NORMAL — What makes a smart city?
The idea — creating a comprehensive technology infrastructure that promotes city efficiency while providing accessible resources and services — can mean something different to a city or town based on its community needs.
"It's not so much about the definition as much as it is about the philosophy," said Vasu Gadhiraju, director of Normal's Innovation and Technology department. "When we talk about smart cities, smart cities means a lot of different things to other communities."
Normal started its smart city journey when it adopted the initiative into its comprehensive plan in 2017. In August 2019, the town brought it Gadhiraju, who has lead the charge in identifying town needs and a reorganization of the Innovation and Technology Department.
Since then, Gadhiraju and her team identified hundreds of needs within the town, including operations efficiencies, data and analytics.
The town, she said, has a "gold mine" of data opportunities that can provide business insights, not only for town officials, but also to the public. This includes business licenses, permits and more that can be made more accessible.
"We would want to publish as much data as we can to make sure people have access to data and information that they now have to request through the town," said Gadhiraju. "
Data such as Normal's recent tree inventory, which collected information on nearly 12,000 trees within the town, and town's coronavirus response hub were born out of these initiatives, said Normal City Manager Pam Reece.
The smart cities initiative is still in its early stages, but the town has identified some areas for future partnerships with the Bloomington-Innovation Alliance.
The town also identified another area of opportunity as the COVID-19 pandemic emerged.
Normal is working with McLean County Unit 5 schools to address discrepancies in digital access during the pandemic, said Reece. This means collaborating with Unit 5 to provide internet options for students and families as well as ramping up WiFi capabilities in uptown.
Reece said the town was exploring options to potentially create a public WiFi network several years down the line.
"In the meantime, we're trying to come up with a temporary solution to help Unit 5 students and their families to continue with their e-learning," said Reece. "That's the first part of providing a public WiFi network, but the whole public WiFi concept would be part of our smart city journey."
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Contact Sierra Henry at 309-820-3234. Follow her on Twitter: @pg_sierrahenry.