Are Smart Cities being driven by APIs?

APIs or Application Programming Interfaces are driving more and more systems in smart cities and organizations that support smart cities. Whether you look at the routing system of the trendy bicycle rental company or the app that is helping cities to fix unruly and ugly potholes or the information about faulty traffic light sensors, APIs are driving them all. Almost everything that is being done to make your city a smart city has APIs working in the background.

However, the future isn’t about the most hi-tech cities, but rather about the cleverest cities. A truly smart city should maximize existing resources according to most smart city experts.

What then should we concentrate on, as we consider opening up APIs to connect citizen focused products and services?

At the Smart City Expo in Barcelona, Iemke Idsingh of Oracle’s Smart City Platform said, “Sense what is happening from humans, sensors, and businesses. Sharing responsibilities.” According to him developers and government officials should work together to design a smart city that wants to build a city-wide nervous system. Infrastructure that is sentient should capitalize on existing unused data.

Smart cities are “smart” by the dint of their capabilities of collaboration and sharing of responsibilities. It is with the help of the same capabilities that they also keep themselves lean. Idsignh goes on to say “Budget constraints more and more drive collaboration, harmonization and modernization, and social networks allow citizens to engage again, tapping into each other’s creativity.” It is necessary that the Public sector and Private sector work together to develop and make use of the Internet of Things through sensors plugged into it. This interconnectivity of APIs enable cities and citizens to predict and plan in naturally unpredictable environments such as cities.

What is a Smart City?

A smart city is one that wants use technology to make it more livable and affordable. A smart city can improve, among many others, its:

  • public transport systems
  • waste management systems
  • power generation and lighting systems
  • safety and security systems
  • parking facility systems
  • aesthetics such as fountains and parks
  • building management systems
  • environmental benefit programs
  • border control systems
  • tourism improvement policies

It is the interoperability of APIs by connecting everything that contributes to a city’s “smart” quotient irrespective of which specific factors are presently contributing to a smart city. Smart cities are becoming more evidence based and the massive amount of data being generated and shared across functions via these APIs has started to influence policy decisions.

However, as lean governance comes to the forefront of governments, smart cities need to focus on balancing interests and being prepared rather than planning and controlling.

Katya Serova, vice president of the Russia-based Habidatum International spontaneous urban data software, says the new urban tech revolution is “A new culture of looking at the city not as a territory but as a space-time object that needs reaction, following citizens with real-time data”.

Smart cities are based on lean planning in design and development as a result of which they are agile. The interoperability of the systems ensures that the erstwhile plans of four to five years have reduced to four to five week plans. Smart cities are also inherently mobile cities given their very definition.

The sensors are the sensory receptors of the safety, security and functionality of a smart city, but as correctly emphasized by Donald Clark of Schneider Electric, in absence of these sensors, “the best sensor is a person with their mobile.”However, for that to be a reality, all APIs, applications, and services that are designed for the smart city must be geolocated and integrated across functions. This will empower citizens and create citizens connected to governance and active in the government.

Silos Breakdown in Smart Cities

The greatest challenge facing newer smart cities are the bureaucratic barriers and the fact that the data are in silos and alienated. This restricts collaboration and is a step to be overcome for any aspiring smart city.

Amr Salem, a planner of Cisco’s Internet of Things Forum, thinks these silos done away with to integrate services. Salem argues that this needs to be done by initiating “change to infrastructure first, deconstructing the nature of the multiple silos.” Sensors being used for traffic control should also be used to deliver data to a security center which could further deliver relevant date to emergency services, for example. He recommends that cities should make this data available to support local start-ups and businesses in social, economic and environmental domains.  “In actuality, people don’t want more data, they want more answers…actionable insights.” According to Salem, data silos have to be broken down in a way that promotes smart analytics to encourage innovation.

The Citizen Should Be at the Center of Smart City Design

There are seven criteria to look at when designing an API with the human being in mind. These criteria are even more crucial when designing an API for a smart city and its citizens:

  • Usefulness
  • Usability
  • Desirability
  • Whether it is discoverable
  • Accessibility
  • Credibility
  • Its Value

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology MIT’s SENSEable City Lab is creating a flexible and accessible API for sensors in cities. Carlo Ratti, the lab’s director, believes that connector modules are critical for developing a platform that utilizing many different types of data on a real-time basis. APIs must be structured with easy usability in mind if this is to be achieved. “API development is aimed at enabling a data query mechanism that allows users with little programming experience to easily tap the data pool brought together on the platform,” says Ratti.

Smart Cities: Connectivity or Functionality?

Clark says “Connectivity is an enabler but not a necessity for a smart city. Functionality is the citizen who is empowered by and whose life is improved by the Internet of Things”. Creation and implementation of the Internet of Things is about integrating everything together both vertically and horizontally. It is not just about building a brand.

Clark makes a comparison of the human body to smart cities, in that every part is purposeful in the functioning whole, even though independent by itself. For example, even though the heart is able to function independently, but if it stops the brain is notified immediately. This allows the system a chance to recover itself. Any delay in transmitting this information can lead to a system failure. This is a perfect analogy to underline the need for real time data exchange in semi urban environments.

Keeping in mind the prosperity of eco systems, each contributing technology should be designed with at least low level interoperability. Clark cites the example of a barcode on a can which can enable seamless integration and repurposing of data with every swipe of the barcode scanner at various points of the supply chain, from the inventory right to the customer check out.

Open and Shared Resources for City wide IoT

A common technique for implementing IoT is for cities to store data on repository hosting services and open data resources. This allows other public departments, private entities, and citizens to access and build on each city’s APIs. City of Philadelphia is doing exactly this. Philadelphia claimed to being the largest government user of GitHub, by publishing all their open data. They even selectively contracted external developers under the condition they will publish their source code.

Tim Wisnieswski, chief of the data office for Philadelphia, said this practice “allows us to build cheaper and quicker.” Rather than increase economic competition, he believes this will help foster a collaborative spirit.

Smart Cities save Time and Money by Collaborating

Smart cities aren’t competing with each other to create better, bigger or faster products unlike corporations. On the contrary, a quicker route to mutual success is API enabled data exchanged between cities. This fact recognized widely, also helps replicate and creates advances and better collaborative advancement. Multiple platforms are being created all across the world to let cities do this.

Bart Rousseu, from the administration of Belgium’s second largest city Ghent, says “As a city, as a government, we’re not used to getting free consulting, but these networks” help. Half of his job is simply to get new technologies on board. It is easier now to convince lawmakers about the advantages of modernizing the cities now that cities and countries all over are working together to share data and statistics.

Cities can also access a wider pool of resources by collaborating across borders. The open information on distribution costs, failures and successes available freely to emerging smart cities could dramatically reduce the cost and time required to develop smart cities across the world.

API Collaboration: will it lead to Smarter Cities?

No one can be sure how technology shapes up in the future, but what is sure is that increased collaboration does lead to increased innovation. Intergovernmental organizations like CitySDK pushing collaboration among cities, the seeds of great innovation are being sowed. As more and more cities, businesses and citizens open up APIs they’ll be paving the way for smarter cities through collaboration led innovation.

Written by:
Incepta

November 22, 2019

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