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Innovation District’s ‘smart city’ projects take center stage

Brian Hartz

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Partnering with Spectrum, the Innovation District is using advanced technology to study the intersection of 3rd Street South and 6th Avenue South.

St. Petersburg’s Innovation District, an area of the city that includes USF St. Petersburg, Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, Bayfront Health St. Petersburg and the Florida Institute of Oceanography, has made itself a test bed for “smart city” technology. On Wednesday, it showcased four pilot projects that, according to Innovation District Executive Director Alison Barlow, will “help shape solutions that can benefit our community and someday solve problems around the world.”

The projects range from smart streetlights and intersections to digital inclusion and Guardians of the Gulf, an initiative that seeks to educate children about the importance of environmental sustainability, particular coastal resiliency — an issue that’s vital to the future of Florida and thus, their futures. They’ve been made possible by the support of Spectrum and U.S. Ignite, an organization dedicated to the smart city movement that, in 2019, named St. Pete one of its Smart Gigabit Communities, joining more than two dozen U.S. and Canadian cities that are addressing modern-day challenges through innovation, advanced networking technologies and data-driven strategies.

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman helped kick off the showcase with some appreciation of the work that goes on in the city’s Innovation District.

“I’m very grateful to Alison and the Innovation District for everything that they’ve done to elevate St. Pete,” he said. “People from all over the world don’t just want to visit, but they want to move here and they want to bring their businesses here.”

While all of the pilot projects aim to solve big problems, the smart intersection study will likely have the broadest impact on St. Pete residents. Special sensors placed at the busy intersection of 3rd Street South and 6th Avenue South will collect, analyze and visualize large amounts of data about pedestrian, bicycle and automobile traffic. Then, by deploying artificial intelligence and machine learning, data points will become actionable intelligence that can be used to fine-tune crosswalk signal timing, signage and traffic patterns with the ultimate goal of eliminating collisions.

The city had already placed that particular juncture on a list of intersections to be redesigned, according to Wednesday’s presentation. But instead of just producing a count of vehicles traversing the intersection, the Spectrum-powered, high-definition cameras and sensors will produce entire data sets that include automobile, pedestrian and bicycle traffic; time of day; direction of travel; number of accidents and near-accidents and even weather conditions. The technology could also produce data about specific vehicle types and how fast they are traveling.

City of St. Petersburg Transportation Manager Cheryl Stacks, in the presentation, said the smart intersection pilot project could be transformational.

“St. Petersburg has been working on bicycle and pedestrian safety for many, many years,” she said. “We’re historically one of the worst in the nation with a record of having a lot of bicycle and pedestrian fatalities. So it’s very important for us to have an understanding of what bicyclists and pedestrians are doing and how they’re moving through our community, in order to help make sure that we can create a safe environment for them.”

Stacks said cars and trucks are easy to count but it’s much less so for bicyclists and pedestrians, and that’s why data gathered and analyzed by the smart intersection technology could prove to be so useful.

“If we understand how people are making their decisions as they’re approaching intersections, that helps us design a safer environment so that people can make good choices,” she said. “We’re designing the right environment for them. Design can actually influence how cars and people and bikes interact.”

The entire smart city showcase is available on the Innovation District website.

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