Driving smart city innovation with open sensor data (part 4)

Photo: Jordi Martorell
Photo: Jordi Martorell

This is part four 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 complete series “Driving Smart City Innovation with Open Sensor Data: 5 Lessons Learned” is available as a free PDF download.

Strategy 4: Treat your sensor data like a valuable asset

While it is commonly acknowledged that cities today produce massive amounts of data, it is less often noted that much of the data referenced is not actually produced directly by city systems, but rather by cities’ ecosystems of partners in domains such as transportation, waste and water management and energy services. When all goes as it should, these partners join their city clients in providing open access to the data they generate. But, this does not always happen. Sometimes cities have to take action to ensure they have access to the data generated through such partnerships for their own internal use, and for making data available to the public as open data.

At the April 2016 Socitm conference, Peter Wheeler, an account manager at the software firm Red Hat, reported hearing many city officials complain that they face “a huge battle” in getting data they required from software vendors responsible for some smart-cities initiatives. His advice, echoed by many others, is that cities must mandate openness from the outset by insisting on access to all data in new procurement contracts.

Wheeler cautions, however, against exercising that access right unless there is a clear use case for the data in order to avoid overburdening city systems. This makes sense if the city and the vendor are the only consumers of the data, but with the right technology, making that data open does not have to be a financial burden on the city. In fact, it can be a boon, and opening it can allow businesses and civic technology developers to find innovative uses for it that the city might not otherwise discover. This fulfills the promise of open innovation.

One scenario in which open sensor data can be a financial gain rather than a burden is in the monetization of data streams. Traditionally, as the Open Data Institute articulates it, open data has been defined as data “that anyone can access, use and share,” and “it must be published in an accessible format, with a license that permits anyone to access, use and share it.”

While in this classic definition, open data must be free, accessible, and licensed for open re-use, as smart city data goes online, cities and their ecosystem partners have begun to consider shades of open, such as freemium access that offers basic access for free, but premium fee-based access for high-volume usage.

Consider different shades of open

The first reason for this is cost. Streaming senor data is ‘big data,’ and handling big data carries an infrastructure and access cost – a cost which public agencies have to be able to cover to provide access. This is the position taken, for instance, by the Paris regional transit service (RATP) and the French national rail service (SNCF) []. Both provide open access now to a range of transportation data (data.ratp.fr and data.sncf.com), including in the case of SNCF, access to real-time departure and arrival data, though at present with a usage limit. And, both plan to offer high-volume access to such real-time data using a freemium model.

They argue that providing reliable, high-volume access to the streaming data carries a significant cost that can be borne only through premium access, and it’s a cost the large corporations who are most interested in that data can afford to pay. For them, distributing these costs to such heavy data users helps ensure free access can be maintained for civic technologists and start-ups who develop citizen-centric applications that support local economies, improve citizens’ lives, and help all make more efficient use of public services.

The second rationale for freemium models is the growing realization in all sectors that data is an asset with real economic value. For cities, that value can be tapped as a new revenue stream to help support smart city initiatives or meet basic budgetary needs. This is the rationale posited by the Buckinghamshire County Council in the UK. They are exploring options for monetizing their flows of smart city data as a way to make up for shortfalls in the face of “ever-increasing budget cuts.” David Aimson, Project Manager at Buckinghamshire County Council, believes other cities will follow suit: “By the very nature of being publicly funded we are not historically commercial organisations,” however, he adds “over the next decade you are going to see councils turning more into businesses.”

While data monetization is at too early a stage to determine how significant that stream may be, it is nonetheless an area of growing interest to cash-strapped cities; one that needs to be approached with careful consideration of technical, financial and governance issues, including very important issues of public trust and protection of citizen privacy.

However, regardless of whether a city decides to offer access on a freemium or fully free basis, and whether it wants to open data from existing systems, or from newly deployed Internet of Things sensor networks, or from crowdsourced mobile phone data, access has to be made available in a way that supports application development. That means it needs to be available through standardized, efficient Application Programming Interfaces (APIs), and that cities must incorporate access rights into vendor contracts to give themselves maximum flexibility in transforming data into value for their communities.

Check back in next week for Strategy 5, which discusses two must-have technologies for succeeding with open sensor data. You can also download the complete five-part series.

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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