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Why open standards are the key to truly smart cities

Smart cities require information to flow freely between systems and cities. This will only happen when multiple vendors adopt open standards, says Dr Michelle Supper, The Open Group.

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The challenges of the 21st century are often felt most acutely in the urban environment. Climate change has increased the risk of flooding, fire and drought. Industrial pollution and gridlocked roads threaten the health of city dwellers, and waves of migration triggered by international conflict have accelerated the growth of already burgeoning urban populations.

 

Despite these pressures, the populations of cities continue to increase. There are already around 400 cities with populations exceeding 1 million and, according to a 2016 study by the United Nations, 60 per cent of the world’s population will live in cities by 2030.

 

Informing cities

 

Good cities try to provide their inhabitants with decent living conditions, easy mobility and a clean, safe and hospitable environment. Whether delivered by private actors or public bodies, each of these services should be provided as cost-efficiently as possible to reduce the tax burden on citizens. However, with poor data, this is not always easy.

 

The data available in a traditional city is often fragmented, inconsistent and incomplete. This makes it hard to detect emerging trends, and almost impossible see the big picture. As a result, large-scale strategic planning becomes extraordinarily difficult, and civic leaders have little choice but to maintain the status quo and react to emergencies as they arise.

 

The data available in a traditional city is often fragmented, inconsistent and incomplete. This makes it hard to detect emerging trends, and almost impossible see the big picture.

 

By contrast, in a smart city, electronic sensors are carefully deployed to collect specific data.

 

When connected, these sensors form an Internet of Things (IoT), which provides a steady stream of high-resolution data to city leaders. Data synthesis can then be performed, in which datasets are analysed and overlaid to gain new insights into conditions and behaviours within the city.

 

Armed with this information, city leaders can make better decisions, act pre-emptively to reduce risk, and manage assets and resources more efficiently.

 

Data in action

 

The bIoTope smart city project is part of the biggest European Union Research and Innovation Programme ever, the Horizon 2020 Programme. With nearly €80 billion of funding available over seven years (2014 to 2020) in addition to private investments, Horizon 2020 is exploring ways to move innovative ideas from the lab to the market in order to secure Europe’s future global competitiveness.

 

In collaboration with several partners, including The Open Group, academic institutions and industry players, bIoTope is running a series of cross-domain smart city pilot projects which will provide proofs-of-concept for a wide range of applications, including smart metering, smart lighting, weather monitoring, and the management of shared electric vehicles.

 

These projects will reveal the benefits that can be realised through the use of IoT technology, such as greater interoperability between smart city systems. They will also deliver a much-needed framework for security, privacy and trust to facilitate responsible access to, and ownership of, data on the IoT.

 

Ultimately, bIoTope will deploy smart city pilots in Brussels, Lyon, Helsinki, Melbourne and Saint Petersburg. It is hoped that these pilot schemes will showcase the sustainable business ecosystems that will generate value to end users, solution providers, municipalities and other stakeholders.

 

The role of standards in smart cities

 

There are several open technology standards already in existence that will play a vital role in the success of smart cities. These standards enable the free flow of information and support the convergence of emerging technologies within a single digital platform.

 

Two standards which were specifically developed for the IoT by The Open Platform 3.0 Forum of

The Open Group are the Open Messaging Interface (O-MI) and the Open Data Format (O-DF), and these have already been adopted and deployed extensively by the bIoTope project. Not only has bIoTope provided an excellent opportunity to demonstrate, improve and validate the O-MI and O-DF standards, but it has also resulted in their integration within deployable smart city solutions.

 

The use of open, non-proprietary standards will be essential to the future success of smart cities. The reason for this becomes obvious when one considers a future state in which smart cities are the norm rather than the exception, and electric autonomous vehicles are in common use.

 

Consider an autonomous vehicle taking a smart citizen to an office building. Having delivered its passenger, the vehicle would then connect to the city’s IoT, and communicate with the local facilities to find and select a parking space and charging point. On the way to the parking space, the vehicle may access the city’s weather monitoring and traffic light systems, to exchange information on factors such as safety or road conditions.

 

Interoperability – the next frontier

 

These interactions can happen only if the various systems can communicate seamlessly with each other. Without an agreed standard for data formatting and messaging structures between the system manufacturers, it is unlikely that such interoperability would be possible.

 

The issue of interoperability also extends beyond the city boundaries. What if the leaders in your city decide to install a proprietary technology stack that is incompatible with the systems in a neighbouring city?

 

The issue of interoperability also extends beyond the city boundaries. What if the leaders in your city decide to install a proprietary technology stack that is incompatible with the systems in a neighbouring city? Even if your autonomous vehicle were perfectly attuned to work with all of the smart sensors in your city, it might not be able to communicate with those in the city down the road.

 

To avoid such awkward situations, and to maintain competition between the commercial providers of smart city services, vendor lock-in needs to be avoided as far as possible. The use of open standards such as O-MI and O-DF to provide service interoperability is an essential market enabler for smart cities because only these can provide the structure and common language for vendor-neutral conformance.

 

As the bIoTope project is demonstrating, the era of smart cities is upon us. The potential efficiency savings available through the automation of individual processes, or the development of the IoT in single cities, are obvious. If we restrict our sights, though, we will miss the point.

 

Only when multiple vendors adopt open standards will information flow freely between systems and cities, providing the interoperability that we all desire. Essentially, the urban planners will have to work alongside the enterprise architects, and with the co-operation of major industry players, academics, and standards bodies, we will be able to ensure a smooth transition to the smart cities of the future.

 

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