Mississauga’s CIO offers a guided tour of its future as a smart city

A few months ago at a technology industry gathering in the city of Miami, Wim Elfrink had a confession to make. Though Cisco’s executive vice-president for Industry Solutions and “chief globalization officer” has a deep understanding about how the Internet of Things could transform everyday life, he was far less confident about how to properly pronounce the name “Mississauga.”

Shawn Slack didn’t seem to mind. The City of Mississauga’s CIO was one of several speakers at the Cisco-hosted conference, which was focused on ways other organizations are embracing the IoT’s potential. For him, the event may become just one of many opportunities to showcase how his municipality has quickly become an early case study in the use of sensors and fibre networks to create more responsive, data-driven solutions to common but critical problems. By the time the major elements of his plan have been executed, “Mississauga” may become such a common reference point that its name practically rolls off the tongue.

“We really want to tie into the broader priorities of the corporation,” Slack told CanadianCIO in a phone conversation after the Miami event (which is available in a video replay on YouTube). “We invest millions of dollars in technology year over year. Why not invest that money in a way that better provides services? It’s easy to put switches in place to deal with the basic needs of the business, but how can you take that same investment and make it do more?”

Slack’s strategy is articulated in what he called an “IT master plan” that focuses around four key goals. These include providing an open and accessible government, offering decisions through research and analytics, fostering a connected and engaged workforce and driving innovation.

As anyone who follows municipal politics in Canada knows, Slack is also pursuing his vision at a highly unusual time in Mississauga’s history. Besides the legacy technology the city has in place, it has only recently changed leadership with its first new mayor in decades, with Bonnie Crombie no doubt interested in creating a powerful legacy of her own.

“She’s very much into open, transparent government but also using technology to advance services,” Slack said. “The mayor and the city manager have been real ambassadors for this initiative. It has good alignment with our other investments and what our priorities are, which means we’re better able to implement it.”

Here’s an overview of how Mississauga is entering into the Internet of Things (or as Cisco prefers to say, the Internet of Everything):

The Environment

Mississauga is Canada’s sixth largest city and has its third largest transit system. Slack works for an organization with more than 7,300 employees, in a municipality that’s home to 61 of the fortune 500’s offices and a total of 54,000 businesses. It has a private fibre network with 150 sites that’s long enough, if it were stretched out, to cross Canada six times over. Even before the IoT, Mississauga had already benefited from the network by using VOIP to rationalize and consolidate its phone, voice and data services.

Advanced Traffic Management 

It’s one of the first possible use cases IoT experts tend to talk about, and in Mississauga’s case the timing couldn’t be better, according to Slack. The current system is more than 30 years old and the new one, which is budgeted at $14.8 million, is set to be complete by 2017. It will add sensors to more than 750 traffic lights and include a data-driven dashboard a revamped traffic management centre.

Mississauga’s citizens may not notice the impact immediately, but they may be grateful when the next winter rolls around. Slack said the system will allow snow plows and sanders to get priority access to roadways — they will literally not have to stop and will get an automatic green light in certain scenarios in order to get to work more quickly.

Already, 120 of the city’s 700 intersections are using fibre and wireless network, but what’s interesting is that Mississauga doesn’t own all of them — some belong to transportation agencies or other levels of government. As the new system is put in place, however, information will be shared virtually from the single control centre to help various jurisdictions handle their areas of responsibility.

“We have fairly good coverage throughout the city, and a very aggressive timeline to continue to push that out,” he said.

Smarter LEDs

If you’ve ever bought a Nest thermostat, you’ve probably come to enjoy a system that regulates your temperature according to the weather, your preferences and when you’re actually at home. Mississauga is doing the same thing with its vast lighting system by outfitting LEDs with radios and sensors. These will communicate with other equipment so that they can be made brighter or dimmer as needs dictate and alert the city when they need to be replaced.

A cloud-based system already manages the lights, so the city is building on a good foundation there, Slack said, suggesting there may be further ways to converge data from lighting to other services.

Smarter waterways

It rains in Mississauga. A lot. In isolated areas, Slack says rainfall can quickly lead to major flooding. In response, the city is putting sensors in the waterways to detect excess precipitation and communicate it in a three-tiered alerting system. The first level will simply notify officials that the rain is coming down strong. Level two lets them know flooding is likely, which means crews can quickly clear away debris in areas where water can get into catchbasin, while warnings can be posted on the city’s Web site. By the time the system issues a level three alert, everyone required to swing into action will already be doing so.

Resiliancy and business continuity are critical pieces to make the IoT effective, Slack added. “You have to make sure you’ve got a sufficient emergency power plan to operate critical services,” he said. “Make sure you build in redundancy for your critical services as well.”

Smart transit

Mississauga isn’t the first Canadian city to get citizens moving around more easily, but it may be a pioneer of sorts with Transitway, a dedicated road on which “higher-order” buses will run. This is designed to address the fact that at least four million people are expected to settle in Mississauga over the next 30 years, but Slack said there won’t need to be a lot of people to make major pieces of Transitway operational. In fact, all of the transit stations will be fully automated, with bus signage, security and Wi-Fi all running on their own.

For Slack, the benefit of automation is just the beginning. The real value comes with increased location intelligence that’s built into the IoT foundation.

“One of the things we’ve been looking at traffic management, transit and online services, taking those and having that converge with free public Wi-Fi and corridor-type Wi-Fi and provide it on a more local level,” Slack explained. “We wan to tailor services to the community so that if they’re visitors or locals and on a bus with a bus app, and there happens to be a bakery or a Starbucks, as you get off it presents you with information like a coupon or tells you about culturally-relevant things like a local art exhibit. It packages that up for the user but it’s specific to where they are.”

Mississauga has been working in partnership with Cisco on some co-development of its smart city technologies, and Slack and his team are wrapping up a feasibility study for even more. He said the municipality will likely go out and do a RFP or RFI for other partnerships, but vendors aren’t the only other organizations involved. Mississauga has also fostered strong relationships with Sheridan College and other educational institutions to share infrastructure and collaborate on the delivery of next-generation services, Slack said.

Many other CIOs will probably want to think through ways they could bring value through the IoT. Slack suggested it might be best to sit in on meetings that have little to do with technology today, especially if IT departments are the only thing they’ve ever run.

“Within the city over the last 15 of 16 years, I’ve probably spent more time out of the IT section than I have in,” he said, ticking off stints as business services director and director of customer services, among other roles. “Those experiences and that background makes a better CIO, because you totally understand the customer perspective.”

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