Georgia Tech’s New Georgia Smart Communities Challenge Winners Empower Development Throughout the State

Denise Ward

Friday, August 7th, 2020

Georgia Tech’s Georgia Smart Communities Challenge (Georgia Smart) empowers local governments to think outside of the box and use innovation to improve their communities. So, it was only fitting that program administrators used technology to announce this year’s new grant recipients in an interactive virtual ceremony on August 6.  

The 2020 winning communities are Clayton County, and the cities of Sandy Springs, Savannah, and Valdosta. In previous years, the announcement was made in one of the winning communities. This year, the ongoing health pandemic forced organizers to get creative, and rather than cancel the event, they shifted it online.  

Georgia Smart is an award-winning program that enables smart local development within Georgia. Georgia Smart welcomes communities of any size within the state to apply for technical and financial assistance that will help them to envision, explore, and plan for their smart future. Selected communities are supported in several ways; they receive:  

  • Up to $100,000 in grant funding to develop their pilot. 

  • Technical assistance and funding for a Georgia Tech researcher. 

  • Access to a network of peer governments to share best practices.  

  • Access to a local, national, and international network of experts for advice on piloting a smart community.  

“As an institution of Georgia, Georgia Tech is foremost committed to making our state better,” said Georgia Tech President Ángel Cabrera. “We’re very excited about Georgia Smart’s third class of winners, who will be able to use our preeminent research and technology to improve lives, livelihoods, safety, and equity — no matter their community’s size, population, demographics, or income level.” 

The summary of the new projects follows:  

Smart Pedestrian Planning, Clayton County – This project will build a decision support system for transport project prioritization to promote mobility and equity, and to identify smart technologies to support walkability throughout the community. The plan calls for engagement with high school students for data collection tasks and use of Georgia Tech’s semi-automated Geographic Information System collection process to gather sidewalk data. Georgia Tech researchers involved in this project include Randall Guensler, Arthi Rao, and Catherine Ross. Partner organizations include the cities of Lake City and Morrow, as well as the Rotary Club of Lake Spivey/Clayton County. 

Streamlining Suburban Transit, Sandy Springs – This project will develop a pilot transit signal priority system for the MARTA bus service through the use of an application programming interface, with the goal of reducing transit time for riders. Georgia Tech researchers Michael Hunter and Kari Watkins will partner with this project team. Collaborators include MARTA and the City of Dunwoody. 

Civic Data Science for Equitable Development, Savannah – The city of Savannah plans to build new decision-making tools using a city data hub and analytics platform for programmatic outcomes for vacant and blighted properties. The project will build on work started through the 2018 Georgia Smart Albany project. Georgia Tech researchers Clio Andris and Omar Isaac Asensio will assist with the project. They will work with a number of partner agencies including the City of Savannah Housing and Neighborhood Services Department, City of Savannah Information Technology Department, Coastal Georgia Indicators Coalition, Chatham County/City of Savannah Land Bank Authority Inc., Community Housing Services Agency Inc., the Center for Community Progress, and the civic data technology company Tolemi. 

Traffic Monitoring and Communication System, Valdosta - This project includes development of a smart traffic management system that will connect all 128 traffic signals in Valdosta for increased safety and efficiency. Georgia Tech researcher Baabak Ashuri will lead the research activities. Valdosta State University researcher Barry Hojjatie will serve as co-principal investigator on the project. Partners include Southern Georgia Regional Commission, Valdosta-Lowndes Development Authority, Valdosta State University, Industry: Temple, Applied Information. 

“Georgia Tech’s Smart Community Challenge drives communities to think broadly about how technology and automation can be a part of their future, connecting their citizens to solutions,” said Anne Kaiser, vice president, Georgia Power Community & Economic Development. “Smart solutions, focused on the most critical challenges, help improve the quality of life and foster inclusive innovation. Georgia Power is proud to support a program that enables a more connected Georgia focused on building resilient and sustainable communities.” 

This new class showcases an expansion of the Georgia Smart program and includes 17 additional community partners assisting with projects, and new Georgia Tech multidisciplinary teams for community research impact. Additionally, technical funding assistance has more than doubled this year compared to the past two years. Since Georgia Smart’s pilot launch, close to $2M has been provided and leveraged for the program.  

