Technicity West fireside chat: Focus on the City of Calgary

Calgary, which recently tied with Zurich, Switzerland as the third most liveable city on the planet in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s annual ranking (and is number one in North America), is also a hotbed of innovation and tech, according to Jan Bradley, director and chief information technology officer for the City of Calgary.

At Technicity West this week, she sat down for a virtual fireside chat with ITWC chief information officer Jim Love to talk about the municipality’s digital path, and how the smart city concept applies to it.

“We truly are committed [to the smart city], and recently in IT we firmed up that commitment,” Bradley said. “We now have a smart city program manager lead, and she is  actively engaged in refreshing that smart city strategy. Years ago, it started out as being primarily about connectivity, and now we’re looking at what are the community problems that technology can address and solve, and potentially what ideas are out there in our community that are already being solved.”

She said that smart city program manager Monique Nesset is actively promoting what the city calls Living Labs, in which it makes its assets available to entrepreneurs such as AirMatrix, a company that is mapping airspace for drones to allow their safe commercial use. It, in partnership with IN-FLIGHT Data, needed a real-world environment in which to test their technology. Calgary considers this one of its success stories.

Bradley said she is also excited about a research collaboration with the University of Calgary, looking at the factors that contribute to digital inequities among citizens. It seeks to discover the role that the city plays and how to bring community stakeholders together to try and address the issue.

Love observed that having a smart city lead means a constant focus on the initiative.

Bradley agreed. “Absolutely, because it can’t be something that is done off the side of your desk,” she said. “It needs to be a priority and there need to be objectives and goals associated with the role, and it really needs full-time commitment, and it needs a team. So we’re actively trying to build up our smart cities team.”

In her next four-year budget, she is also requesting funding for what she calls a technology integration centre, where city business units can test out emerging technologies in a safe, isolated environment that will not impact the operational network.

Given the importance of connectivity in a smart city, Love wondered about Calgary’s fibre strategy for serving both commercial and consumer users.

“We were really blessed in that probably about 20 or 21 years ago, we had some great visionary leadership in our organization who felt that fibre, and municipally owned fibre, was a critical piece of the infrastructure we needed going forward, and so we have been building out our fibre plan,” Bradley said. “We (received) some approval in 2015 from our Council, we’re registered as a non-dominant carrier for dark fibre, we have over 600 kilometers of municipally owned fiber that connects City assets, and that can include buildings or other assets like intersections.

“And this connectivity has been at the heart of how we build out some of the emerging technologies like the Internet of Things. We were able to add in a commercial grade LoRaWAN – that’s a long-range low power network – and that’s how you can attach your sensors that create that network of the Internet of Things.”

That infrastructure, which has been in progress for a number of years, is being put to all kinds of uses, said Bradley. Last summer, the city piloted sensors on garbage bins in parks that identify ones that need emptying, so they can be dealt with as needed instead of on a schedule. She noted that citizens were making positive comments about the pilot on Reddit.

And, she said, “We’re doing the same kind of thing with needle bins. Our fire department has to go in to empty the needle bins, and we’ve been working with them to develop a similar sensor so that they know when those needle bins need to be picked up.”

Calgary is also doing work with robotic process automation. Bradley said, which “is intended to take over repetitive mundane tasks that employees are doing and allow them to do higher value-added tasks. So it’s more than workflow. These automations are actually what we call digital employees.

“We have up to 20 digital employees now, and they can be scheduled, and they can take over these repetitive tasks, allowing the employees to address some of our capacity issues and also do some higher value-added work.”

When the initiative began in 2021, she noted, there were concerns that people or budgets would be cut.

“We met with leadership groups across the organization and we showed them, we actually demonstrated what some of the bots could do,” she said. “And it was really heartwarming to see how many of the senior leaders in our organization reached out to us afterwards and said, ‘Hey we’re interested. We’ve got some use cases’.

“We’ve got 20 digital employees now, and we are continuing to build this out. We have a bit of a waiting list, which is never always a good thing. But you know, we have some capacity constraints. So we really are getting great uptake from our business units.”

The program pays for itself, she explained, in part by the number of hours of employee time saved to free humans for higher value tasks.

“The team that has been working on robotic process automation, they are also experts in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), and they’re doing some really interesting work, or working with the University of Calgary,” Bradley said. “We’re developing the first humanoid robot for citizen service at City Hall. So our initial use case there is to have a robot that is available in the municipal building so that if somebody comes in and does not speak English, this robot can help with language translation.

“The municipal building itself can be quite a complex environment to navigate, so I think there’s opportunities for this robot to actually expand into, not just language translation, but actually guiding people through.”

When asked what she’d have to report next year at this time, Bradley said she hopes for more use cases, not only from the Internet of Things, but from the AI space, including a demo of the municipal robot.

And, she added, “With any luck, we’ll be able to share some success stories with you from our technology integration centre.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Lynn Greiner
Lynn Greiner
Lynn Greiner has been interpreting tech for businesses for over 20 years and has worked in the industry as well as writing about it, giving her a unique perspective into the issues companies face. She has both IT credentials and a business degree.

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