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Wednesday, 27.09.2023
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The topic of smart city infrastructure sparked disagreement at the latest Board of Commissioners meeting.

During a work session on Tuesday, May 23, a local digital infrastructure company, SmartPoint, approached the Board to ask for an encroachment agreement that would allow them to survey and analyze County right of way as part of a smart cities pilot project.

The intent behind the pilot project is to install seven smart kiosks at different locations in Forsyth County to collect spatial data at intersections and establish an autonomous vehicle test track modeled after Curiosity Lab in Peachtree Corners.

Smart kiosks are devices that can be free-standing or integrated into existing infrastructure, such as bus stops, that are able to communicate with smart automobiles, traffic signals, phones, and other similar devices, while providing public wi-fi connectivity.

They feature large touch screens on which advertisements, public announcements, community surveys, and interactive 3D maps can be displayed.

“The long view for this is that we want to be the center of the conversation for where next wave technology is going,” explained Scott Evans, the Senior Technology Project Manager of Forward Forsyth, a joint initiative between the County, the Chamber of Commerce, Forsyth County Schools, and the Development Authority.

The idea of installing smart devices in the county raised concerns among the commissioners, including questions of data storage and distribution, as well as the proliferation of advertising centers along roadways.

SmartPoint CEO Eric Hornsby told commissioners that the pilot project would be a public-private partnership and the agreement would include a data privacy protection clause that would ensure that no data could be shared without permission from the County.

Hornsby also specified the nature of the data that the SmartPoint kiosks would collect.

“When we talk about data with this specific project, in a public-private partnership not only with the County but with GDOT, our first application for data workloads is going to be tied to spatial awareness at intersections to heighten safety for vulnerable road users,” said Hornsby. “Taking video data from approved cameras and LiDAR sensors that are either deployed by GDOT or SmartPoint, in concert with one another, and processing that video feed locally within the [device].”

This technology can be used to alert drivers in digitally connected vehicles to bicyclists or hazards in the road around them. It has also been employed in emergency vehicles like firetrucks and ambulances to inform drivers whether intersections ahead are signaling green or red lights.

“There are some huge benefits to this,” said District 1 Commissioner Kerry Hill. “It’s just what are you willing to give up in order to have those benefits? It’s a discussion, and there need to be some guardrails on it.”

District 4 Commissioner Cindy Mills was especially bothered by the advertising aspect of the SmartPoint kiosks, likening them to billboards.

“It was not taken lightly when we cracked down on billboards,” said Mills. “People came out in droves in our community that were against billboards. They wanted them all gone. They did not want any more signs.”

Advertising opportunities play a key role in SmartPoint’s decisions regarding placement of kiosks. When asked how ideal locations are determined, Hornsby cited two primary points of consideration: application workloads tied to road safety, and monetization from advertising to vehicles and pedestrians.

Hornsby argues that money coming in from advertisements, in a public-private partnership, is money that can be invested back into the County.

“I want to remind everyone that this is an infrastructure project,” said Hornsby. “In terms of benefit, whether it’s cellular propagation or it’s safety applications, the value to the public is heightened services.”

Mills voiced concerns that advertising on the kiosks is a “loophole” that could allow the County to generate revenue through practices and opportunities that have been taken away from private sector businesses.

“I would much rather our County invest in traffic lights with smart technology, that have no advertisements,” said Mills. “Gwinnett’s been doing that… they’ve already put in dozens upon dozens of these traffic lights. I’m not for the advertising on the side of the road in peoples’ faces.”

The proposal didn’t elicit only negative feedback from the Board, however. Board of Commissioners Chairman Alfred John exhibited careful excitement for the project.

“We can’t allow fear to inhibit progress,” said John. “Peachtree Corners is kicking our butt. They’re so far advanced in their technology. Are we always going to be followers or, at some point, do we also participate in forward movement?”

Ultimately, the encroachment agreement only allows SmartPoint to survey and analyze Forsyth County right of way and includes no further commitment.

County Attorney Ken Jarrard explained that further agreements would have to be reached regarding data use, advertising regulations, and other concerns in the future.

“I believe this agreement is pretty innocuous,” said Jarrard. “It doesn’t allow them to go vertical, it doesn’t allow them to build anything until such time that the other agreements are worked out.”

In an attempt to assuage the concerns of the Board, Jarrard added new language to the agreement saying, “The grant of access hereunder shall not be construed as a commitment by the County that a device, or any devices, may be installed or constructed at… any location.”

Evans is aware of the controversies and questions related to smart city technologies. It is his hope that Forsyth County can become the center for the research that will tackle those problems as smart city development continues.

“Every question that you guys have asked today is what the whole world is asking because of [smartphones],” said Evans. “The reason, from an economic development standpoint, that I would like to do this here in Forsyth is because we can invite the world here to help answer those questions.”

A motion to approve the encroachment agreement with SmartPoint carried 4-1, with Mills voting in opposition.

“I don’t like the idea of approving an encroachment agreement that is giving all this access… on something that I can’t get comfortable with,” said Mills. “It’s going to get the public so upset. They’re going to lose their minds over this.”


Autor(en)/Author(s): Daniel Dotson

Quelle/Source: Forsyth County News, 25.05.2023

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