Birmingham: Boldly Using Smart Technology as the Great Equalizer

Birmingham, Ala., has several smart initiatives underway including an open data portal and non-emergency 311 call system.

Smart City Birmingham, Ala.

Birmingham, AL is helping its citizens stay connected through smart technology. Smart software, devices and equipment power the Magic City’s open data portal and non-emergency 311 call systems.

Open Data Platform

When: In April 2017, city officials signed the Open Data Policy, which helped create Birmingham’s Open Data Platform. The portal went live June 2017.

Vendor: The city partnered with OpenGov, an integrated cloud solution for public sector budgeting, reporting, and open data to build the portal. OpenGov’s Open Data system powers the portal.

Platform and System Features: The new platform allows anyone to search Birmingham’s open datasets and interact with that data through preview, filter, and visualization tools. Through the system, developers are able to access and integrate datasets using robust APIs. The platform allows city officials and the general public to create charts and graphs online and embed the visualizations on other websites.

In its winning entry for the Smart Cities Council’s 2018 Readiness Challenge Grant, Birmingham said it would concentrate on public safety, public health, energy and transportation.

“Birmingham’s smart city vision is one of equity and inclusion. We are laser-focused on facilitating an inclusive economy, and we believe that deploying effective and efficient smart city technologies is a conduit for amplifying inclusive growth and achieving equity throughout the city,” says Sarena Martinez, manager of special projects in Birmingham’s Office of Economic Development. She tells Icons of Infrastructure that smart technologies give the city needed tools “to improve the quality of life for our most marginalized citizens.”

Partnering is key, says Birmingham’s Mayor Randall L. Woodfin: “The Smart Cities framework is built on strong public-private partnerships leveraging data strategically to tackle some of the toughest challenges we face as a community.”

The city is partnering with the Sustainable Smart Cities Research Center (SSCRC) at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) to achieve some of its goals. The partnership provides “an enabling platform for interdisciplinary collaboration to understand and transform the impact of urbanization at the scientific, economic, and human levels. UAB’s contribution to sustainability derives from the university’s unique capabilities to generate new knowledge and cutting-edge science,” says Paula Álvarez Pino, associate director of the SSCRC.

Pino says the SSCRC is collaborating with its partner, Staffordshire University in the United Kingdom, to develop a professional postgraduate program that provides an interdisciplinary grounding in the principles, application, and technologies required to develop sustainable smart cities. Pino says the SSCRC and the city have a mutually beneficial relationship where faculty and students get the chance to address real-life challenges that impact the community. Through the relationship, “the city and its residents benefit from the university’s technical expertise to help solve those challenges,” Pino adds.

Through a 2013 memorandum of understanding between UAB SSCRC and the city of Birmingham, the SSCRC provides knowledge and intellectual support for the mayor’s councils, commissions, and advisory boards on environment, smart cities and livability. SSCRC also provides research on environmental, energy, smart cities, and livability issues in addition to environmental health education to the larger Birmingham community.

This image shows a three-layer map using ESRI-powered GIS mapping within Tyler’ Technologies' New World public safety solution.
Smart communications technology

Birmingham’s first responders are using Tyler Technologies’ New World Public Safety software, and are working toward achieving CAD- (computer-aided design) to-CAD data sharing with neighboring jurisdictions. Agencies that are using the platform include the Birmingham police, fire and rescue, and the Birmingham Emergency Communications District.

The software provides accurate and secure information for dispatchers, officers in the field, firefighters, EMS, corrections officers and command staff. Through the software, information flows effortlessly between all applications, ensuring that mission-critical data entered into the system is quickly and easily available. The platform helps decrease response times, increases safety for citizens and officers and reduces data entry. The screenshots show CAD mapping and dispatch capabilities the Tyler platform offers to first responders, dispatchers and supervisors. Tyler provides a variety of integrated software and technology services to the public sector.

Several Birmingham-area jurisdictions are using his firm’s solutions, says Lynn Moore, president and CEO of Tyler Technologies. “In the Birmingham area, we have worked with visionary leadership in several organizations, including the city’s police and fire departments, Birmingham Emergency Communication District, and Birmingham City Schools, all of which are achieving successful outcomes.”

