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Driving smart city innovation with open sensor data (part 3)

An odd thing happened in Dehradun, the capital city of the northern state of Uttarakhand, when the city received news that it would receive funding as one of 100 cities chosen to participate India’s $15 billion Smart Cities Mission. Rather than celebrating making the coveted list, the city instead found itself embroiled in a dispute that saw local activists take to the woods to hug trees in protest against Dehradun’s smart city proposal.

By GovFresh · September 7, 2016

[caption id=”attachment_21616” align=”alignnone” width=”1280”] Railway station of Dehradun, Uttarakhand, India. Photo by Lennon Rodgers CC-BY-SA-3.0-migrated-with-disclaimers[/caption]

This is part three 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 3: Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate

An odd thing happened in Dehradun, the capital city of the northern state of Uttarakhand, when the city received news that it would receive funding as one of 100 cities chosen to participate India’s $15 billion Smart Cities Mission. Rather than celebrating making the coveted list, the city instead found itself embroiled in a dispute that saw local activists take to the woods to hug trees in protest against Dehradun’s smart city proposal.

The protestors were angry that the city chose an extension, or ‘greenfield,’ development model over improvements to existing neighborhoods (retrofitting). They also were not happy that it planned to use one of the last remaining large green spaces in the once-verdant city as the site for the development, a 2,000-acre tract of land composed of active and defunct tea-growing estates.

They felt the unwelcome plan stemmed from an inadequate effort to involve residents in the development of the Smart City proposal. As Swati Ramanathan, chair of the Jana Urban Space Foundation, noted in weighing in on the dispute, ‘openness’ has become a key smart city theme, a common pledge of government, and an expectation on the part of residents: “This is an age of ‘OPEN’ - open data, open information, open digital, and open governments. Those governments that recognise early enough that this is a genie that is not going back in the bottle, will survive and then thrive if they encourage more transparency and more participation.”

In the end, the government heeded this call for openness, and officials worked with residents and community groups to develop a revised plan focused on retrofitting. The lessons the officials of Dehradun learned: that defining a smart city vision and priorities is most likely to succeed when it is done in collaboration with residents and community groups, and that ‘openness’ in all forms is a mandate, not an option.

Collaborate with the civic tech community

Providing open access to data in particular is critical to developing a healthy community of civic technology start-up companies and volunteers. The civic tech community is the second group with whom cities are wise to form close collaborations.

Enabling civic technology and business communities to join in smart city innovation extends the capabilities of what a city acting alone could do or fund, which is an enormous advantage given the budget constraints of cities everywhere.

Nurtured via hackathons, contests, civic residencies, commons-style marketplaces, and collaborative agency-developer initiatives, civic technology companies and volunteers around the world are developing citizen-centered applications that are having a positive impact on their communities. They are proving that open data can be a real engine for “open innovation.”

Consider Roadify Transit, for example. This mobile application uses open data to make it easy for people to get information on arrival times and delays for their bus, train, subway, etc.

It aggregates open real-time arrival, advisory and schedule data from transit agencies with tweets and comments from users. The application, which was developed by a civic technology start-up, took first prize at the second BigApps competition, which is an annual contest sponsored by the New York City government to get developers to use city and other government data to create useful apps for NYC citizens and visitors.

[caption id=”attachment_21609” align=”alignnone” width=”1440”] Citygram[/caption]

Another example is the award-winning Citygram. It is a mobile application that uses open data to push updates and alerts via text or email to users based on locations important to them. Alerts and updates include information about planned land development and rezoning projects, crime incident data, planned road closures, real-time data on traffic accidents and roadway obstructions, and other topics of importance to citizens. Now being deployed in multiple cities, Citygram was originally developed in Charlotte, North Carolina during a 2014 Code for America fellowship program, and refined through a collaboration between the City of Charlotte and the local Code for America brigade, Code for Charlotte.

While such city/civic tech collaborations are essential to getting applications like Citygram off the drawing board and into the hands of citizens, their capacity to deliver all the information that is important to residents and visitors depends on a third community with whom cities can profit from a close collaboration: the ecosystem of private sector vendors that provide city services.

Collaborate with the ecosystem of private sector vendors

City ecosystem partners in areas like transportation, energy and utilities are increasingly opening their data to their government clients and to the public.

Enedis is one such provider. Enedis is a utility company that manages the public electricity distribution network for 95% of continental France. The company has made open innovation a key part of its global digital transformation strategy. Enedis has accordingly opened their data to their municipal clients, electricity producers, business partners, civic technologists, startups and citizens through their open data portal and through feeds to other public and private portals.

Another example is Keolis, one of Europe’s leading public transport operators. Keolis provides public transportation services to more than 3 billion passengers in 15 countries on four continents. In collaboration with the City of Rennes, France, they began providing open access first to static information about the region’s bike, train, bus, metro and parking systems through an open data portal, which over time has evolved to now include one-third real-time datasets.

Developers have made extensive use of the data via Application Programming Interfaces (APIs), producing valuable applications like WeGo Rennes and, and businesses are taking advantage of the platform as well. Some go so far as to integrate real-time public transit information into their websites using the platform’s data filtering and data visualization embedding tools.

Researchers have benefitted from the open data portal, cross-referencing the open data with third-party data to analyze current and potential transport services. Keolis has been so pleased with the open data project in Rennes that the company is making its open data platform available to all of their local subsidiaries so they can open their data as well.

In addition to established city partners like utility and transit companies, new smart technology vendors are joining cities in collaborative innovation as well. They are producing entirely new streams of smart city data, namely real-time big data streams from smart city sensor and Wi-Fi networks deployed across common objects like light poles, trash bins, bike stations and parking spaces. While cities and/or their partners are using this data to analyze, optimize and automate services, some are also providing public access to the data.

In Paris, for example, the city hired SmartGrains to install in-ground sensors in parking spaces that could automatically detect the presence of a vehicle. The sensors are connected in a wireless radio network, allowing each space to report when a parking spot becomes free. This data is made available to drivers through SmartGrains’ free ParkSense iPhone app, which allows drivers to locate available parking spots nearby, reducing frustration levels and emissions generated by drivers circling for spots.

Similarly, JCDecaux, who manages the city’s bike share service, installed sensors on bike stations that enable real-time information on bike availability. This data is made available for free to application developers through an API on a JCDecaux website and to residents through the company’s free mobile application AllBikesNow. This application provides information for 24 self-service bicycle systems in France and around the world. The City of Paris also makes this data available through a free mobile application of its own, and it has incorporated the data and an accompanying API into a smart city dashboard currently in development.

Paris, like the other cities mentioned here, has learned that openness and collaboration are two key ingredients for successful smart city innovation. Collaborate with residents and community groups. Collaborate with civic tech communities and local businesses. Collaborate with new and established city vendors. And, keep the flow of information and data open and accessible to all.

Check back in next week for Strategy 4, which looks at the ways cities are ensuring they have full access to their data, and can share it with others. You can also download the complete five-part series.