Apart from naming the new program recipients, Georgia Smart provided updates from the 2019 winning communities:  

Smart Uptown Digital Twin - Led by the city of Columbus, this program included installing public Wi-Fi gateways on Georgia Power light poles, digital twin model improvements, and using video and Array of Things sensor data for traffic pattern analysis related to Covid-19 lockdowns.  

Smart Neighborhood Public Kiosks - Led by a collaboration between the city of Macon and Bibb County, this project developed a digital equity road map to support the installation of digital kiosks in areas of need within the community. The goal was to provide access to digital city services, citywide information, and internet connectivity to underserved regions of the community.  

Smart Corridor Study - Led by the city of Woodstock, this team created the Smart Woodstock Master Plan, and completed a smart corridor study for their downtown district that focused on parking, transportation efficiency, and pedestrian and bicycle safety. Hundreds of citizens survey responses will be integrated into the planning documents.  

Walking School Bus Application - Led by the city of Milton, this project developed a smartphone application to promote safe walking and biking to school. This project created a network of devices, such as smartphones, to connect students and parents, and to arrange supervised groups, designate safe primary routes, and provide wait times for students wishing to join the walking/biking groups.  

Previous projects have also included work in Chatham County to install sea level sensors to measure flood risk during natural disasters and storms. In Albany, an automated housing registry system was put in place to consolidate department data, improve efficiency, and build a coalition of collaborating departments that meet weekly to integrate the system into the city’s operations. Meanwhile, Gwinnett County just won the National Association of Counties achievement award for their Connected Vehicle Technology Master Plan, and Chamblee is finalizing their Best Practices with AV Shuttles report.  

Thursday’s virtual event also highlighted the work that Georgia Tech students completed as part of the Smart Community Corps summer internship program.  

“Our commitment with Georgia starts with nurturing the next generation of leaders in bettering communities and improving the human condition, said Debra Lam, managing director of Smart Cities and Inclusive Innovation at Georgia Tech. “We are fortunate to have had Georgia Tech students from various disciplines and backgrounds pivot virtually, and work with and learn from the local communities this summer.” 

The Smart Community Corps program is supported by Georgia Tech’s Serve-Learn-Sustain program, the Student Government Association, and Tech’s Career Center, along with funds from Microsoft, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Community Foundation of Central Georgia.This year’s class is double that of last year’s, with 13 undergraduate and graduate students in disciplines ranging from computational media, to civil engineering, to computer science. In addition to the Georgia Smart community projects, the students also created an economic and community plan for the city of Douglas and assisted the Environmental Protection Agency with a national life cycle assessment model that was utilized by the city of LaGrange and Southeast Georgia Coastal Coalition. 

Another bonus to the Aug. 6 event was the addition of a panel discussion, entitled “Georgia Inclusive Innovation,” that included state government and business leaders:  

  • Geoff Duncan - Lieutenant Governor, State of Georgia 

  • Wendell Dallas - Vice President, Sales & Marketing, Georgia Power 

  • Doug Hooker - Executive Director, Atlanta Regional Commission 

  • Maria Thacker Goethe - President and CEO, Georgia Bio; CEO, Center for Global Health Innovation 

  • Aarti Tandon - CEO, Smart City Expo Atlanta | Moderator 

Collaborators in the Georgia Smart program include Georgia Tech, the Atlanta Regional Commission, the Georgia Association of Regional Commissions, Association County Commissioners of Georgia, Georgia Chamber of Commerce, Georgia Municipal Association, Georgia Department of Community Affairs, Georgia Department of Economic Development, Georgia Planning Association, Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, Technology Association of Georgia, and Georgia Power.  

“This year’s grant recipients demonstrate the tremendous potential that technological innovation holds to transform communities and improve quality of life,” said Doug Hooker, executive director of the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC). “ARC is proud to be a partner of the Georgia Smart program, helping to foster the development of stronger and more equitable communities across the state. These projects will show other communities what’s possible when you think outside the box to find creative ways of addressing our big challenges.” 

Learn more about the Georgia Smart Communities Challenge at