Driving smart city innovation with open sensor data (part 5)

This is part five 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.

Attend to the tech must-haves

The concept of what constitutes a “Smart City” has evolved quite a bit over the past 10 years. From early visions of sweeping citywide digital overhauls and the global automation of everything from trash pick up to transportation, cities are now focusing on smaller scale projects; they are testing ideas with pilot programs, and attending to low-tech and even no-tech options for meeting their goals of safe, healthy, sustainable, and vibrant communities.

But while there is much technology that can be sifted into must-have, nice-to-have and maybe-someday categories without a negative impact on smart city advancement, there are a few basic pieces of technology cities will need in order to extract value from the real-time data that has already begun to flow through smart cities.

One is an open data platform that can provide data access to citizens, researchers, developers, city staff and city ecosystem partners (who should also provide access to their data to these same communities).

While they are many options for hosting such data, the rise in real-time data, whether from pollution meters on lamppost, GPS locators on mobile phones, usage data from water meters, or video feeds from security cameras, requires application programming interfaces.

Application programming interfaces

APIs are software code interfaces that allow software applications to exchange data and services. In the context of smart cities, they enable a secure, reliable connection to continuously updated data for developers who want to build web or mobile applications, for researchers or analysts who want to plug city data into existing applications such as business intelligence software, for IT staff at other government agencies or ecosystem partners who want to integrate a city’s data with their own (see the helpful article “Open Data & APIs: Collecting and Consuming What Cities Produce”).

As developing and maintaining custom APIs can be complex and time-consuming, the wisest course for cities is to choose an open data portal natively designed to automate the generation and maintenance of standards-based APIs. To deliver maximum data value and make processes as efficient as possible for data consumers, it is also very helpful if the APIs generated can support queries, range settings and manipulations like mathematical calculations so users can extract only the data required, in the form needed.

Unfortunately most open data portal solutions were designed to handle static, infrequently changing content like spreadsheets and reports, not large real-time, streaming sensor data. Conversely, most platforms specifically designed for Internet of Things (IoT) data and Machine-to-Machine (M2M) data were not designed for use as open data portals. Some governments and open data portals have tried to bridge this divide by coupling standalone IoT platforms and open data portals, or by developing new add-on systems for existing open data portals. At present, these efforts introduce complexity and performance costs that hamper their use. This should change over time, however, as the demand for easy, cost-effective open access to smart city sensor data increases.

Data visualization

Another must-have is easy data visualization and dashboard-building tools. Visualization in the form of charts, graphs and maps is very useful for helping human beings make sense of all kinds of data, and it is absolutely essential for big data collections of the type produced by real-time sensors and captors.

The value of visualization in making data meaningful and accessible is well understood by the Town of Cary. During her keynote speech at Triangle Open Data Day, Cary Town Council Member, Lori Bush was very clear about a primary goal of the town’s Open Data project: storytelling. “We started talking about Open Data a long time ago. We were constantly asked, ‘what’s the value of an Open Data program’?” said Bush. They knew easy data visualization was key, and Cary Chief Information Officer Nicole Raimundo was very pleased to have found in their open data portal “a tool that really allowed us to realize that storytelling aspect. We can embed visualizations on the homepage, which is critical because that’s where most of our citizens are going to go.”

Cary’s data storytelling is showcased through a dedicated section on their open data portal’s homepage. The Data Stories section comes with a data visualization, accompanying text, and a link to associated datasets. This gives a richer context and a clearer story to what the city wants to communicate. In addition, portal visitors can easily create and share their own data visualizations, putting them in the driver’s seat as they seek the meaning behind the facts and figures.

From a technology-centered to a human-centered view of the Smart City

This focus on making data accessible and meaningful for humans is fully aligned with the evolving nature of ‘smart cities.’ The transition underway from a technology-centered to a human-centered view of the smart city is casting a new spotlight on the promise of open data, from transparency and trust to citizen engagement and open innovation.

Accordingly, it’s only natural that cities are increasingly seeking to align their Open Data and Smart City strategies, and they are exploring solutions that can help them ensure that citizens and application developers have ultra-simple access to all the useful data a city produces. This includes the sensor data upon which many of the most engaging and transformative web and mobile-based applications will be built.

There is no doubt that high-tech digital transformation can have enormous impact in helping cities meet the environmental, social and economic challenges of population growth in a world of increasingly strained natural resources and a changing climate. However, even with the most technologically sophisticated solutions, success depends on making residents true partners in defining what ‘smart’ means for their community, and enabling their participation in shaping their city to fulfill that vision. And that means a smart city is first and foremost, an open city.

Read all five strategies on the GovFresh website, or download the complete five-part series as a free PDF download.

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

Railway station of Dehradun, Uttarakhand, India. Photo by Lennon Rodgers <a href="">CC-BY-SA-3.0-migrated-with-disclaimers</a>

Railway station of Dehradun, Uttarakhand, India. Photo by Lennon Rodgers CC-BY-SA-3.0-migrated-with-disclaimers

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.



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.

Dynamic data visualization on the Enedis website using data from the company’s open data portal.

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.

A map of Paris’ bike stations displayed on JCDecaux’s platform for application programming. ©JCDecaux

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.

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.

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.