Kate Garman doesn’t believe all data is created equal. For example, an air quality sensor on a bus stop isn’t providing particularly useful data. “You’re going to tell me what I know,” Garman said. “The air quality is terrible next to a highly concentrated transit area.” But air quality sensors placed strategically throughout the city can reveal patterns and help people suffering from asthma find out which areas to avoid.
“Cities want to rush to the finish line on smart city projects,” she said. “It’s a good thing to put yourself on the map to be an innovative city but at the same time, if you’re not thinking about how that data is going to be used, how you define your own success, and how to make sure that you’re protecting privacy, I’m just not sure you’re making sure the value is really there.”
That’s why she’s taken the first six months of her new gig as Seattle’s smart cities coordinator to learn, meet people, and strategize. She knows “smart city” has become a buzzword and she’s approaching her job with a bit more patience and caution than some of her counterparts in other cities.
Like many of the Seattleites she serves, Garman is a newcomer. Born, raised, and educated in Kansas City, she moved away for the first time six months ago. She was working on smart city initiatives in her hometown — including establishing 52 square blocks of free private WiFi — before she took the Seattle job.
In addition to helping Seattle use data more strategically and implement new technologies, Garman is tasked with trailblazing.
“My job didn’t exist four years ago,” she told me at a coffee shop on Third Ave in Seattle — one of the busiest transit blocks in the city, she noted.
We have new expectations of municipal governments, Garman says. That shift is driven, in part, by the tech industry.
“The private sector has pushed cities in a lot of ways,” she said. “My favorite example is, because Uber and Lyft and other transportation network companies could show you where your ride is on your phone, people started really asking, ‘Well, where’s my snow plow? Where are my services?’ It opened people’s minds to expecting more from the public sector, which is a healthy thing so long as the public sector has enough capacity for it.”
Garman is focused on making sure the resources Seattle does have go toward smart city programs with measurable benefits. Take SCOOT, a system the Seattle Department of Transportation is testing along the infamously congested Mercer Street. The technology coordinates traffic signals. SDOT says that it has decreased eastbound travel time by 2.7 minutes during peak evening traffic.
Safer streets are a high priority for Garman professionally and personally. Two years ago, a Chevy Tahoe hit her while she was getting a cab. She broke her spine in several places and lost feeling in one hip permanently. The incident fueled her passion for improving urban life.
“When something like that happens to you, you just want to make sure it doesn’t happen again to anyone else,” she said.
Garman recovered and still manages to stay active, hiking and taking hip-hop classes. “I love it,” she said, joking about collecting as many right-brained activities as she can to balance out her analytical side. She is certainly well-rounded; back in Kansas City she started doing stand-up comedy because she was bored working for an engineering firm. That was after graduating law school.
“I talked about dating and smart devices and how I found out about Santa Claus,” she said. “My mom roped it in. She was like, now you know about Santa I’m going to tell you about the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy and I was like, ‘I’m not ready for that. I was ready for Santa.’”
Now that Garman is settled and turnover in City Hall has slowed down (there have been four mayors in her first six months) she’s thinking about projects to improve city systems and use data to make life better for Seattle residents. Municipal broadband, information kiosks, and public-private partnerships are all the table but still in the early discussion phases.
“I just want to make sure that when we’re putting technology on the ground, it’s done well,” Garman said.