How APIs Are Driving Smart Cities

How APIs Are Driving Smart Cities- Nordic APIs

Application programming interfaces (APIs) are running your smart city. The bicycle rental system that suggests the best route. The city-wide FixIt app that can be used to send photographic proof of that painful pothole. The sensor at that dang traffic light that leads to that unhappy notice a week later. Your city’s 311 system. Nearly everything your town council is enacting in an effort to become a smarter, more technologically savvy city involves APIs working from behind the scenes.

But future smart cities aren’t just about being the most high-tech; they’re much more about being the most clever.

Iemke Idsingh of Oracle’s Smart City Platform believes a truly smart city is one that maximizes on existing resources. According to Idsingh, the “resources are already there—you’ve already paid for it, so you better make use of it.”

As we look to open up APIs to connect citizen-focused products and services, what should we be concentrating on?

Speaking at the 2014 Smart City Expo in Barcelona, Idsignh said that developers and government officials working together to design a smart city should envision a city-wide nervous system. “Sense what is happening from humans, sensors, and businesses. Sharing responsibilities.” Sentient infrastructures should maximize on existing data that is going unused.

Smart cities are lean, re-innovating with collaboration and shared responsibilities. “Budget constraints more and more drive collaboration, harmonization and modernization,” Idsignh continued, “and social networks allow citizens to engage again, tapping into each other’s creativity.” The public sector must work with the private in developing and utilizing sensors plugged into the Internet of Things (IoT).

As cities are naturally unpredictable environments, the interconnectivity of APIs enable cities and citizens to predict and plan again.

What Defines a Smart City?

Possibly much broader than even trying to define what the Internet of Things is, a smart city is one that looks to use technology to make a city more affordable and more livable. A smart city can improve upon:

  • public transit
  • waste management
  • power generation and lighting
  • safety and security
  • parking
  • aesthetics such as fountains
  • building management
  • environmental factors
  • border control
  • tourism…among countless other areas.

No matter what factors contribute to a smart city, APIs that are creating the interoperability to connect them all. Because of the massive amounts of data being generated and shared across functions and departments via these APIs, smart cities are becoming more evidence-based, and collected urban data is beginning to influence policy decisions.

As lean governance shakes the city life, a smart city must be focused on preparedness instead of plans, balancing interests instead of control.

Katya Serova, vice president of the Russia-based Habidatum International spontaneous urban data software, described the new urban tech revolution as “A new culture of looking at the city not as a territory but as a space-time object that needs reaction,” following citizens with real-time data.

Smart cities are based on lean planning in design and development too. Smart cities are agile. The interoperability of APIs enables real-time data that can reduce four or five-year plans to four or five-week plans.

And smart cities are inherently mobile cities.

The common spine for the security, safety and functionality of a smart city is often the sensors, but, as Donald Clark of Schneider Electric pointed out, where these aren’t installed, “the best sensor is a person with their mobile.”

For that to be viable, all APIs, applications, and services designed for the smart city must be geolocated and integrated across functions. This empowers citizens to be consistently active in the government.

APIs Break Down Silos in the Smart City

Besides the typical bureaucratic barriers that come with enacting any widespread change, perhaps the greatest challenge facing aspiring smart cities is that so much of the data is in silos, walling off collaboration.

Amr Salem, a planner of Cisco’s Internet of Things Forum, believes these silos should be broken down to integrate services between agencies. Salem argued this must be done with a “change to infrastructure first, deconstructing the nature of the multiple silos.” For example, a sensor being used for traffic control should also be used to deliver data to a security center.

He further recommends that cities should open up this data to start-ups and corporations in order to fuel local economic, social, and environmental industry.

“In actuality, people don’t want more data, they want more answers…actionable insights.” According to Salem, data silos have to be broken down in a way that privileges smart analytics to encourage innovation.

The Citizen, Not the Government, Should Be at the Center of Smart City Design

As we’ve written about before, there are seven necessary questions to ask when designing an API with the human being in mind. These parameters are even more crucial when designing an API for a smart city and its citizens:

  1. Is the API Useful?
  2. Is the API Usable?
  3. Is the API Desirable?
  4. Is the API Discoverable?
  5. Is the API Accessible?
  6. Is the API Credible?
  7. Is the API Valuable?

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology MIT’s SENSEable City Lab is focused on creating a flexible and accessible API for sensors in cities. Carlo Ratti, the lab’s director, believes that connector modules are critical for developing a platform that utilizes many different types of real-time data. In order to accomplish this, APIs must be structured with easy usability in mind. “API development is aimed at enabling a data query mechanism that allows users with little programming experience to easily tap the data pool brought together on the platform,” Ratti said.

