Can Cities Talk ?

Can cities talk ?

It has been a couple of months since my last post – but I think I have a good reason. As many of you know I recently took on the CEO role at a company called Streetline Inc. Going into any new company takes its time and effort and hence the delayed posts. But here I am again – for better or worse !

So lets get to it. My “Right Question”. Can cities talk ?  Well first what do I mean by that.  I am talking about the exciting world of sensors aka “internet of things”, aka “smart grid”, aka “rfid tags” and the list goes on.  Sensor are a normal part of our every day existence.  We have sensors in cars, washing machines, phones, planes, elevators, machinery etc.  Sensors provide a pretty basic service – they “sense”.  What they sense can vary – it can be movement, temperature, magnetic level, pollution, and again the list goes on.

Over the years sensors have become more sophisticated and have had a significant impact on how we work and live.  In the 1990’s a movement began called the “Internet of Things”.  Started by the Auto ID Center (originally based in MIT) the idea was to create a network of objects that can talk to each other and to the internet.  This concept and its offshoots have continued to gain speed.  Originally there was a lot of excitement around RFID tags that could project object information and could be tracked through the supply chain, into supermarkets and even into your home.   So it is clear that we are now living in a world where objects are talking to each other and to us.

However, over these past years the proliferation of sensor technology has had its ups and downs – technology challenges, adoption issues, some times privacy concerns and many times a lack of focus on creating true economic value for stakeholders. Over the last 3-5 years though there has been a resurgence of sensor based technology popping up in areas where its potential impact is massive.

One area area that has gotten a lot of attention recently is the “Smart Grid”.  Essentially utility companies with the help of innovative start ups are starting to deploy sensors at electricity and gas meters, along the grid and even down to your appliances in your kitchen.  The primary purpose of this investment is to generate data or information. This information can then be used by consumers, utilities and companies to manage a “smarter grid”.  There are some exciting companies in this space – here are just a few you can look at for more information: Silver Spring Networks, eMeter, Tendril etc.

So now lets talk about cities – and specifically “Smart Cities”.  Well first question is how does a city become a “smart city”.  As usual when in doubt go to Wikipedia (I do it more so that we don’t have to waste time on definitions !)

“Smart cities can be identified (and ranked) along six main axes or dimensions. These axes are: a smart economy; smart mobility; a smart environment; smart people; smart living; and, finally, smart governance. These six axes connect with traditional regional and neoclassical theories of urban growth and development. In particular, the axes are based – respectively – on theories of regional competitiveness, transport and ICT economics, natural resources, human and social capital, quality of life, and participation of citizens in the governance of cities.

A city can be defined as ‘smart’ when investments in human and social capital and traditional (transport) and modern (ICT) communication infrastructure fuel sustainable economic development and a high quality of life, with a wise management of natural resources, through participatory governance”

That is a long and somewhat complicated definition – but does capture the essence of a “smart city”.   So here is the rub.  For any of the six dimensions we need one vital component – data/information.  How do you know if you have smart mobility or a smart environment if you cannot measure it and gather data.

So many of the smart city activities depends on two vital components – new sources of data that inform us and software that collects this data and allows us to make smarter, quicker and more informed decisions.

There is some great information and thought leadership from IBM on this topic. I have found IBM to have the most comprehensive vision and plan around their  Smart City initiatives – it leverages the use of sensors (both human and electronic), data and software to bring amazing new solutions to bear on the parts of the world that are growing the fastest and will pose the biggest challenge of our time – our cities.

So in order for a city to be smarter – it has to talk to us – it has to provide us new types of data so that we can better manage it. Let me use Streetline as a great example of a new technology that is helping cities talk to us (yes I know I am promoting my own company – but I know its technology and can talk about it in context).

Not smart parking !

Streetline is the leader in deploying ultra low power mesh sensor networks.  The idea is that these mesh networks can deploy sensors that allow a city to provide amazing new sources of data and information.  Our first focus area has been around smart parking.  Over 3o% of the traffic in a city is caused by people looking for parking – I am sure you have personally experienced this.  Streetline has developed a parking sensor that gets installed at every parking spot. Together with meter sensors we now have real time access to both parking payment information and vehicle presence information.  This is just the first step – in the future we hope to deploy sensors to monitor traffic, water pressure in fire hydrants, and to keep a real time track of if street lamps are working (when you have 50,000 + street lamps the saving potential is significant). All of these sensors provide real time data that can change the way a city operates.  This video by Good illustrates this concept much better than I can.

