For this Maryland city, a smarter city is a safer one

By | 4 minute read | August 9, 2018

Welcome to Seat Pleasant sign via the city of Seat Pleasant, Maryland

Seat Pleasant, Maryland is located on less than one square mile a few miles east of Washington, DC. It has two major highways running through it, a population of 4,721, and a mayor who likes to ride a bike wearing a shirt with his title in large letters across the back. Upcoming city events include summer movie nights and mini-camps for kiddies. Seat Pleasant is also one of the first small smart cities in the United States.

Mohamed Abdelhameid oversees the management of the city’s various tech solutions, including the MySeatPleasant mobile app and the connected government solution powered by IBM’s Intelligent Operations Center. As Seat Pleasant’s Director of Connected Government Solutions, he defines a smart city as one that applies technology across the government to connect its departments with one other, and connects the government with citizens and businesses.

“I’m really excited about the vision,” Mohamed Abdelhameid said in a phone interview.

Small cities, he explained, are typically underserved when it comes to technology because of limited budgets. To begin the process, Seat Pleasant generated revenue from offender-based funding.

Seat Pleasant began its smart journey in May 2016. Today, a year and a half after its smart kickoff, city officials and citizens are both seeing results and planning for what’s next. Service response times have drastically improved, as has public safety. A new housing program includes once-abandoned and now freshly renovated smart homes. And—perhaps most importantly—the community is palpably engaged and energized.

Potholes begone with 98 percent increased response times

The city’s new Public Engagement Department focuses solely on citizen engagement. Part of its mission: “consistent and continuous interactions with citizens.” Previously, citizens could only contact government services on weekdays, between the hours of 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Now, they use an app to ask questions and submit requests anytime, and report issues like potholes.

Recently, a tree fell into the middle of a street and a Seat Pleasant citizen used the app’s chat feature to reach out for help. A public works employee was dispatched and dealt with the tree removal. Service request response—and closing—times have increased by 98 percent, said Abdelhameid. And city employees can log in wherever they are to retrieve and respond to requests in real time.

A pothole, a fallen tree—these are small matters within the larger scope of what governments deal with every day (though anyone who’s ever had car damage from a pothole may argue otherwise). But getting those fixed quickly and efficiently matters, and what’s more, points to one of Mayor Eugene W. Grant’s main goals: that citizens know their government is responsive.

From 140 abandoned houses to new smart homes

Housing is another critical issue for the city. Eighteen months ago the city had 140 vacant houses. These devalued their neighborhoods and cost the city tax revenue. What’s worse, vacant homes were responsible for 30% of the crime in those areas, according to Chief of Police Devan A. Martin. Having access to that kind of data was key to driving public policy changes. The city purchased the vacant houses, turned them into smart homes, and is now putting them back on the market.

Martin is also using data to understand where to deploy resources based off where crimes occur. One block, for example, had 16 break-ins in 2016. This year, it’s had none. Thirteen percent of the city’s criminal arrests came from one property. Previously, his department had no insights into that type of information.

“We have data now. We’re processing it. We’re making fact-based decisions,” Martin said.

Martin grew up in the Seat Pleasant community. “I was part of the community. I saw the police department. But there was nothing connecting us,” he said.

A smart city, he said, can bridge that gap and draw communities together. “We’re more responsive now. Citizens have trust in the process,” he said.

What’s next for Seat Pleasant?

Eighty percent of US cities have populations of 10,000 or less, and cities already collectively bargain for services like a police dispatch. Seat Pleasant hopes to become the first small city to extend its benefits to neighboring communities and share the cost of technology, according to Abdelhameid. “It’s definitely something new and never been done on this scale,” he said. “We want to be a technology hub.” And while that’s an enormous opportunity for the city, it will bring another layer of challenges.

“We don’t want anyone getting left behind in this new economy,” Abdelhameid said.

His upcoming plans include using technology for workforce development and education. Another key challenge is to prevent displacement.

“We’re creating policies that freeze tax rates, incentivize people not to sell their homes and be able to afford them long term,” he said.

It’s all part of the bigger picture of ensuring that the city is having a positive impact on its community, reducing crime, and enhancing employment opportunities.

“Our goal is to improve the quality of life for citizens,” Abdelhameid said. “Technology can do that. And we see that as a means to promote social justice, equality, and inclusion.”