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The emergence of interoperability standards in IoT

The need for agreed IoT standards has never been more urgent, says Gavin Summerson, City Standards Lead, Future Cities Catapult.

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It was only in 2010 that Google introduced the first smartphone audio translation technology. Barely nine years on and, as well as communicating with almost anyone in the world through social media and online apps, we are now also interacting with the things around us (such as smart home devices).

 

Our use of information and what it makes possible has spawned a rapidly expanding and diversifying industry of its own.

 

However, this exponential growth in data and information presents its own challenges. One problem is that much of it is still held in silos and separate systems that can’t communicate with each other. At the other end of the spectrum, however, irresponsible information usage raises serious – and arguably even dangerous – privacy and security concerns.

 

While IoT interoperability might be the key to accelerating improvements in traffic management, air quality and health, city planning, housing innovations and much more, the need to define and ensure the use of common languages and mechanisms – agreed IoT standards – has never been more urgent.

 

Getting data to speak in one language

At the heart of the problem is the fact that while cities collect increasingly significant amounts of data, it is rarely effectively leveraged because of the challenges in interpreting data models and utilising the data across platforms.

 

Imagine if it was possible to create some kind of framework that allowed all kinds of ‘things’ – whether that be people, city boundaries, buildings, rooms, cars, equipment, and so on – to be readily referenced and described on their own terms, as well as in the context of how they relate to each other.

 

While cities collect increasingly significant amounts of data, it is rarely effectively leveraged because of the challenges in interpreting data models and utilising the data across platforms.

 

This is precisely the kind of framework that effective standards try to create. One emerging standard developed with this specific challenge in mind was recently published by ETSI (the European Telecommunications Standards Institute), whose ‘open, inclusive and collaborative environment supports the timely development, ratification and testing of globally applicable standards for ICT-enabled systems, applications and services’.

 

Where previously a smart city application such as smart parking might direct drivers to a parking lot with available parking spaces, this standard can take that further. Currently, where specific locations – a hospital car-park for example – might tag vehicles to create an in-built rule or association to improve usability (e.g. ‘car X belongs to Hospital X’, or ‘Hospital-X vehicles may use emergency services parking’), they tend to do so using proprietary metrics that makes them hard to share across new applications. And thus, a silo is created. Where a data-flow might reasonably contribute to ‘smart’ traffic flow for the whole area around this specific location, it simply (and, in this example, quite literally) can’t talk to its neighbours.

 

This is where the new ETSI standard comes in. It defines a specification for an Application Programming Interface (API) – referred to as the NGSI-LD API – which is designed to allow cross-domain sharing while respecting the need to facilitate restrictions based on privacy (GDPR), security or licensing concerns.

 

The NGSI-LD API will be used to ’glue together’ existing databases across the many city services for citizens.

 

"Smart cities will be the first ones to benefit from all this work,” explains Dr Lindsay Frost, Chairman of ETSI ISG CIM. She adds that the NGSI-LD API will be “used to ’glue together’ existing databases across the many city services for citizens."

 

This explains why the standard is already being referenced in numerous European Commission research and innovation programmes – such as the EIP-SCC-01 Lighthouse and the SynchroniCity projects, to name just two.

 

The work doesn’t end there, though. New use cases in smart agriculture and smart industry are already under development, Dr Frost says.

 

How does it work?

 

Firstly, this new specification defines a simple way to send or request data, using a serialisation format (JSON-LD) which is already very familiar to many software developers. This familiarity is deliberate, as it will help facilitate rapid adoption – developers won’t in most cases need to learn to use it.

 

Secondly, a critical functional feature is that the data, and its context (such as the meaning, relationships, source or licensing of that data, etc.), are transmitted together. This means that any inter-relationship between data, and data sets, is captured and usable.

 

Christophe Colinet, Vice-Chair of ETSI ISG CIM and smart city projects leader in Bordeaux, France explains, says that city representatives will have the opportunity to experiment with this new NGSI-LD very soon.

 

“Thanks to the Open Call launched in the framework of the H2020 Synchronicity Large Scale Pilot, we will provide data access to local start-ups. It will be the first implementation of NGSI-LD together with a oneM2M compliant smart city architecture!”, he said.

 

Another example of interoperability at a European level worth taking a look at is the development of a Core Vocabulary Handbook for EGovernment services.

 

Testing standards in practice

 

To drive adoption of these new standards and mechanisms, it is now essential to capture good use cases so that others can see the practical benefits.

 

Over the next six months, Future Cities Catapult will be gathering user feedback from users of ETSI Context Information Management standards as part of our Synchronicity pilot project. We aim to understand how standards are being used, and to identify the kind of benefits cities and organisations using them are seeing.

 

To drive adoption of these new standards and mechanisms, it is now essential to capture good use cases so that others can see the practical benefits.

 

However, what we’re seeing more and more is that the real (and perhaps counter-intuitive) key to success is this: don’t wait for perfection with standards. Just get going – start standardising, collaborate with standards makers and others in the community and then work to improve them.

 

Just as the ways in which we have all communicated with each other have evolved over millennia, so too will standards evolve as the things we make continue their own conversation in ever greater detail.

 

If you are interested in finding out more about how standards can help cities, get in touch with Gavin or visit the Future Cities website.

 

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