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Open data, the underpinning of the internet of things

Although the concept of smart cities is relatively new, it has jumped into the forefront of the conversation about future urban environments. Last year, the United Nations predicted that two-thirds of the world’s population will live in a city by 2030. With this growth and innovation across all sectors constantly expanding, it is critical that cities stay tuned to society’s evolving needs. It’s no longer common in many places to carry a paper map or even pick up a newspaper that was left at the bottom of the driveway. Instead, urban residents expect to be linked to their cities and fellow citizens through convenient applications, technological innovation and the connectivity of IoT in order to accomplish their daily routines.

Promoting innovation and idea development is key to becoming a smart city but needs to begin with opening up data for public access. For example, allowing access to current bus location data would allow developers to create apps that alert users when buses are nearby. With an open data policy, cities are able to join the smart city movement that integrates technology and information into the heart of urban development.

This data-first approach has been the defining factor driving cities to become smarter and more innovative environments. According to the Sunlight Foundation, the five largest American cities — Chicago, New York City, Los Angeles, Houston and Philadelphia — allow public access to data and have only continued to grow as exemplary smart cities.

New York City achieves this by encouraging organizations to innovate new ideas, ultimately contributing to the city’s evolution into a smart city. Projects like the Displacement Alert Project by the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development uses open data to create a web visualization of neighborhood and residential building conditions to increase awareness about the affordable housing crisis and to locate areas of severe displacement pressures. As shown by this app, open data provides New York with the capability to address issues like threats against the well-being of its residents and helps to simplify solutions, furthering the smart city efforts.

Hoping to capitalize on the benefits of open data in a similar way, universal access to data aided in Boston’s development of the BOS:311 app, which allows residents to report non-emergencies to the Constituent Service Center, who then dispatches the appropriate agencies to the issue.

As New York and Boston both prove, connecting citizens to a smart city requires access across all sectors — and can only be accomplished with a data-first approach.

The internet of things further enables open data initiatives by providing granular and real-time data for innovations like air quality sensor, public transit location devices and disaster warning signals. Bridging the gap between the people and the city with comprehensive data allows for better monitoring of the behaviors and needs of the city’s citizens, and permits solutions that improve urban conditions and alleviate inconveniences.

Boston’s beta test of a new data portal that will trial a more user-friendly display of available data proves that making data comprehensive and easy to interpret is essential. In addition to creating a portal, cities also need to encourage agencies to leverage and share data. This involves ensuring data is available in a universally understood format, as Boston hopes to do with its new overhauled data system.

Promoting innovation is only made easier with usable data. For example, in 2013 New York’s Department of Transportation rolled out a new mode of transit with Citi Bike, a bike sharing system, just after New York joined the open data movement. Since then, several private sector companies have been using New York’s open data, hoping to develop an idea that would improve the Citi Bike model. Opening data of popular bike commutes has underscored the gaps in the Citi Bike system and is allowing innovators to fill those gaps. Companies like Spin and Mobike are weighing in with their own solutions and ideas for bike sharing, such as eliminating docking stations for an even easier commute.

Recently, the Department of Transportation emphasized the importance of urban technology by organizing the Smart City Challenge, in which cities were asked to propose plans that combined innovation and connectivity to win the funding necessary to execute. The winner, Columbus, Ohio, took on a large project proposing a new transportation system that included an autonomous shuttle system, a universal app for all transit modes and a data analytics plan. Giving the city’s tech scene a confidence boost, Columbus hopes that the grant will encourage businesses to innovate and contribute to development of technology that solves some imperfections in Columbus’ urbanity, illustrated through the public data.

In order to accommodate their citizens, cities must provide a technological ecosystem by capitalizing on the capabilities of IoT and innovation. Opening data up to the public promotes development in technology and problem solving by the public and private sectors, because it fosters idea development based on measurable problems in society. This will allow the process of becoming a smart city to take place organically and seamlessly.

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