Open Data Is The Key To Truly Smart Cities

The more open the data, the more smart the city


The concept of a smart city has changed considerably as technology has progressed. What was once simply having a city where WIFI connections were easy to find, has become a need to base entire infrastructures around data and new technologies.

It means that today's smart cities are something that many would not have been able to contemplate only five years ago and the capabilities of technology has created this new dynamic. Data sits at the centre of this technological revolution, with more technology creating increasingly complex and dynamic data that can then be used to further push savings and developments.

However, this data in isolation is useful only to the government organization or company that collects it, which in both cases is going to be self serving, either to improve their standing or profit margins. Opening up this data is what creates truly important changes within an environment.

These changes are going to become increasingly important in the coming years too as urban environments need to become smarter to deal with a rising population. In 2014, 54% of the world population were living in urban areas and this number is expected to go up by 1.84% until 2020. This kind of growth requires more than simply building more housing and infrastructure projects, it needs smart, data-driven management.

Opening up datasets creates opportunities for both residents of cities and commercial companies. A key example of this is Citymapper, which uses data created by TFL (London's transport network). It shows when trains, buses or trams are due, delays and congestion. This would have been impossible if TFL had kept this data to themselves, instead Citymapper is now estimated to be worth £250 million and TFL has estimated that this kind of smart use of their data saves as much as £116 million per year, all thanks to shared data.

Aside from public transport, Google have also used the proliferation of smartphones to improve the accuracy of their maps applications to create quicker and easier journeys for drivers. The data used comes from the Android phones, which send their location information back to Google and allows the company to see traffic congestion in real time. As the phones all contain GPS trackers it is easy for Google to crowdsource the buildup of phones in one area, which indicates congestion. This is then communicated back to the navigation app to both alleviate the existing congestion quicker and speed up the journeys of those using the roads.

Transport alone is not enough to create a smart city though, and the use of a more open data approach is going to have significant impacts across the board. A key to this is going to be in the ways that utility companies can see where infrastructure will be needed for the future thanks to usage data. Water, for instance, is not something that is necessarily simple to provide in huge amounts to new areas, but even more difficult is the maintenance of the millions of new pipes needed to supply the growing population. The Internet of Things is now being used to help, with sensors allowing companies to see where pipes are leaking or about to break and pre-emptive work can be done to both save water and prevent further damage to water systems.

An open data approach also allows other companies to minimize their water usage for things like agriculture, horticulture and maintenance. Data collected from smart water meters, sensors and meteorological data creates a richer data environment where targeted usage and considerable water saving can take place. This is necessary as Thames Water forecasts have shown that if nothing is done to reduce water demand, there will be a shortfall in the amount of water available by 2020. This shortfall will be 133 million liters per day, trebling to 414 million liters by 2040.

We are seeing many cities across the world opening up their data to help create smarter and more connected cities, with Chicago, London and Singapore being particularly good for this. The more we see successes like we have seen with Google maps and Citymapper, the more likely we are to see other companies and cities try to emulate this success and a further increase in open data will help to create this change. 

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