answer. He figured that if you could take a photo of a neighborhood eyesore, send it to the appropriate local officials, but keep the request transparent so neighbors could chime in if a fix wasn’t made, you might get action. He figured right.
Obviously, his idea had value way beyond cleaning up graffiti. Toppled street signs, broken lights, clogged storm drains, reeking roadkill, dicey intersections and, of course, gaping potholes—all were fair game. (You gotta love a guy–Berkowitz–who refers to potholes as “the gateway drug to civic engagement.”) Today, SeeClickFix—with apps for iPhones, Android phones and Blackberrys—is in play in more than 25,000 cities and towns, and it keeps the pressure on by rating communities on how many of the reported problems are fixed.
And the idea has spread to Facebook through an app called Citizen Request Tracker. Produced by CivicPlus and now being tested in Burleson, Texas, a suburb of Dallas-Fort Worth, Civic Request Tracker adds a backend feature which sorts and categorizes requests for local governments.
Slowly but surely towns across the country are figuring out how to use QR codes to make community life easier, whether it’s to allow residents to use their phones to get access to documents or to reserve parks or learn something they didn’t know about local landmarks.
Now, if only we had a SeeClickFix app that worked when you took a picture of the United States Capitol. A person can dream, eh?