Analysis: A flexible and granular approach to data is needed in the move to harness IoT technology for better integrated towns and cities
Smart places need smart data. It's nothing new to point out that it will only be possible to build more efficient and comfortable environments if the data flows effectively in real time between all the connected devices in the urban – or county-wide or regional – machine.
It provided one of the main talking points at last week's Smart to Future Cities and Urban IoT conference. Contributions from local authorities including the London Borough of Greenwich, Bristol City Council and Oxfordshire County Council, and even the City of Copenhagen, highlighted how the potential of the technology is developing, but kept coming back to the importance of getting the data right.
A handful of needs emerged, one of them familiar from long standing conversations about the more everyday plans for government IT – to break down silos and reduce the friction in the exchange of data.
There have been efforts to build momentum, the most high profile being the London Datastore, but they are still at the experimental stage and serve a limited number of pioneers rather than an ecosystem of service providers. The example of a more ambitious project in Copenhagen with its City Data Exchange could provide a beacon for UK authorities, but it might take a couple of years of waiting to see what it can do before anyone uses it as a precedent.
Private sector place
One element of the Copenhagen project points to another requirement – to pull in a substantial amount of data from the private sector. There is a selling point to commercial service providers when they get as much from the exchange as the public sector, and there are already efforts to pull transport and utilities companies into the loop.
But what if public authorities want to extend it to retail, leisure, construction, haulage or any other industry? Are they going to be as ready to play ball with information they might see as commercially sensitive?
It might be that the words 'open data', sometimes seen as a prerequisite for smart cities, act as a frightener. In response, there could be agreements that some data remains closed within the loop, serving the specific purpose of supporting technology functions but not becoming available for wider re-use.
Then comes the need for a highly granular approach in the management of the data to make it relevant to specific challenges. If it flows into a data exchange only specific details, broken down into small geographic areas, need to flow out to support a function. These are likely to be for factors that can vary widely – such as traffic flows, footfall, temperatures, rainfall, carbon emissions and energy usage – and it is going to need standards that provide consistency while accommodating their variability.
On top of this is the fact that sometimes the data will have to move between authorities. Controlling a traffic flow is the obvious case, but it could affect pedestrian movements in built-up areas on the borders between authorities. This is going to require a mechanism for the exchange of real time data between exchanges.
It is a highly complex business in which none of the influencing factors will be fixed, as developments in the internet of things – the connected devices that provide and act on the data – and the understanding of the dynamics of a smart city unfolds. There would be a danger that a rigid model could soon become irrelevant.
It also needs to take into account that it's not just about cities; the technology can make as big a contribution to the better functioning of smaller urban and rural areas. There is a case, argued by some in local government, that the effort should be focused on smart places rather than smart cities.
It needs a framework for the collection, management and distribution of the data, taking in the technical standards and governance issues. It could be stronger if it is allowed to evolve, and continue evolving, than developed as a fixed model to stay in place for a decade or two. It shouldn't be beyond the capabilities of a grouping of organisations, with public and private sector input, to create and manage the framework.
Remembering, of course, that the point of all is this is to improve the integration between the different management functions of an area and make it more agreeable place to live.
Picture: Salford Quays by Zuzanne Neziri, modified, CC BY 2.0 through Flickr