Open standards for tomorrow's smart cities

Maximising tomorrow's smart city vision

Where smart citieswere once regarded purely as a vision of the future, they are now becoming a reality in numerous urban centres across the globe. From Dubai, Singapore, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, and Madrid to Southampton in the UK, we're already beginning to see smart cities provide inhabitants with improved living conditions, easier mobility and cleaner, safer environments, by using cloud computing to power services. 

But as with all public sector initiatives, smart city services need to be delivered as cost effectively as possible to minimise the taxpayer burden. Often, key decision makers are met with obstacles when it comes to deploying smart services, preventing smart cities initiatives from reaching their full potential – or worse, blocking them altogether. 

A question of data

Central to the functioning of most 'normal' city ecosystems is the underlying data they run on. Regardless as to whether that data is stored on local servers or using cloud storage, when that data is fragmented or incomplete, identifying emerging trends for strategic planning and cost reduction becomes extremely difficult – and because of this, authorities have to adopt an entirely reactive approach.

Conversely, in a smart city environment, connected sensors forming anInternet of Things (IoT)provide valuable data for analysis and, in turn, insight into the specific city's behavioural trends. With this level of information, services can be optimised to reduce costs and risk, increase urban flows and manage assets. Importantly, they can also provide real-time connections and interactions between the city's businesses, local governments, service providers and citizens.

In this way, operations and services are elevated through the integration and connection of physical devices via IoT networks, ultimately transforming how a city runs. 

Smart city challenges

However, the public sector is currently facing several obstacles when it comes to executing smart city projects effectively. For example, smart service operations are often owned by private vendors that run on their own proprietary service platforms. This anti-competitive barrier is a clear threat where cost-effectiveness is the main objective.

Further issues can also occur if the APIs involved are proprietary to a single company. Being locked into specific cloud services or IT infrastructures management prevents the ability to switch to cheaper suppliers, which makes budgeting extremely difficult for local government decision makers, and can even act as a deterrent for choosing smart city services. 

Challenges also exist around data lock-in, where data hasn't been properly documented, quantified or standardised, and is then given to a single organisation. A multitude of issues can surface when the supplier that controls and manages that data changes. And this is made even more complex when the data isn’t transferred fully from a legacy system. Unfortunately, a great deal of data is frequently stored without being properly annotated, essentially decreasing its value as a source of information for analysis using business intelligence tools.  

The degree of success of current and future smart cities greatly relies on addressing the barrier of vendor and, in turn, data lock-in. Ultimately, only by enabling data to flow between different systems and organisations, can cities analyse this data as easily as possible and ensure that services are benefitting residents.  

The open standards route

The most effective way to remove these challenges in a smart city context is by using open standards. The Open Data Format (O-DF) and the Open Data Element Format (O-DEF), allow storage and annotation of an entire data lake. Using The Open Messaging Interface (O-MI) also enables well-annotated and standardised APIs to be created, the output of which can then be used by other systems to increase the value of that data.

Using open standards, including O-MI, O-DF and O-DEF, allows smart city stakeholders to maximise the analysis and use of data for smart service applications. They also allow smart services to be enhanced in a way that can be leveraged by different planners, decision makers and operational systems, and allow for the collection and processing of data using analytics tools. 

The bIoTope EU project is a core example of open standards in action. The project's objective is to validate the benefits of the IoT within specific cities. Developed by The Open Group and other key industry players and academic institutions, proof of concept smart city applications have been implemented in Brussels, Lyon, Helsinki, Melbourne, and Saint Petersburg for solutions including smart parking and waste collection. 

Aligning of minds

What the bIoTope project has demonstrated is the necessity of interoperability within a smart city – in other words, ensuring that an array of different systems can communicate seamlessly with each other. This depends entirely on an agreed standard for data formatting across different system manufacturers, to allow for communication and easy data visualization for improving services.

There is a clear need for as efficient a flow of data as possible between systems and services for tomorrow's smart cities to reach their full potential. Open standards are vital in advancing this to ensure that the ecosystem within a smart city is adequately sustainable, services are competition and that vendor lock-in is prevented. 

Ultimately successful smart city initiatives will be down to urban planners collaborating with the Enterprise Architects involved, along with the co-operation of key industry players, academics and standards bodies. When these forces align, the evolution towards the smart cities of the future looks very promising indeed.