Views on Smart Cities and Indoor Localization From Bruno Sinopoli, Associate Professor, Carnegie Mellon University

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Smart cities integrate information technology and communication solutions to manage assets, including transportation systems and utilities.

Bloomberg BNA Privacy & Data Security News Senior Legal Editor Jimmy H. Koo posed a series of questions to Bruno Sinopoli, associate professor at Carnegie Mellon University and a member of Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, on the benefits and risks associated with connected infrastructure and some of the major challenges in implementing smart city programs.

Bloomberg BNA:

What is your definition of a smart city?

Bruno Sinopoli:

Smart city has become such a buzzword that you never know what someone means. The definition that seems most reasonable refers to a city as a convergence of information and communication technology (ICT) capable not only of making each of a city’s infrastructures “smart” through the use of sensors and actuators—for example, power systems, water/sewage, telecommunication and transportation—but also of connecting them in such a way that they may work together as an ensemble to improve the quality of life for its residents.

It is important to understand that cities are inhabited by people, who are both part of the infrastructure and end users of services. People’s behaviors aren't as easy to predict as their preferences. As a consequence, while we can instrument a city and collect enormous amounts of data, extracting useful information from that data is a big challenge. It isn't clear how to design a smart city to maximize quality of living and how decisions, both short and long term, will affect that quality of living.


Bloomberg BNA:

Is there a real-world example of a functional smart city?


I don’t believe any city has achieved this vision and it will be long time before that happens. I believe wealthy city-states such as Singapore are well poised to become smart cities, thanks to availability of finances, a single layer of government and authority over the existing infrastructures.

In the U.S., several cities have started smart city initiatives, launching pilot projects and the Department of Transportation created the Smart City Challenge, which has named seven cities as finalists, including Pittsburgh, the home of Carnegie Mellon University. Carnegie Mellon, a leader in developing and deploying technology to improve transportation and the quality of urban life, has teamed with the city of Pittsburgh for the challenge.


Bloomberg BNA:

What are some of the benefits and risks of having connected infrastructure?


The benefits are plentiful. Having a large amount of data can help build models able to predict future behavior and plan ahead. Through data, it will be possible to uncover dependencies between infrastructures and perform a joint optimization of resources to improve efficiency. From a resilience standpoint, understanding interdependencies can help prepare for disaster scenarios and avoid, in the case of a natural or man-made disaster, cascading failures of infrastructures that would bring a city to collapse. If data is real-time, quick reconfigurations due to temporary faults or outages can result in minimal disruption to services.


As is often the case, with great opportunities come great challenges. From a technological standpoint, managing complexity presents many “big data” challenges, as does collecting, storing, retrieving and processing large amounts of data in a timely manner. Reliable operation and system maintenance are two other major issues, as devices and subsystems fail frequently. Building an architecture capable of robust continued operations in the face of faults is a non-trivial task.

While these are all serious challenges, in my opinion, security and privacy are the biggest hurdles to overcome to realize this vision. Security is a difficult property to achieve as, unlike in computer networks, many devices will be deployed in the field with little physical protection and are bound to be tampered with. Several nodes of the network will be low-cost and simple, and therefore incapable of running layers of security that require more powerful and sophisticated devices. In addition, ICT will support the operation of physical systems, some of which may be safety-critical. Attacks, either of integrity or denial-of-service, can potentially lead to catastrophic consequences, even so far as loss of human life. One such example is connected vehicles—one can only imagine what could happen if an attacker can wirelessly take control of a number of cars on the road at the same time, as was recently demonstrated by the hackers Charlie Miller and Chris Valasek (14 PVLR 1368, 7/27/15).

In terms of privacy, while the scenarios may not be as catastrophic, risks are serious, as the ability to collect a large amount of personal information can have dire consequences on our daily lives. Personal data can reveal personality, mood, health conditions and more. While this information can be used to provide beneficial services to citizens, it could also be used to make credit, insurance and employment decisions and, in a subtle way, to limit our freedom of choice.


Bloomberg BNA:

Is there a governmental regulatory framework or best practices that govern the use of data generated by smart cities?


To the best of my knowledge, there are no regulations or accepted best practices yet, although several government agencies, including the National Institute of Standards and Technology, are working toward achieving this goal.

I believe the emergence of standards is crucial to enable the development of a market and, together with regulation, is necessary to guarantee acceptable levels of security and privacy.


Bloomberg BNA:

How does Carnegie Mellon University’s research on indoor localization play into the smart cities concept?


As we have witnessed in the past few years, location information has become a necessary attribute, one which is required to provide certain services. Location-based services is a multibillion dollar market.

While the problem is partially solved by Global Positioning Systems (GPS) in outdoor environments, no accurate, robust and cost-effective method is available for indoor applications, where GPS isn't available.

We in Carnegie Mellon’s College of Engineering are filling this gap.


Bloomberg BNA:

Going forward, what are some of the major challenges in implementing smart city programs?


Beyond the technological, security and privacy challenges, I believe the economics are still an unresolved issue. Developing, deploying and maintaining a smart city infrastructure can be costly. Most cities are severely financially constrained and simply cannot afford this transition on their own.

Further, returns on investments aren't yet clear at this point, which prevents private investments from coming in. Finally, infrastructure owners are often private and, understandably, reluctant to change when the risks are potentially high.