Smart Cities Go to the Dogs

How tech-savvy cities will affect the canine population.

Dog and man, the future
More data about dogs and dog owners will be a good thing.

Photo by FotoimperiyA/Thinkstock

At a recent neighborhood meeting in the medium-size city that I work for, a comment about the growing dog population sparked a heated conversation. Residents—even pet owners—said that they find the increasingly large number of dogs on park pathways difficult to manage. Together, the citizens and city council promised to keep dogs on the agenda. They could stay there for the next 20 years.

According to the United Nations, half of the world’s population already live in cities, and by 2050, nearly seven out of 10 people worldwide—more than 6 billion people in total—will lead urban lives. Already, megacities are responding to growth by becoming “smart cities.” They are linking tiny embedded sensors with big data analytics and automating systems to make real-time decisions. Suburbs like the one I work in—Kirkland, Washington—are already following in the footsteps of larger metropolises.

In most cases, city networks are monitoring people, cars, electricity, water, and other infrastructure. Intelligent transportation systems in Boston improve traffic flow, smart lighting in San Francisco can be controlled wirelessly and dimmed in the early morning hours if the streets are empty, and surveillance systems in crowded public squares in New York watch for signs of terrorism. New apps help citizens find parking and send Amber Alerts to all cellphones within a specific location. The cities of the future will know where cars, bikes, and people are. They’ll also know about the dogs.

In the United States, there is roughly one dog for every four humans, and the rate of canine ownership keeps rising. In 2011, the number of dogs in the city of Seattle was greater than the number of children: 153,000 dogs to 107,000 children. New York City is home to more than 600,000 dogs.

Owners are already keeping better track of their animals. Many dogs are chipped with RFID to identify them if they get lost. Northern Ireland has required chipping since 2013 and beginning in 2016, chipping will be required for all dogs in England. Many canines also wear collars sporting GPS-enabled devices that are least as expensive as their owners’ Fitbits. These chips are often used to find missing or stolen dogs, while everyday uses include keeping tabs on where your dog-walker is taking your pooch and tracking the animal’s “personal training” goals. Whether it’s a show dog, a guide dog, or a rescue dog, the emotional cost of a lost animal is often considered incalculable. We want to keep our dogs safe, and we want to know where they are.

In addition to putting sensors on cars and in roads and parks, cities of the future will be able to map the dog population and the resources devoted to dogs. Dog owners can already look up amenities like dog parks and open water in phone apps. In a few years, they may even be able to tell in advance which dogs are at the park for Fido to play with. And the dog-phobic? They’ll like the same future. Even if there are more dogs in cities in 10 years, it will be easier to tell if they are near you.

Cities themselves might use more information about dogs in a number of ways.  Locations for neighborhood parks and fire stations are already selected using geographic information systems to mash up maps with data about people. If city planners know where the dogs live, they can site dog parks using the same technology. Once the information is made public on open data sites, prospective owners of dog-related businesses can use the same tools to decide where to put the dog-friendly pub or dog-wash stations.  Another possibility is that the current movement to create special green lanes for bicycles could be mirrored for dogs in certain locations, creating unique dog walks that can be advertised to residents and tourists.

If the United States follows England’s path and requires that all dogs be chipped, then the owners of dogs who end up as strays can be identified and fined. Actual data can be developed about incidents between dogs and people.

With so many four-footed walkers on city streets, keeping people safe from dogs matters. Even though just a small percentage of dogs are dangerous, no one wants to find themselves or their family dog attacked by an untrained animal with a poor handler. If it does happen, we want to find the perpetrator (owner and animal). Even more simply, if we have children who are afraid of dogs, we want to know when one is nearby. Similar to the way crosswalks or intersections with a large number of accidents are often improved, parks where dogs and people clash might be tweaked to improve safety for both.

When I was growing up, there were seeing-eye dogs. Today, they are called guide dogs, and there are also hearing dogs for the deaf and service dogs who help with a range of conditions including PTSD, poor balance, epilepsy, autism, and more. One of the most moving chapters in Until Tuesday, the best-selling book about an Iraq war vet and his dog Tuesday, covers an incident where a bus driver refused to believe that Tuesday was a legitimate service dog and tried to keep him off the bus. As more and more dogs of different kinds act as service dogs, knowing which ones truly are trained for crowded places like buses, concerts, and restaurants is going to become more important. RFID chips could easily identify service dogs and help keep the riffraff (ruffruff?) out.

Managing dogs adds costs to local government budgets. As city dogs continue to gain the attention of neighborhood meetings, pet licensing is going to become even more critical. Typically, licenses are designed to pay for at least part of the animal control resources in a city, including pounds, license enforcement, and education. Just for fun, I ran the numbers in my own county. Kings County, Washington, has roughly 2 million people, and thus about half a million dogs. At $30 a license, that’s $15 million a year (if all dogs were licensed). Licenses are physical tags, and it won’t be hard to add RFID, Bluetooth, and GPS to them in the near future.

I won’t be at all surprised if some time soon, when I register our dogs for new licenses, I have to enter their RFID and maybe GPS chip data. And just think of all the interesting apps that might be developed with open data sets about dogs.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.