Driving smart city innovation with open sensor data (part 5)

Photo: Esther Vargas
Photo: Esther Vargas

This is part five of a five-part series that looks at successful strategies we at OpenDataSoft have seen our clients and others use to foster innovation and align their smart city and open data goals. The full series is available as a free PDF download.

Attend to the tech must-haves

The concept of what constitutes a “Smart City” has evolved quite a bit over the past 10 years. From early visions of sweeping citywide digital overhauls and the global automation of everything from trash pick up to transportation, cities are now focusing on smaller scale projects; they are testing ideas with pilot programs, and attending to low-tech and even no-tech options for meeting their goals of safe, healthy, sustainable, and vibrant communities.

But while there is much technology that can be sifted into must-have, nice-to-have and maybe-someday categories without a negative impact on smart city advancement, there are a few basic pieces of technology cities will need in order to extract value from the real-time data that has already begun to flow through smart cities.

One is an open data platform that can provide data access to citizens, researchers, developers, city staff and city ecosystem partners (who should also provide access to their data to these same communities).

While they are many options for hosting such data, the rise in real-time data, whether from pollution meters on lamppost, GPS locators on mobile phones, usage data from water meters, or video feeds from security cameras, requires application programming interfaces.

Application programming interfaces

APIs are software code interfaces that allow software applications to exchange data and services. In the context of smart cities, they enable a secure, reliable connection to continuously updated data for developers who want to build web or mobile applications, for researchers or analysts who want to plug city data into existing applications such as business intelligence software, for IT staff at other government agencies or ecosystem partners who want to integrate a city’s data with their own (see the helpful article “Open Data & APIs: Collecting and Consuming What Cities Produce”).

As developing and maintaining custom APIs can be complex and time-consuming, the wisest course for cities is to choose an open data portal natively designed to automate the generation and maintenance of standards-based APIs. To deliver maximum data value and make processes as efficient as possible for data consumers, it is also very helpful if the APIs generated can support queries, range settings and manipulations like mathematical calculations so users can extract only the data required, in the form needed.

Unfortunately most open data portal solutions were designed to handle static, infrequently changing content like spreadsheets and reports, not large real-time, streaming sensor data. Conversely, most platforms specifically designed for Internet of Things (IoT) data and Machine-to-Machine (M2M) data were not designed for use as open data portals. Some governments and open data portals have tried to bridge this divide by coupling standalone IoT platforms and open data portals, or by developing new add-on systems for existing open data portals. At present, these efforts introduce complexity and performance costs that hamper their use. This should change over time, however, as the demand for easy, cost-effective open access to smart city sensor data increases.

Data visualization

Another must-have is easy data visualization and dashboard-building tools. Visualization in the form of charts, graphs and maps is very useful for helping human beings make sense of all kinds of data, and it is absolutely essential for big data collections of the type produced by real-time sensors and captors.

The value of visualization in making data meaningful and accessible is well understood by the Town of Cary. During her keynote speech at Triangle Open Data Day, Cary Town Council Member, Lori Bush was very clear about a primary goal of the town’s Open Data project: storytelling. “We started talking about Open Data a long time ago. We were constantly asked, ‘what’s the value of an Open Data program’?” said Bush. They knew easy data visualization was key, and Cary Chief Information Officer Nicole Raimundo was very pleased to have found in their open data portal “a tool that really allowed us to realize that storytelling aspect. We can embed visualizations on the homepage, which is critical because that’s where most of our citizens are going to go.”

Cary’s data storytelling is showcased through a dedicated section on their open data portal’s homepage. The Data Stories section comes with a data visualization, accompanying text, and a link to associated datasets. This gives a richer context and a clearer story to what the city wants to communicate. In addition, portal visitors can easily create and share their own data visualizations, putting them in the driver’s seat as they seek the meaning behind the facts and figures.

From a technology-centered to a human-centered view of the Smart City

This focus on making data accessible and meaningful for humans is fully aligned with the evolving nature of ‘smart cities.’ The transition underway from a technology-centered to a human-centered view of the smart city is casting a new spotlight on the promise of open data, from transparency and trust to citizen engagement and open innovation.

Accordingly, it’s only natural that cities are increasingly seeking to align their Open Data and Smart City strategies, and they are exploring solutions that can help them ensure that citizens and application developers have ultra-simple access to all the useful data a city produces. This includes the sensor data upon which many of the most engaging and transformative web and mobile-based applications will be built.

There is no doubt that high-tech digital transformation can have enormous impact in helping cities meet the environmental, social and economic challenges of population growth in a world of increasingly strained natural resources and a changing climate. However, even with the most technologically sophisticated solutions, success depends on making residents true partners in defining what ‘smart’ means for their community, and enabling their participation in shaping their city to fulfill that vision. And that means a smart city is first and foremost, an open city.

Read all five strategies on the GovFresh website, or download the complete five-part series as a free PDF download.

About Jean-Marc Lazard

Jean-Marc Lazard is the co-founder and CEO of OpenDataSoft, a SaaS sensor-ready open data portal. He was previously the Head of Innovation and Strategic Projects at Exalead (Dassault Systèmes) for 5 years, and led innovative IT projects in the food-processing and retail industries for 9 years. Sparking off and monitoring several startup projects, he is also an expert at Cap Digital, a business cluster for digital transformation. A graduate of EDHEC Business School, Jean-Marc also has a degree in Applied Mathematics.

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