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The Internet of Things, and the Reality of Access

One of the most talked-about city initiatives at the moment is the “Internet of Things” collaboration between Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland State University.  The project is both timely, and offers a variety of potential benefits to the city. But the question remains: with so many Cleveland residents still struggling without basic regular internet access, will this initiative address this digital gap, or will underprivileged communities continue to be left out of the city’s march towards digital progress?

If you’re not up on your current buzzwords, the Internet of Things refers to a physical network of interconnected devices, all working together, communicating to provide peak performance. To the average person, what that probably brings to mind first are Smart Homes, networks that controls your home’s every move, from turning lights on to regulating heat, starting the dishwasher, and monitoring security.

A Smart Home isn’t a bad place to start when defining the Internet of Things, but instead of your house, imagine a whole factory connected like that, or a hospital, or a city. Smart traffic systems, for example, are a natural fit, helping with congestion management, toll services, or even just helping people find a place to park. That same infrastructure of sensors can also be adapted to monitor trash, potholes, even air quality. And other municipal services can be made easier to access. In San Antonio, for example, the city has set up “court kiosks” where people can show up for court appearances without having to drive halfway across the city,  a huge improvement for non-drivers as well. The potential for public transit improvement is huge: imagine your smartphone tells you the best bus to catch based on traffic that day, sends you an alert when the bus is on the way, and pays your ticket. For populations like the elderly, this can lead to increased mobility and as a consequence, increased quality of life and community engagement. And the benefits of smart tech are already being celebrated in the medical and health industries, where the ability to real-time monitor indicators like glucose or heart arrhythmia not only promise greater patient care, but vast amounts of data that researchers will be able to use to improve treatment.

So it’s easy to see why cities are excited. The industrial side of the Internet of Things (IoT) promises great strides in efficiency, economy, and convenience. The collaboration between CWRU and CSU is a continuation of CWRU’s previous IoT investments, through the newly formed Institute for Smart, Secure and Connected Systems (ISSACS) which aims to promote IoT research in networks, data science, and embedded networks. The two schools plan to use the grant to look for innovative development possibilities in the region, in both educational and industrial areas. They’ll be examining ways both public and private schools can benefit from IoT implementation, field testing possible models, reaching out to possible stakeholders and promoting regional digital investment. The goal is, of course, economic development; to make Northeast Ohio a model of community infrastructure, workforce development, and technological connectivity.

And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that vision. It is certainly a worthy idea, and one central to developing and attracting top companies and their talent to the region. But the problem arises when you look at who is in on that Utopian conversation, and more specifically, who isn’t. After all, a network of connected businesses and city services working in tandem is a great idea, but is that necessarily helpful to the resident living only a few blocks over from the Case campus, who can’t fill out online job applications because they have no internet at home? How many of our elderly will be able to go online and check their medical data, or use that touted public transit app on a smartphone?

According to the 2017 American Community Survey, 34% of Americans have substandard internet, or no internet at all. In Cleveland, those number fall below the natural average, with 26.6% of residents having no internet at all, 6% relying on satellite, and 12% only accessing the internet through their smart phone. Anyone who has ever tried to fill out a form on their phone knows how frustrating, and ultimately disengaging, that can be. And according to a 2012 Connect Your Community telephone survey, only half of Cuyahoga county social service recipients have reliable internet access. When we talk about improving municipal management, surely one of the first places to start is making sure people can actually access the city and county services that matter most to them.

IoT technology can be can provide all sorts of efficient, effective improvement when it comes to municipal management, but as the city begins to have this discussion, it’s important that our most vulnerable populations not be left out of the smart tech loop. We look forward to seeing the innovative ideas that will come out the CWRU/CSU collaboration. But we hope any potential plans also include solutions for increasing basic broadband connectivity in our most under-served households, and digital literacy programs that will reach out to everyone, not just potential investors and businesses.