What to do with all that data?
By definition, the smart city is data-driven, informed by a vast array of sensors and information inputs that together help planners make informed civic decisions. But data comes with a price. Not every city is able to bear the load of storage and processing that a smart-city infrastructure demands.
“With a thing like this, you can be getting terabytes of data every day, and cities just don’t have that kind of space lying around,” said Bob Bennett, chief innovation officer in Kansas City, Mo., which is in the midst of implementing an extensive smart cities deployment.
Bennett has turned to Cisco for help in organizing and managing the city’s anticipated data deluge. That company recently unveiled a pay-as-you-go cloud platform designed to help municipalities manage the data side of their smart city efforts.
The platform acts foremost as a gathering point for data from disparate sources, pulling together information from third-party sensors, street cameras and other connected systems. Cisco expects to see some 20 billion such devices deployed in cities in the coming decade.
“A lot of sensors and devices already are being connected. Parking spots, lighting controls, traffic controls, security — there are lots of these being networked,” said Munish Khetrapal, Cisco’s managing director of smart cities and IoT.
While a networked IoT infrastructure may be a good start for a smart city, it is only a start. “It’s not just about having the data,” he said. “It’s about having the real-time data. If I can respond to an emergency situation two minutes faster because I know exactly what happened and where it occurred, I can potentially save a bunch of lives.”
For today’s sensor inputs to drive such a scenario, city planners have to be able to access and share that information readily. That can be difficult to achieve, as many smart-city implementations operate in technology silos, differentiated by function and often non-interoperable.
“There is a lack of common data and information-sharing across these sensors,” Khetrapal said. A city may have traffic sensors, for example, and may even have detection systems to track parking availability. But the two don’t always mesh, “and if you are a small city with 5,000 parking spots, you don’t want to spend a million or a million and a half dollars on integration.”
Cisco tackles the problem first by pre-certifying sensors and normalizing the data within a given city’s infrastructure. “This way, if you are in the parking world, it doesn’t matter whether it is a video parking sensor or a magnetic sensor. All the system needs to know is that the parking spot is taken or it is not taken. We abstract out that complexity,” Khetrapal said.
In this more generic form, data can be readily shared through secure APIs. “The traffic department owns its data, and can give that information to the parking agency, if it wants to,” he said. “So you can have a bunch of applications sharing that data, without interrupting the flow of data. We can all share what we are doing, but within a secure ecosystem.”
Cisco has announced a number of early users of its cloud platform including Kansas City; Copenhagen, Denmark; Adelaide, Australia; and Jaipur, India.
Smart city analysts have lauded the platform approach as a necessary response to the growing complexity of IoT in the smart city.
As cities move beyond silos into broader-based activities, “the need for middleware enabler platforms becomes greater,” according to IT analysts at Beecham Research. In the analysts' view, “a holistic approach to the smart city requires an IoT platform able to manage different technologies and devices, and enable different applications and services for different systems of the city.”
BCC Research predicts the global market for such IoT platforms will likely grow from $629 million in 2016 to over $2.3 billion by 2021.
One advantage to an IoT platform is that it allows smart-city elements to be implemented in a limited way and then expanded over time.
“There are cities that want to do it in bits and pieces: I want to do a one-mile radius, or I want to just do traffic,” Khetrapal said. A platform that enables data interoperability opens the door to incremental implementations. “You can start with parking or lighting or crowd management. It doesn’t matter. Start small, but be ready to look at the larger scale.”
Looking ahead, Kansas City planners aim to take the platform’s data-management capabilities and eventually leverage them through the use of its own data analytics tools, presently in development.
“Right now it processes all our sensors, which gives us the ability to take the pulse of the city without having to have people literally sitting out on the streets counting people and cars,” Bennett said. “This will allow us to translate multiple sources of data: the stuff we are getting off the sensors, plus the stuff we already have and the stuff that is commercially available through APIs. All that together will allow us to be more proactive in the positioning of city services.”