Pulse of the Peninsula: Village of Great Neck’s foray into Smart Cities technology manifests intrinsic challenges

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Pulse of the Peninsula: Village of Great Neck’s foray into Smart Cities technology manifests intrinsic challenges

With a global population of 7.6 billion forecast to increase to 12 billion by 2100 (assuming we don’t destroy the planet first), of which 60 percent live in cities, in general, I support the concept of Smart Cities, essentially using technology to more efficiently, rationally and fairly utilize limited resources, including tax revenue.

GPS traffic reports, which use surveillance, are an example: isn’t it better to find the fastest route to minimize wasting time and money and adding carbon-polluting emissions in traffic?

Gov. Cuomo is in the process of instituting cashless tolls on bridges and Thruway which keeps traffic flowing but also enables the state to catch the perpetrator of an Amber Alert, a stolen car, or a fugitive from justice by reading license plates.

People from the Village of Great Neck crammed Great Neck House on Jan. 14 to hear a presentation by the New York Civil Liberties Union of Nassau County warning of the potential evils of Smart Cities technology – a surveillance state, “Minority Report” like pre-crime enforcement, algorithms rather than personal judgment with built-in systemic bias driving policy and operations to that minorities are disproportionately swept up by police.

But the bottom line of this extremely informative presentation was not that Smart Cities technology is necessarily evil, but that the populace needs to have a say in what Smart Cities technology is implemented and understand the trade-offs between benefits (saving tax money on more efficient street lighting; increased security and safety, environmental protection) and negative consequences (loss of privacy, freedom and even potential health risks).

Many in the audience were specifically concerned about the Village of Great Neck’s foray into Smart Cities technology: the replacement of its street lighting with LED bulbs with the capability of monitoring lighting, weather and other conditions in order to adjust the intensity of the light.

The matter has been controversial for the more than a year since the village has gone through the process and hired a consultant, Realterm Energy from Montreal Canada to handle the engineering and installation, at a cost of $350,000 (of which $250,000 came from state grants; $100,000 came from the village’s funding and none required bonding). The village expects to not only recoup its expense over the next decade in cost-savings, but believes it is providing safer streets.

And far from the conversion of its street lighting system to LED being done in secret or being force-fed to the residents, there were any number of presentations and hearings over the course of two years. The Installation of 832 lights was just completed in mid-January.

But a group of individuals who have been most skeptical have not been allayed since the installation.

At the NYCLU presentation (Jan. 14), they raised concerns about health risks of the blue-white spectrum of the 4000K bulbs (which they charge can disrupt sleep cycles which in turn upset the production of melatonin needed for the body to repair itself and be a factor in causing miscarriages); about a secret agreement with Realterm to use the village to conduct pilot programs (test systems using village residents as guinea pigs?); about village surreptitious plans to attach video and audio surveillance capability to the “smart” nodes; and finally, about the village board’s routine practice of silencing opposition, particularly when the opposers are women.

“We are a community in crisis and 99 percent of the community does not even know it – because the facts have been so well concealed. This protects Mayor Bral who is running our village like a dictatorship,” write Judy Rosenthal and Amy Glass in one call to action.

In response to the concerns raised, the village had the Realterm engineer come to the Feb. 6 trustees meeting to answer questions.

Despite a lot of notice for complainants to attend, only about a half-dozen individuals who have been fighting the LED lights all along showed up. And far from the mayor or trustees suppressing or being rude to the questioners, the board was subjected to badgering, even talking over Mayor Bral as he tried to answer the questions about the physics of the LED light. (“You called her a liar! You called her a liar!” one woman kept exclaiming as he was trying to answer the woman’s question.)

And Rosenthal, who has lead the opposition, never even posed a question.

But after hours of conversations with Mayo Bral, as well as the village meeting, here is what I could discern:
There is no secret agreement that would allow RealTerm to use the village to test new Smart Cities technology; there is no plan by the village to install video or audio surveillance or license plate readers (Kings Point has video surveillance), which would require an entirely different technology (the bandwidth of the LED control system is not sufficient to carry video).

The smart-technology that the village has implemented is to allow each individual LED bulb to monitor light and weather conditions (rain, snow, fog) and be adjusted (dimmed or intensified).

At this point in time, the village has brought down the light intensity to 3000K (bringing it more into the spectrum of the orange light) on residential streets, and only utilizes 4000K on the main thoroughfares (Middle Neck Road, Steamboat, Station, East Shore Road, Baker Hill, Fairview, Hicks, Old Mill).

Driving around and through the village, which is the largest in footprint and population on the Peninsula, you can see for yourself: the lighting is not too bright, the angle of the light is actually quite contained to the street, stopping at the sidewalk, which is the advantage of LED over the previous high-pressure sodium bulbs which spread light 360-degrees.

One homeowner who has complained of the light streaming into her bedroom, was under the impression the village could attach a shield over it (she complained months ago, before the installation), but she learned at the Feb. 6 meeting that it was not possible to shield the light pole because it is across the street from her home.

Mayor Bral explained that the likely reason light would be streaming into a home was because the pole was crooked and would need to be straightened.

In the research that Rosenthal provided to me about the health dangers of the blue-light spectrum, the example that was used was keeping a cell phone next to the bed. I have to wonder how street lighting, which is high up, outside the house, where the light is quite obviously contained and not spreading 360-degrees (as the prior high-pressure sodium lights were) can possibly be a health hazard to someone sleeping in a bedroom, under covers, eyes closed (has anyone heard of an eyeshade?).

As for electromagnetic field, Mayor Bral, who is an obstetrician with very young children and says he spent a year learning about the physics of LED, told me “Electromagnetic field can be harmful, but the amount of electromagnetic field that LED lights produce is less than your body produces (the technology cars used to locate people picks up the energy that a body generates).

If I hug another person, that person can emit a greater electromagnetic field than the LED. The engineer calculated, that the body generates thousands times more than the LED.”

So do appliances – the television remote, refrigerator, iron and especially the ubiquitous cell phones that people store in pockets next to vital organs and put against their heads.

Moonlight has the same color temperature, 4000K, as the fully-powered LEDs; sunlight is at 6200K. Yet we walk around in the moonlight, and in the sunlight.
I tried to be objective about the complaints that were raised, but could not substantiate any of them.

On the other hand, the village seems to have been responsible for informing and responding to the village residents and do proper due-diligence.

This engagement between government representatives and residents is essential. The system, as messy and uncomfortable as it is, worked.

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