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Columbus Issues RFP for the Operating System to Run its Smart City Systems

The RFP is the first step for the city in finding a partner that can “design, build, test and implement” the “backbone” operating system.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the timing and amount of the Smart City Challenge grant.

The brains behind any great device or process generally rest on a great operating system.

Officials involved in Columbus, Ohio’s nationally-watched smart city initiative are moving forward with developing an operating system to support an ambitious coterie of applications to improve mobility, citizen engagement and equity for all the city’s residents.

“We see this as the backbone and the heart of the Smart Columbus portfolio of projects,” said Brandi Braun, Columbus' deputy innovation officer.

The city has issued an RFP to procure services to “design, build, test and implement” the operating system.

Submissions are due Feb. 13. The city will then score the proposals and make a recommendation to the city council. The consultant is expected to be on board by April or May.

“The (Smart Columbus Operating System) is envisioned as the data ‘spine’ of Columbus’ mobility initiatives,” said Jennifer Fening, senior manager of marketing communications for Smart Columbus. “The SCOS will capture mobility data — traffic, weather, parking, street closures and more — and make that data accessible to technologists within the city as well as the tech and startup communities.”

In 2016, Columbus was named the recipient of $50 million in grant money tied to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge. The windfall brought with it some $90 million from local businesses and a sizable portfolio of hardware, software and support services from technology companies. The initiative puts Columbus at the forefront of a groundswell of smart city developments ranging from growing the adoption of electric and autonomous vehicles, revamping mass transit into a more multimodal experience and improving commercial truck traffic through the city.

“All of the projects being developed out of the DOT grant require data,” Braun pointed out. “And they all give up data. And so all that information — all that data — needs to be ingested and stored somewhere so that it can be used.”

That will involve setting up a lot of data-sharing capacity.

“We want to design and build this in a way so that it’s scalable in the future,” she said. “So we want this to be the data platform for other city departments. We want this to eventually be the data platform hopefully for other sectors, whether it’s private or non-profit.”

Those who develop the operating system will not be starting at zero. At the end of December, the city wrapped up work on a data feed system. The city will release the system this month to app developers, who will review the data and offer feedback related to the various applications it could have.

“What this team will do is continue to work on that first iteration and grow it in a way to support the grant project,” said Braun.

One of those data feeds is related to information about the size and location of bridges and overpasses. That could enable large trucks to plan their routes based on what overhead obstacles they can fit under.

Another data feed is related to road closures and special events.

“We have a couple different departments that can close roads; public safety and recreation and parks, for various reasons,” said Braun. “And we want that data to feed into our operating system so that it can be used by our traffic management center.”

Selecting an IT services firm is a key step in Columbus’ march toward fulfilling its smart city aims.

“This has been very exciting, because for the last 18 months we’ve been spending a lot of time doing end-user engagement on the project, developing a program management plan,” Braun said. “So this (is) our first big procurement for something that will be public facing.”

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.