The Smart City Isn’t Just About Connectivity, It’s About Functionality

Connectivity is an enabler but not a necessity for a smart city. Functionality is the citizen who is empowered by and whose life is improved by the Internet of Things,” said Clark. Creating and implementing the Internet of Things isn’t just about building a brand; it’s about tying everything together with not only vertical but horizontal integrations.

Clark compares a smart city to the human body—every part is suited for a purpose in symbiosis. The heart must be able to function on its own, but, if the heart stops, the brain is immediately notified. If any information is delayed, the system as a whole fails. A perfect analogy to the need for real-time data exchange in a smart urban environment.

For an ecosystem to prosper, each contributing technology must be designed with low-level interoperability in mind. Clark offers the example of a barcode on a can. From the supply chain, to the vendor, and to the moment a clerk swipes it at checkout, every barcode scan is seamlessly repurposed and integrated with larger systems.

City-wide IoT Requires Open and Shared Resources

Rather than reinvent the Internet, a common technique for implementing IoT is for cities to publish on repository hosting services and open data resources, allowing other public departments, private entities, and even citizens to access and build on each city’s APIs. This is exactly what the City of Philadelphia is doing.

Philadelphia stakes claim to being the largest government user of GitHub, publishing all their open data, and even selectively contracting external developers under the condition they will publish their source code.

Tim Wisnieswski, chief of the data office for Philadelphia, said that following this practice “allows us to build cheaper and quicker.” Rather than increase economic competition, Wisnieswki believes this helps foster a collaborative spirit.

Smart Cities Collaborate With Each Other to Save Time and Money

Smart cities aren’t racing other cities to create the bigger, better, or faster product. Rather, API-enabled data exchange between cities is recognized by many as a much easier and faster route to mutually prove success, replicate, and enact new advancements. Platforms are popping up around the world to enable cities to do just that.

Bart Rousseu, from the administration of Belgium’s second largest city Ghent, admits that “As a city, as a government, we’re not used to getting free consulting, but these networks” of cities sharing information help. 50 percent of Rousseu’s job is simply getting people on board with new technologies. However, with cities and even countries working together to share data and statistics, its easier to convince lawmakers of the value to be had in modernizing their cities.

Collaborating across borders, cities gain access to a wider resource pool. The open distribution of costs, failures, and successes associated with city-wide technological adoption could dramatically reduce the cost and development time for new smart cities across the globe.

CitySDK Looks to Use APIs to Connect E.U. Cities and Citizens

The City Service Development Kit (CitySDK), co-funded by the European Union, is an initiative to increase smart city development. The group is implementing solutions for Lisbon, Helsinki, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Manchester, Istanbul, Lamia, and Rome, and welcomes the participation of other cities.

Though an intergovernmental program, CitySDK welcomes private and corporate developers to participate as well, as interested developers often have apps that “could easily be redeveloped for other cities—if cities were more interoperable.”

CitySDK aims to enable API interoperability, pushing for common interfaces and data sets in similar formats. This is being done by establishing:

  • various European city uniform APIs
  • relevant data sources for smart participation, smart mobility and smart tourism
  • expansive markets that require only minimum adoption of apps in order to function
  • easy-to-use APIs
  • helpful resources such as code libraries, SDKs, apps, and platforms
  • consolidated knowledge and experience through a global CitySDK developer community

There are three main APIs that the CitySDK is focusing on:

  • Open311 API: Allows citizens to send service requests to city’s feedback system. XML and JSON formats can be used.
  • Linked Data API: For transport, mobility and geographical data. Returns JSON, JSON-LD, Geo-JSON and RDF/Turtle.
  • Tourism API: A RESTful location-based mobile service for tourists.

According to Amsterdam’s representative for CitySDK Wouter Meys, “collaboration isn’t something extra but it should be simply a best business practice,” encouraging city governments to “collaborate like startups.”

Will API Collaboration Ultimately Produce Smarter Cities?

Only time will tell if future smart cities are the successful results of current efforts toward intergovernmental collaboration by groups such as CitySDK. What we do know is that when cities, businesses, and especially citizens open up APIs, they open up collaboration that drives innovation, and, only with innovation do smarter cities have a chance to arise.

Are you involved? How are you opening up your API to be included in the next generation of smart cities? Tell us below!