I will be writing more about this topic in the weeks ahead. We are entering a new phase of the “internet of things” where the technology is getting cheaper and better and the software (both web and mobile) is getting more sophisticated and easy to use.  I predict we will see a revolution in smart city technology over the next 5-10 years.

S0 yes I do think cities can talk and they can give us amazing new types of information that will change how we work and live.

As always your thoughtful comments and input are welcome.
Zia

Advertisements

Open Government – are Data.Gov and Apps.Gov delivering on their promise ?

There is certainly a long list of challenges facing the Obama administration – the economy, healthcare, and two wars just to name a few.  Regardless of your politics, I think there is one aspect of the Administration’s efforts that require further discussion and exploration.  On his first day in office President Obama signed the Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government.  The memorandum outlined a commitment to “creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government…” It promised to “ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration.”  My intent in this post is not to have a broader discussion on the topic of the Administration’s openness, but rather to explore two very specific components of that pledge – the launch of Data.Gov and Apps.Gov

As part of his focus on technology as a key driver of government effectiveness, openness and efficiency President Obama appointed two impressive and accomplished executives to lead this effort:   Vivek Kundra (Federal CIO) and Aneesh Chopra (Federal CTO).  I have had the privilege of meeting and talking to both Vivek and Aneesh and have been impressed with their plans to leverage technology, especially Web 2.0 and Social Media, to provide enhanced services to citizens.  Data.Gov and Apps.Gov are two important components of that effort.

Data.Gov was launched in 2009.  The stated objective of Data.Gov is to” increase public access to high value, machine readable datasets generated by the Executive Branch of the Federal Government.”  Data.Gov provides three kinds of data catalogs.  “Raw” Data Catalog: a catalog with instant view/download of platform-independent, machine readable data (e.g., XML, CSV, KMZ/KML, or shape file formats).  Tools Catalog: a catalog to provide the public with simple, application-driven access to Federal data with hyperlinks. This catalog features widgets, data mining and extraction tools, applications, and other services. Geodata Catalog:  a catalog that includes trusted and authoritative Federal geospatial data. This catalog includes links to download the datasets and a metadata page with details on the datasets, as well as links to more detailed Federal Geographic Data Committee (FGDC) metadata information. (source: data.gov faq)

Currently the data set includes 1,078 Raw Data, 484 Tools and 167,394 Geodata records.   A review of the data currently available” by Agency” provides some interesting insight.  The US EPA had 6,151 downloads of data the week prior to Feb 8th, 2010.  The Department of the Interior and the US Treasury came in second and third with 4,352 and 4,079 downloads,  respectively.  The US EPA also had the most raw data sets at 426 while the lowest number of data sets came from the US Consumer Product Safety Commission at zero (yes that is zero – somehow this made me a little nervous !).

The US Government and its many agencies produce massive amounts of data each year.  By providing academics, researchers and companies access to this data we may enable  individual researcher to find a cure for cancer or a college department to discover a weather pattern that can prevent natural disasters.  This is the power of open access to data – for the people, by the people !

Apps.Gov  is a very interesting and potentially powerful initiative.   Essentially this is a private cloud for the US Government.   Managed by the General Services Administration (GSA), Apps.Gov includes Business Apps, Productivity Apps, Social Media Apps and Cloud IT Services. The platform/exchange is similar to other successful private sector application exchanges such as the  SAP EcoHub , the Salesforce AppExchange and of course the  Apple Iphone App Store.

Apps.Gov provides government agencies a single marketplace to buy and use a broad range of applications.  In the Business Apps section for example  HP has 526 solutions listed, Microsoft has 65, VMWare has 716 and Salesforce has 67.  Several other companies have multiple solutions available.  Apps.Gov could have a profound impact on how the US Government buys and consumes software. 

So here is the Right Question:  Have data.gov and apps.gov delivered on their promise of fostering an open, efficient and effective government ?   Are they on the right track and what would you do different ?

I would welcome your views and opinions and especially your stories if you have used data from these sites or have any other experience related to this effort.

Thanks.

Zia.

Photo Credit: Ian-s

%d bloggers like this: