Month: August 2016

Driving smart city innovation with open sensor data (part 2)

Place de la Nation

This is part two 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.

Strategy 2: Go small before you go big

You can accomplish many smart city goals in a timely and inexpensive manner by exploring options for leveraging an existing infrastructure of low-tech, collaborative information and communication technologies like mobile phones, social media, online platforms and low-cost sensor kits, before making hefty new technology investments. If you do plan, however, to invest in new equipment and systems, it’s a good idea to use pilot projects to go small before you go big.

With plentiful examples of cost overrides, cancelled programs and disappointing results, governments are already well aware of the potential pitfalls of large-scale, long-term technology contracts. It is not surprising that pilot programs are emerging as a strategy of choice in the arena of smart and connected cities, where so much of the technology is either new or outside the familiar city IT toolbox.

Using a pilot approach is a great way to assess the feasibility, potential impact and return-on-investment of a large-scale project before a full roll out. In addition, it is a strategy that can be very useful in working through issues of special importance in the smart city context, including governance issues like privacy and data security and ownership, and strategies for animating communities of civic technologists and start-ups to accelerate innovation.

While there are a growing number of top-down, nationally-funded, citywide pilots underway in initiatives like India’s Smart Cities Mission and the United States Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge, the use of ‘micro’ pilots within city boundaries is more common, and more accessible, for many cities.

European Commission

An example of this type of micro pilot is the Smart Cities and Communities Lighthouse program in Europe. The goal of that program is to use pilot projects in specific urban communities to discover innovative and effective uses of technology that can be applied to common citywide challenges, and replicated by other cities across Europe.

For example, in the UK, London’s Royal Borough of Greenwich will serve as the pilot community to initiatives that include:

  • A trial of 300 smart parking spaces.
  • Tests of shared electric bikes and electric automobiles and delivery vehicles.
  • A test use of the River Thames as an affordable and renewable source of home heating.
  • Installation of solar panels on homes to provide green energy and improve energy efficiency.

In addition to Greenwich, communities in Milan, Lisbon, Warsaw, Bordeaux and Burgas will also be participating in the Smart Cities and Communities Lighthouse pilot program. An important condition for project eligibility for all communities is a commitment to providing open access to the data the projects generate in order to foster innovation, improve replicability and maximize economies of scale through a transparent transfer of knowledge.

50 captors to pilot a smart city square in Paris

This commitment to openness is also at the heart of a pilot project in the city of Paris which is being developed in partnership with Cisco Systems. That pilot is designed to test the use of technology to help create a smart city square. In Paris as in many other cities, large urban squares are hubs of economic and social life, and therefore a natural test bed for creating smarter cities.

To develop the pilot smart square, Cisco will deploy 50 real-time, multi-purpose captors for one year at the city’s Place de la Nation square. The sensors can measure air quality and noise levels, and track the movement of people, bikes, motorcycles and motor vehicles via cameras (to protect privacy, the images are blurred to prevent identification, and instantly destroyed as soon as movement data is captured).

Real-time data visualizations will be shared via on-site touch screens and panels, and displayed on the city’s website. The raw real-time data stream will be available on the city’s open data portal, which will be used for data collection and aggregation, data visualization and open sensor data access.

The goal is to identify environmental and quality of life ameliorations that can be replicated in any square. Seven large squares in Paris, in addition to Nation, are slated for a ‘smart’ makeover. In addition, the city hopes the captors will provide valuable data for scientific research related to air and noise pollution (see

So, as you work through the best approaches for making smart happen in your city, consider borrowing a page from Paris and London. Get together with your citizens, community stakeholders and urban services or technology partners and find a neighborhood, a square, a district, a park or other corner of your town – and get busy testing the waters to discover what works best for your city.

Check back in next week for Strategy 3 as we explore the important role of open data sharing and collaboration with residents, civic tech communities and ecosystem partners in driving smart city innovation. You can also download the complete five-part series.

Why open source matters for government and civic tech (and how to support it)

The Open Knowledge Foundation and University of Cambridge recently published a must-read-and-circulate-widely report on why open source software matters for government and civic tech and how to support it.

The report addresses logical reasoning around why government must adopt open source into digital services and how proprietary vendor sales strategies put government personnel at a disadvantage when considering IT option, as well as undermine long-term technical sustainability.

I fully agree with the findings that there needs to be a “Choose Open” type of movement that effectively advocates and educates open source awareness in government. While its adoption is on the rise and in some cases mandated, especially at the U.S. federal government level, there is still a “proprietary is better” legacy mentality amongst some IT leaders that blocks open source implementation on a larger scale.

Key excerpt:

Governments over-discount the future

Governments, or, at least, bureaucrats have short time horizons, at least relative to the lifetime of software. Elected governments often last only a few years, and inside those governments bureaucrats move around frequently. Thus, a bureaucrat who buys a particular piece of software will rarely still be in the same post when the consequences of that decision are felt, especially if we are thinking in terms of later upgrades and customization.

Thus, government software buyers care much more about today than tomorrow and will quite happily trade, for example, a $5m saving in buying software today for a $50m higher cost of software three years down the road. This means that “future features” such as ease of customization or switching are given much less weight than “today’s features” such as a cheap price or more options.

Full report: “Why Open Source Software Matters for Government and Civic Tech [and how to support it]

Driving smart city innovation with open sensor data

City at night

This is part one 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 is available as a free PDF download.

For many years, open access to data has been viewed as an important means of improving government transparency and accountability and deepening citizen engagement, and today hundreds of local and national governments worldwide are using open data portals to publish data and documents that they produce over the course of their operations.

But open data has proven to be more than just tool for advancing open government and citizen engagement, it is proving itself to be an important tool for developing innovative solutions that advance core quality of life, sustainability and economic development goals.

Illustrative <a href="">list of smart city solutions</a> from the Ministry of Urban Development, Government of India, June 2015

Illustrative list of smart city solutions from the Ministry of Urban Development, Government of India, June 2015

This is especially true today as new and innovative approaches are being sought to perennial urban challenges such as water, waste, and energy management in addition to transportation and mobility. Many of the highest impact approaches use technology to support innovation, optimization and automation of services and infrastructures. This is driving an investment in technology-driven “smart city” solutions that analysts like Frost & Sullivan forecast will hit US$1.6 trillion by 2020.

Over the course of our work with cities over the past five years, we have compiled notes about what works and what doesn’t for cities as they seek to foster smart city innovation through intelligent uses of open smart city data, or more specifically, open access to real-time streams of data coming from the sensors and meters that are beginning to permeate the urban landscape. This five-part series looks at five of the strategies we have seen our clients and others use to succeed in this alignment of smart city development and open data in the new Internet of Things inspired era of intelligent and connected cities.

In Strategy 1 of the series, we look at open sensor data exploitation in the context of inexpensive, low-tech options for advancing smart city goals. In Strategy 2, we discuss the valuable role pilot projects and open sensor data can play in ensuring solid returns for smart city initiatives. In Strategy 3, we explore the important role of open data sharing and collaboration with residents, civic tech communities and ecosystem partners in driving smart city innovation. In Strategy 4, we look at the ways cities are ensuring they have full access to their data, and can share it with others. And, in the final Strategy, we discuss two must-have technologies for succeeding with open sensor data.

Strategy 1: Sometimes the smartest tech is low-tech

While the phrase “smart city” means different things to different people, the concept generally includes the use of information and communication technologies to make cities healthier, safer and more enjoyable places to live. Oftentimes, it is highly advanced flavors of ICT that capture the most attention in smart city discussions, including topics like the Internet of Things, Machine-to-Machine automation, broadband WiFi, big data visualization, predictive analytics, artificial intelligence, robotics, drones and autonomous vehicles.

However, in many cities across the globe, it is ‘low-tech’ solutions that are playing the most important role today in improving the quality of life of citizens, enhancing government transparency and trust, and improving environmental and economic sustainability. This is particularly true in developing cities where budgets are especially constrained and population growth rates are at their highest.

In particular, low-tech collaborative technologies like mobile phones, social media, online platforms and low-cost sensor kits, offer cities of all sizes affordable alternative ways to collect data, use resources more efficiently, and make better decisions – and they empower citizens to play a key role in shaping the future of their cities.

In the thoughtful 2015 Nesta report, “Rethinking Smart Cities from the Ground Up,” the authors observe that while some ‘top down’ smart city initiatives have been marred by high costs and low returns, such citizen-centric, low-tech “collaborative technologies” are showing much promise in delivering high value results at a low cost. Consider, for instance, the Digital Matatus project in Nairobi, Kenya.

A low-tech lesson from Nairobi

The Digital Matatus project began when the University of Nairobi, Columbia, MIT and Groupshot got together to create a digital map of Nairobi’s privately owned and operated matatu mini-buses, on which 3.5 million people depend for their daily transport needs.

Armed with smartphones, volunteer college students rode the buses every day for several months and transmitted data via mobile phones. This data was used to plot routes, stops and intervals in a first-ever digital map of this informal transit system. The team also worked with Google to adapt its General Transit Feed Specification standard to accommodate inconsistent transit networks so that the data could be pushed to services such as Google Maps.

The official Matatu map of Nairobi developed by the project team.  Sarah Williams and Wenfei Xu, MIT Civic Data Design Lab

The official Matatu map of Nairobi developed by the project team.  Sarah Williams and Wenfei Xu, MIT Civic Data Design Lab

The Digital Matatus project gave the government its first comprehensive view of the existing informal system to guide transit planning, and it is being used by UN HABITAT to guide the Bus Rapid Transit it is helping Nairobi to develop. Citizens are benefitting from mobile apps for smart (and not-so-smart) phones to plan trips and discover efficient routes they didn’t even know existed. Even matatu drivers are using the data to plan more routes to underserved areas and reduce congestion on saturated routes. And, as the data, maps and apps are free and available to the public, the project provides a crowd-sourced model other cities can replicate for their informal transit systems.

This project and others like it, such as the World Bank-sponsored waste management project in Maputo, Mozambique that uses crowdsourcing via mobile apps to gather input from citizens and waste collectors about trash removal issues, show that open innovation from open sensor data is playing a key role in smart city development worldwide. This is the case even if a government doesn’t have the financial resources to purchase big ticket solutions such as those from IBM, Cisco, Siemens, Intel and Microsoft.

In addition to these two examples, there are many helpful examples from around the world available in the Rethinking Smart Cities report, including the following:

  • In Jakarta, Indonesia, a real-time map of flooding in the city has been created by crowdsourcing flood reports from Twitter. Twitter is further being used by Jakarta residents to organize shared car journeys.
  • In London and many other cities, residents are using mobile phones to report issues like potholes, broken streetlights and overflowing trash bins to municipal authorities.
  • In Paris and Reykjavik, Iceland, citizens are using online platforms to propose, discuss and vote on ideas for improving the city, like the vertical garden project in Paris that received over 20,000 votes and will now receive €2 million in funding.
  • In Bangalore, India, residents will soon be able to use smartphones and SMS to map abandoned urban spaces, which they identified as one of their primary concerns.
  • In Beijing and other Chinese cities, residents are starting to use low-cost sensors such as the PiMi Airbox to measure and map air pollution in their city

Even on the no-tech side, there are many options for cities to advance their smart city goals. For example, cities can encourage biking and walking as alternative transportation modes through city planning, policies and regulations, or educational campaigns, as IDC’s Ruthbea Yesner Clarke and Massimiliano Claps suggest.

However, whether low-tech or no-tech, one essential element these citizen-centric solutions share is the use of open data and open platforms to mobilize collective knowledge and transform it into innovative solutions.

So as your city explores options for advancing smart city goals using ICT, take time to reflect on how you can engage citizens in collaborative uses of common existing technologies like mobile phones, social media, online platforms and low-cost sensor kits to shape a brighter future for your city. And make sure to open your data to keep innovation and engagement flowing.

Check back in next week for Strategy 2, which looks at the valuable role pilot projects and open sensor data can play in ensuring high returns for smart city initiatives. You can also download the complete five-part series.

White House makes open source official, will launch to share U.S. government software

Photo: White House/Pete Souza

Photo: White House/Pete Souza

The White House released an official Federal Source Code policy (yes, it’s a .pdf) that green lights the use and free distribution of software code developed for and by the U.S. Government.

U.S. Chief Information Officer Tony Scott also announced the future launch of that will serve as a public gateway to access all U.S. Government code.

From the announcement:

By making source code available for sharing and re-use across Federal agencies, we can avoid duplicative custom software purchases and promote innovation and collaboration across Federal agencies. By opening more of our code to the brightest minds inside and outside of government, we can enable them to work together to ensure that the code is reliable and effective in furthering our national objectives. And we can do all of this while remaining consistent with the Federal Government’s long-standing policy of technology neutrality, through which we seek to ensure that Federal investments in IT are merit-based, improve the performance of our government, and create value for the American people.

Read the full announcement and join the listserv (yes, a listserv).

Hacking for Diplomacy – Solving foreign policy challenges with the Lean LaunchPad

Photo: State Department

Photo: State Department

Hacking for Diplomacy is a new course from the Management Science and Engineering department in Stanford’s Engineering school and Stanford’s International Policy Studies program that will be first offered in the Fall of 2016.

Join a select cross-disciplinary class that takes real problems from the U.S. State Department and asks students to use Lean Methods to test their understanding of the problem and deliver rapid-fire innovative solutions to pressing diplomacy, development and foreign policy challenges.

H4Dip home page

Syrian Refugees, Human Trafficking, Zika Virus, Illegal Fishing, Weapons of Mass Destruction Detection, ISIS on-line propaganda, Anti-Corruption…

What do all these problems have in common? The U.S. Department of State is working on all of them.

The U.S. Department of State manages America’s relationships with 180 foreign governments, international organizations, and the people of other countries with 270 embassies, consulates, and other posts. The management of all these relationships is called diplomacy. 70,000 State Department employees (46,000 Foreign Service Nationals, 14,000 Foreign Service Employees and 11,000 in the Civil Service) carry out the President’s foreign policy and help build a freer, more prosperous, and secure world.

The State Department has four main foreign policy goals:

  • Protect the United States and Americans
  • Advance democracy, human rights, and other global interests
  • Promote international understanding of American values and policies
  • Support U.S. diplomats, government officials, and all other personnel at home and abroad.

At a time of significant global uncertainty, diplomats are grappling with a set of transnational and cross-cutting challenges that defy easy solution. These include the continued pursuit of weapons of mass destruction by states and non-state groups, the outbreak of internal conflict across the Middle East and in parts of Africa, the most significant flow of refugees since World War II, and a changing climate that is beginning to affect both developed and developing countries.

And that’s just on Monday. The rest of the week is equally busy.

State dept org chart

Hacking for Diplomacy

In a world of complex threats, dynamic opportunities, and diffuse power, effective diplomacy and development require institutions that adapt, embrace technology, and allow for experimentation to ensure continuous learning. This means developing new and innovative ways to think about, organize and build diplomatic strategies and solutions. Stanford’s new Hacking for Diplomacy class is a part of this effort.

Hacking for Diplomacy is designed to provide students the opportunity to learn how to work with the Department of State to address urgent foreign policy challenges. While the traditional tools of statecraft remain relevant, policymakers are looking to harness the power of new technologies to rethink how the U.S. government approaches and responds to  the problems outlined above and other long-standing challenges. In this class, student teams will take actual foreign policy challenges and a hands-on approach that will require close engagement with officials in the U.S. State Department and other civilian agencies. They’ll learn how to apply “lean startup” principles, (“mission model canvas,” “customer development,” and “agile engineering”) to discover and validate agency and user needs and to continually build iterative prototypes to test whether they understood the problem and solution.

Each week, teams will use the Mission Model Canvas (a variant of the Business Model Canvas used for government agencies and non-profits) to develop a set of initial hypotheses about a solution to the problem and will get out of the building and talk to relevant stakeholders and users. As they learn, they’ll iterate and pivot on these hypotheses through customer discovery and build minimal viable prototypes (MVPs). Each team will be guided by a sponsor from the State Department bureau that proposed the problem and a second mentor from the local community.

Real Problems

In this class, student teams select from an existing set of problems provided by the Department of State. Hacking for Diplomacy is not a product incubator for a specific technology solution. Instead, as teams follow the Mission Model Canvas, they’ll discover a deeper understanding of the selected problem, the challenges of deploying the solutions, and the host of potential technological solutions that might be arrayed to solve them. Using the Lean LaunchPad Methodology the class focuses teams to:

  • Deeply understand the problems/needs of State Department beneficiaries and stakeholders
  • Rapidly iterate technology solutions while searching for product-market fit
  • Understand all the stakeholders, deployment issues, costs, resources, and ultimate mission value
  • Produce a repeatable model that can be used to launch other potential technology solutions

National Service

Today if college students want to give back to their country they think of Teach for America, the Peace Corps, or AmeriCorps.

Few consider opportunities to make the world safer with the State Department and other government agencies. Hacking for Diplomacy will promote engagement between students and the Department of State and provide a hands-on opportunity to solve real diplomacy, foreign policy and national security problems.

Like its sister class, Hacking for Defense, our goal is to open-source this class to other universities. By creating a national network of colleges and universities, Hacking for Diplomacy can scale to provide hundreds of solutions to critical diplomacy, policy, and national security problems every year.

We’re going to create a network of entrepreneurial students who understand the diplomatic, policy, and national security problems facing the country and get them engaged in partnership with islands of innovation in the Department of State. This is a first step to a more agile, responsive and resilient, approach to diplomacy and national security in the 21st century.

Lessons Learned

  • Hacking for Diplomacy is a new class that teaches students how to:
    • Use the Lean LaunchPad methodology to deeply understand the problems/needs of State Department customers
    • Deliver minimum viable products that match State Department needs in an extremely short time
  • The class will also teach the islands of innovation in the Department of State:
    • how the innovation culture and mindset operate at speed
    • how to identify potential dual-use technologies that exist outside their agencies and contractors (and are in university labs, or are commercial off-the-shelf solutions)
    • how to use an entrepreneurial mindset and Lean Methodologies to solve foreign policy problems

Register for the inaugural class at Stanford starting September 29

Hack civic hacking

(Note: These views represent mine and not Spike’s. Big thanks to him for providing initial feedback on this. He doesn’t agree with everything and says we can still continue meeting for drinks.)

I’m fortunate to live close enough to legendary civic hacker and Open Oakland founder Steve Spiker and can easily send or receive a last-minute text to meetup for drinks, which usually happens Friday night after we’ve put our kids to bed.

We met this past Friday and started with the personal — family, work, music — but it always turns to a long discussion about civic technology — the people, the pulse, the future.

Spike gave me an Open Oakland update and the latest on the Code for America Brigade, which I coincidentally read about Saturday morning on Government Technology.

Hearing from Spike, reading the article and seeing some of the recent posts leads me to believe there’s a lot of energy being expended on figuring out how to make civic hacking, specifically Brigade, sustainable and perhaps there doesn’t need to be.

I know I’m simplifying this, but it’s not clear to me why civic hacking needs a substantive financial model. In many ways, it appears to be an impediment to grassroots growth.

What’s happening with the Brigades is important context for civic hacking as a grassroots movement, because the movement itself should retrospect and re-consider its role in the civic technology ecosystem.

By re-thinking its purpose in the context of a structured organization and defining success metrics, Brigade and those who identify as civic hackers may change their expectations on whether heavy funding in the traditional sense at this phase of the civic innovation pipeline is necessary.

To date, civic hacking has loosely defined outcomes, if any. This is fine if you’re tinkering, but if you’re looking for financial support, you need to prove you’re solving real problems. In order to do that, you must have success metrics.

If structured civic hacking organizations want to show a model for sustainability, here are a few questions to ask:

  • Can what we’re working on be easily deployed and scale across all governments?
  • Is there a business opportunity to productize and offer as an enterprise government solution?
  • Can this be turned into an issue specific non-profit focused on solving civic or government problems?

Here are a few metrics to consider:

  • How many new, disruptive startups have come out of our work?
  • How many governments have adopted this project or product?
  • How many new issue-based organizations have emerged?

It’s important to recognize that civic hacking is an incubator for your “exit strategy” — building the next great government technology business, landing a gig inside government or simply meeting awesome people. Civic hacking is how I met Code for America Brigade founder Kevin Curry before it was even an idea. Civic hacking is how I landed my current venture that hopes to revolutionize city government digital services.

The Brigades are a critical component of the civic technology ecosystem, but at the grassroots level, passion and self motivation should be the source of funding. For those that don’t “exit” and prefer to tinker, there can still exist a semi-formal, global network. It just doesn’t have to be heavily-dependent on financials.

I can’t count the number of hours I’ve spent civic hacking for free, but I can tell you that return on investment has paid huge personal dividends, both in the people I’ve met, the experience I’ve gained, but also in the simple satisfaction that I’ve helped people and cities.

Years ago, I had the idea for a city government WordPress theme and started hacking away at one. I shopped the idea around to a number of the organizations that, at the time, were giving money for civic hacking projects, and no one was sold. So, I teamed up with a world-class developer, Devin Price, and together, a brigade of two funded by no one, we did it ourselves.

Today, GovPress now has 4,000 active installs and by any measure is one of the most successful, least celebrated civic hacking projects on the planet.

My point with GovPress is that I didn’t wait for an organizational structure or funding to live out my civic hacking passion. Sustainability didn’t drive me or slow me down. I accepted this was a short-term project that would either die on the GitHub repo vine or be wildly successful.

For me, GovPress turned into my personal inspiration for ProudCity, which I co-founded in January with three others that had been, in their own way, civic hacking the same problem I was trying to solve. We’re launching small cities on the platform and getting ready to announce a well-known, mid-sized Northern California city. Government Technology named us one of five companies to watch in 2016.

My non-funded, unsustainable civic hacking project turned into my American dream. ProudCity was my exit.

This sounds very Silicon Valley, but it applies to any organization looking for funding, whether you’re a startup or nonprofit. In the technology ecosystem, there are opportunities to pitch your idea to gain interest for an idea or product. The idea that solves a problem (or has the potential to) gets funded. In the case of the civic hacking community, it attracts more civic hackers (or co-founders). As the product grows in viability, it will exit to a fundable venture, whether it’s the startup or nonprofit solving a real problem.

As was the case with the early environmental movement, there were sustainability hackers advocating for an entirely different approach to managing the planet. At some point, those early leaders went on to start businesses or join governmental or issue-based organizations that have changed our world in scalable, impactful ways.

At first they were tinkering, but then they evolved into the bigger change we needed.

If it’s community you’re looking for, you don’t need funding. If you’re serious about executing but don’t want to make it a lifetime commitment, build your own GovPress then move to your next great thing. Don’t let funding or a sustainability model slow you down.

For its part, Code for America has done a huge service building Brigade, and the idea that local community developers can hack their cities and positively impact and inspire government from the outside. By enabling the foundational infrastructure, it has created an incredible service for those who aspire to impact civics in a big way. Other than a very limited staff role commitment on Code for America’s part, I’m not sure there’s a need for much more or that we should even should expect it.

By defining success metrics and accepting that civic hacking is simply the beginning of the civic innovation pipeline, those in the Brigade ecosystem may find that all its fundamental operating structure needs are:

  • a centralized GitHub organization for effectively collaborating on projects
  • a Slack instance for community
  • a guiding set of principles and general operating guidelines
  • a recurring “demo day” to bring visibility and move projects through the innovation pipeline

All of this most likely already exists within Brigade.

The Brigade structure is a tremendous opportunity to be the platform for the civic innovation pipeline. If it was re-imagined as an incubator or innovation lab that fed the civic technology pipeline, its value add could be better tracked and funded.

The original objectives around civic hacking — opening data, increasing public sector use of open source and showing government how it can leverage both to expedite technology innovation — have all been adopted to varying degrees. This doesn’t mean there is no longer a need for civic hacking. It just means that those who closely identify as such need to re-imagine, find new relevance and recognize scalable impact and more exits are a role it can help foster.

There’s no question civic hacking is a critical component to the civic technology innovation ecosystem, but altruism, passion and self-motivation are requisites for entry, and you shouldn’t need funding for that.

The world is becoming more decentralized, open and instant, and traditional organizational structures are becoming less and less applicable, especially for technology activists.

For those of you who identify as civic hackers and are unaffiliated with political, governmental or corporate constraints, you have the good fortune of not needing to adhere to bureaucratic, organizational rules that stunt open, immediate impact and innovation.

You have the good fortune of bringing the much-needed positive angst sorely missing from the civic technology movement. Embrace that having an entree to bigger opportunities is priceless.

Use all this to your advantage, hack civic hacking and open up more exits for the civic change we need.