Sensors for safety: How Downtown Brooklyn is getting smarter

Downtown Brooklyn is testing lab for "smart city" tech

May 15, 2019 Mary Frost
From left: Shaina Horowitz of New Lab, Jessie Lazarus from CARMERA, Regina Myer of the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, Tara Pham from Numina and Andre Correa d’Almeida of Columbia University discuss Downtown Brooklyn’s role as a test lab for smart technology at the Smart Cities New York 2019 conference on Tuesday. Eagle photo by Mary Frost
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Downtown Brooklyn is getting smarter, a panel of technology and civic experts said at the Smart Cities New York 2019 conference on Tuesday.

The Downtown Brooklyn Partnership and local tech startups are rolling out the second phase of smart city technology based on the “Internet of Things” (or IoT), an extension of internet connectivity to everyday “smart” objects from thermostats that adjust to users’ daily routines to speed limit signs that fluctuate according to traffic. IoT uses sensors and data processing to make transportation, safety, shopping and civic services more efficient.

“It’s not easy, but it’s entirely worth it,” said Regina Myer, president of the Partnership, which advocates for Downtown businesses, to the crowd attending the three-day conference.

For the past two years, Downtown Brooklyn has been a living testing lab for startups, many of which are based in the technology hub called New Lab at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

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“Now we have new data for real locations that not just the government wants, but honestly, developers, not-for-profits, many other people that are really interested. So all of a sudden this becomes very relevant,” Myer said.

Downtown Brooklyn could become one of the most mapped and analyzed parts of the city, all in preparation for the time when technology like autonomous vehicles and robot delivery services come to the borough’s streets and WiFi networks.

New Lab entrepreneurs have been working with the Partnership as part of a program dubbed the “Circular City,” in which startups, civic leaders, corporations and universities would work alongside each other. The goal: more conversations and more collaborations surrounding the challenges of improving cities.

Last year, for example, foot-long microphones were installed over Fulton Street by NYU-based startup Sounds of New York City. The mics pick up and analyze the neighborhood’s sounds, allowing the city to move toward the automatic identification of noise polluters.

Downtown’s participation benefits its businesses and it also helps local tech companies test their products and grow, said Shaina Horowitz, vice president of Products and Programs at New Lab, who moderated the panel.

The New Lab-based startup CARMERA, for example, builds high definition maps for autonomous vehicles and street-level sensors that can update the map in real time to help the vehicles know where to go and what obstacles to avoid. Jessie Lazarus, head of Mobility Business Development at CARMERA, said the maps are able to keep these vehicles within their lanes no matter the conditions.

“You can imagine trying to drive on the BQE in an autonomous vehicle, and all the sight-lines are totally wiped away. The vehicle still needs to know where it should be within millimeters of precision,” she said.

Numina, also located in New Lab, makes camera-based sensors that measure the movement and interactions of pedestrians, cyclists, vehicles and objects on the city’s streets and plazas. This data is analyzed and scrubbed while still in the sensor, to become anonymous.

A “very small data packet” is sent over the air to their servers and can be shared with urban planners and mobility companies, said Tara Pham, co-founder and CEO. That data can be used for for the big issues — like pedestrian and bicycle safety — and the small ones — such as determining what hours stores should be open in order to capture the most foot traffic or when should trash be hauled away.

“The fundamental problem we have faced is … data is not being used in a smart way to address the most pressing urban issues,” said Andre Correa d’Almeida, adjunct associate professor of International Public Affairs at Columbia University.

In the Circular City model, “a set of specific partners come together to address a set of specific problems. It’s a totally different concept than in the past, which is based on the principal that you build and they will come,” he said.

“What visitors to Downtown Brooklyn will get from this technological innovation is the idea that we are going to be smarter about our operations and and our recommendations,” Myer told the Brooklyn Eagle following the panel discussion.

“One of the things that we are going to be working on with city DOT is a new ‘Shared Street,’ which the community board just voted to approve. Why that is so exciting is that we can be smarter about managing that,” she said.

A “Shared Street” is a redesign of a thoroughfare that enhances safety and livability but still allows mobility.

“Although the city is changing, tech is changing too. I think we have to continually challenge ourselves to keep up,” Myer said. “For us to be responsive, having new kinds of data and a flexible data system is really great. And that’s how it benefits everybody.”

Her advice for out of town civic leaders attending the conference was, “Embrace the new.”

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