Lynn Moore, President and CEO, Tyler Technologies

Moore says his company is looking at the big picture. “Rather than focusing on devices and Internet of Things projects often associated with Smart City initiatives, we are interested in truly Connected Communities with modernized back office systems. Replacing antiquated legacy systems helps cities optimize staff, improve services, eliminate redundancies and paper, integrate processes, improve transparency, and empower constituents with access to more information and services.” Moore says with his firm’s technology offerings, public agencies can “open the door to improved data management, allowing them to identify and solve problems.”

In 2017, Birmingham centralized its 311 non-emergency contact center with Microsoft Dynamics customer relationship management (CRM) software and Cisco call management systems. This change permitted easier documentation, Martinez says. “It also ensures a more seamless follow-up process by automating the workflow process across departments,” she adds.

Birmingham’s 311 call center relies on Cisco’s contact center software and the Cisco Agent Desktop interface. Cisco Unified Contact Center Express (Unified CCX) meets the needs of mid-sized and larger organizations that need easy-to-deploy, easy-to-use, secure, virtual, highly available, and sophisticated customer interaction management for up to 400 agents and dispatchers.

Unified CCX supports powerful, agent-based service as well as fully integrated self-service applications resulting in reduced operating costs and improved customer response. The solution provides a sophisticated automatic call distributor (ACD), interactive voice response (IVR), computer telephony integration (CTI), and agent and desktop services. The system can be expanded to meet increased service loads, and it helps streamline inbound and outbound voice, email, web chat and other customer interactions.

Customer-connected technology for utilities

CityBase, a Chicago tech company that makes it easier for people to interact with government and utilities, partnered with Alabama Power in 2017 to introduce a network of payment kiosks for Birmingham and other Alabama customers. Soon, Alabama Power will offer water utilities the ability to take payments on these city- and state-wide kiosks as well.

Liz Fischer, CMO CityBase

“Utility payments, while a necessary part of city life, are often cumbersome and outdated–especially in rural areas. With its kiosk network, Alabama Power is providing equitable, streamlined access to payments for all of its customers,” says Liz Fischer, chief marketing officer at CityBase.

The kiosk is designed to accommodate the needs of those with low English or low literacy skills–thereby making the kiosks more accessible for all users. A Purdue University usability survey was used to ensure the kiosks are accessible to all utility customers. The key features of these kiosks include:

  • Plain language and simple design.
  • An intuitive interface that makes it fast and easy for residents to pay bills regardless of literacy level, ability or tech savviness.
  • Convenient, secure 24/7 locations for residents who are unable to make payments between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.
  • Ability to accept cash and credit payments
Smart Energy Microgrid in Suburban Birmingham

Besides its work with CityBase, Alabama Power has been developing smart units that deliver smart, dependable energy to neighborhoods. Last month the firm introduced a power system called a microgrid in the residential community of Reynolds Landing at Ross Bridge in suburban Birmingham. Even though the microgrid is connected to the power company’s main electrical system, it is capable of delivering power independently of it. The assembly is the first microgrid in the southeastern part of the U.S. that is able to support an entire residential community, according to Alabama Power. Solar panels, a lithium-ion battery bank, a backup natural gas generator, energy efficient systems and appliances and connected devices are all part of the microgrid setup.

Smart residential technology has been deployed in the homes in Reynolds Landing, says Shon Richey, a marketing official at Alabama Power. Homeowners can remotely control the following: door locks, garage doors, the home’s security system and its cameras, lights, refrigerator interior cameras, the air conditioning and heating system and the stove. Each home’s HD camera security system includes infrared night vision and wide-angle lenses, and each house has voice-controlled Amazon Echo Dot technology that allows users to control locks and lights with voice commands.

“We know that our work in the Reynolds Landing neighborhood represents a great leap forward in serving our customers and providing energy in ways to improve people’s lives like we’ve never done before,” says John Hudson, Alabama Power’s senior vice president of marketing and business development.

What should stakeholders do if they are interested in seeing their communities add smart technology to city operations? Here’s what the city of Birmingham’s Sarena Martinez suggests: “Our recommendation to all who are interested in thinking through technology is to stay committed and continue to challenge your cities with the tough questions. It’s not always easy to be experimental and to think creatively, but it is critical.”

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