Aug 7, 2023 - Technology

In Dallas, a model "smart city" project bears fruit

Illustration of a wireframe futuristic landscape with the skyline of Dallas and a wifi symbol in the sky.

Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

By blitzing a troubled neighborhood with "smart city" technology — including AI cameras on streetlights and ubiquitous Wi-Fi — Dallas officials have seen crime reduction and quality-of-life improvements that they hope to replicate elsewhere.

Why it matters: Smart city initiatives fell out of favor nationally after lots of money was spent with few results — but projects like the one in Red Cloud in Southeast Dallas are starting to deliver on the promise that earlier efforts did not.

Driving the news: Dallas has won national recognition for its Red Cloud transformation project, in which "all streets, alleys and sidewalks were reconstructed in conjunction with multiple technological quality-of-life improvements," as the city put it.

  • Wi-Fi was provided to about 190 homes over 21 acres.
  • New LED streetlights were installed, equipped with AI-enabled overhead cameras.
  • A total of 52 devices were added, including environmental monitors to gauge air quality.

The neighborhood — which has a reputation for drug and crime problems — was selected as needing the most TLC, based on the city's racial equity plan, said Jacob McCarroll, performance management program administrator for the city of Dallas.

  • All the neighborhood's sidewalks, streets and alleys were repaired or reconstructed and the technology overlaid.
  • The tech allows city officials to conduct pedestrian, vehicle and bicycle counts that inform traffic-pattern decisions.
  • The new cameras have caught crimes in progress and "discouraged a lot of the illicit activities," McCarroll tells Axios.

Of note: The upgrades cost $3.8 million, paid from the city's general funds.

What they're saying: "We were totally trying to give the neighborhood a 180," McCarroll says. "If you drive through it now — just for two minutes — it's pretty amazing, just the overall morale boost."

  • "Neighbors are happier, nicer, smilier, now that we have the cameras there," he said. "It's just a much more welcoming environment."
  • The area's many elderly residents now have "peace of mind and safety."

Since the improvements, which began in 2021, "people have fixed up boarded-up houses; there's not as many junk vehicles," McCarroll said. "People are out there watering their plants — just the overall vibe is better."

  • City Council members whose districts did not get the improvements are envious, McCarroll said, and keep asking when it's going to be their turn.
  • "We've learned a lot" through the Red Cloud project, McCarroll said. "We hope to really replicate this throughout the city, especially in other underserved neighborhoods."

One hitch: A ransomware attack on the city's servers this year set things back, but the local government is working to restore full functionality to the Red Cloud neighborhood system.

A neighborhood street with a streetlight that has a camera attached to the top.
Cameras on streetlights have helped improve safety in the Red Cloud neighborhood of Dallas. Photo courtesy of the city of Dallas

The big picture: Cities haven't given up on smart city technology — they're just choosing their spots more strategically.

  • In Dallas, for example, the Red Cloud project is part of a broader suite of initiatives that includes electronic invoicing of city contractors and drone surveillance of municipal infrastructure.
  • The latter has brought more accountability to vendors. Video from the drones can show City Council members how public works projects are progressing — and bring accountability to vendors who say they're working on days that they're demonstrably not, McCarroll said.

Yes, but: In years past, backlash against smart city projects hobbled efforts in various cities — including Toronto and New York — as privacy and Big Brother concerns emerged.

  • Some cities "have banned specific technologies such as facial recognition software, amid doubts over its accuracy or concerns over cities stealthily collecting such data on their citizens through video surveillance," wrote Susan Wachter, co-director of the Penn Institute for Urban Research.
  • So far in Dallas, the changes are seen as improvements, not intrusions.

What's next: In the Red Cloud area, smart technology will soon be used to detect gunshots and illegal dumping. Officials are also adding cameras that read license plates.

  • And the city aims to install a touch-screen kiosk that'll help people find parking spaces and more — and could one day generate revenue for the city through advertising.
  • A lot of the technology is "scalable," McCarroll said. "Some of that stuff should be ready in the next six months."
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