Philly’s green leaders talk tech innovation

What do the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Water Department have in common? They are both using technology to advance their “green” goals. 

Monday, the Bike Coalition’s Nicholas Mirra and PWD’s Christine Knapp shared how their organizations are using technology in new ways and what kind of technology needs still exist for both groups. The event was one of the Philly Tech Week lunchtime lectures that will be held at the University City Science Center this week.  

Technology tracks stormwater innovation

As PWD strives to become the model for urban water utilities, it is trying many new, often untested methods. From green roofs to stormwater planters and porous streets, PWD is trying a little bit of everything. 

Now the question becomes, how do you measure the success of this new stormwater management infrastructure, especially when the elements are often small projects spread throughout the city? And can you tell when stormwater management elements need maintenance without physically visiting each of the scattered sites?

For PWD, the answer is, increasingly, technology. PWD worked with Code for Philly to develop a Solar Sunflower prototype. The Solar Sunflower will gather water usage data in stormwater gardens or planters. Eventually PWD hopes to have data gathering tools at many of its stormwater management sites. 

PWD already has tons of data, collected on its own and by other institutions, Knapp said. The utility hopes to create a type of urban data water institute where that data can be stored online and a librarian might help researchers curate information. PWD would also be able to advertise its technology needs there, in hopes that others might contribute new solutions. 

Connect The Circuit, online and off

The Greater Philadelphia region has 250 miles of bicycle trails, 50 additional miles in the pipeline and a potential capacity to hold as many as 750 miles of interconnected trails – known to many as “The Circuit.” The Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia is dedicated to expanding that network, but one challenge the coalition faced in doing so has been bringing together those working toward that shared goal. With that challenge in mind, the Bike Coalition got technical. 

Last spring, the Bike Coalition and other Circuit Coalition partners launched ConnectTheCircuit.org, a detailed and user-friendly online map of the current and proposed bike trails. The website serves as a way to bring regional trail blazers together, track progress, brand the trail network and encourage bicyclists to utilize the trails. 

“We’re very good at getting this stuff built,” Mirra said referring to the trails. “It’s harder and a different kind of challenge to get people to use it.”

It was a bit of a challenge to create a tech tool for an untechnical activity, Mirra said. As the project advances, The Circuit leaders are looking at ways to improve user engagement and increase user sharing. 

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