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Starting smart city initiatives? Reach out to everyone

What do smart city initiatives look like? Turning streetlamps on and off with Wi-Fi? Analyzing reams of traffic data to reroute how cars flow through city streets? Using video sensors to watch for crime?

Bring up the concept of using technology to improve city services with Bill Oates, and you’ll talk about connecting with citizens — all of them, including people with disabilities.

“Everybody means everybody,” said Oates, vice president and general manager of Perkins Solutions, the technology division of Perkins School for the Blind. “That means you need to think about how, as you become a smarter city, are you engaging folks that have to engage in different ways?”

Staying in touch

Making connections is a huge part of Oates’ job. Perkins Solutions ships Braille writers and other technologies to 170 countries and is now exploring how new technologies can help people who are blind or visually impaired. He and his team do that by working closely with teachers and students on Perkins’ campus, in Watertown, Mass.

Later this month, Perkins will release a mobile app that helps people with vision loss navigate to within a few feet of a bus stop. The project was sparked by a Perkins employee who is blind and had trouble pinpointing the exact locations of bus stops.

Oates is a longtime CIO, having led IT in Massachusetts’ state government and Boston’s city government — and the idea of technology improving how states and cities could reach out to their constituents was never far from his mind. When he worked for the city, he implemented Citizens Connect, a mobile app that lets residents report issues like a street light being out or garbage not being picked up. The program gained nationwide attention and became the model for similar projects in other cities.

Smarter cities, smarter states

The Perkins app, Oates said, shows that technology can be harnessed and put to use for people with specific needs — and he hopes cities and states looking to get started on smart city initiatives will take notice.

Boston and the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, which runs the Boston area’s buses, subways and trolleys, have been working with Perkins on the mobile app. A partnership with another city could explore using other technologies — beacons, for example, which broadcast signals — to increase location accuracy, Oates said. A second-generation mobile app could be used to find not just bus stops but train stations or other city landmarks.

Luiza Aguiar

Luiza Aguiar, director of products at Perkins Solutions, said the search is on for “smart city CIOs who are looking for innovation.”

The exploration won’t stop there, Oates said. Perkins has bigger aspirations yet, looking to state governments and even other countries to experiment with ever-newer technology — say, connected cars — and help make them more accessible to people who are blind or visually impaired.

“This app is just a first step for us, but we think it’s a really great place for us to be,” Oates said, “and hopefully gives us a chance to tell this story and make sure that it does get amplified.”

Read about the process that kick-started the Perkins bus stop app.