Open Sourcing the City

By Nexgen
January 7, 2015

As the Cities around the world gather speed in their efforts to gain efficiency and add services thorough ICT, the Open Source movement has not been ignored. The ever revolving cycle of shrinking budgets and increasing needs for services have put a sharp spot light on the total cost of ownership of technology and the flexibility of adding new features.

City tech managers have found that Open source has several benefits worth exploring. Not only are their able to deliver certain services to citizens at frankly ridiculously low cost structures but they are able to support policies of local employment and skills development. This is especially when allying Open Source to Cloud infrastructure and Open Data sets.

Open Data

In fact one of the biggest successes in the Smart City Open Source field has been the Open Data platform CKAN. Published by the Open Knowledge Foundation. By providing a simple and smart set of tools to help government entities publish data, CKAN has become the choice of cities and countries worldwide, over 160 up to the time of writing. While it could be argues that nothing that CKAN does is that revolutionary, the fact that it does it well and at the Majors favourite cost is. In a nutshell it can be set up in hours and allows government entities to gather and share data sets very quickly. Powerful components enable features that governments need, such as governance, and there are over 80 developers world wide working on improvements.

While CKAN is great at opening up data sets for citizens and companies to access, it does not per se enable any new applications or analysis with that data. Enter big data stalwart Hadoop and its younger sibling Spark. These revolutionary Open Source systems have enabled companies, and now cities, to reduce the cost of storing data by at least a third and consequently brought a host of new possibilities. These include storing so much data that new possibilities evolve, such as the ability of predict when citizens need services in real time.

Big Data

Cities can now also link data sets from different silos to better view the city and provide new services. For example mixing data from roads, police and energy systems to better manage day to day congestion and plan development. Even further, once enough historic and real time data can be stored together, prediction can develop and allow truly amazing levels of service for citizens. Services are now evolving that predict where citizens are going to require them, before they know themselves. From busses showing up where people are waiting for them to ambulances being in the right place for emergencies, prediction is the next level of service offering. Its powered by big data and the heart of that is Hadoop. While the latter is technically Open Source, most cities today will benefit from it thorough commercial systems that integrate it and provide powerful analytics and applications on top of its power.

Fast Data

One of the new sources of data that will benefit from the aggregation and storage power of Hadoop is the world of Internet of Things. Cities are deploying sensors, setting up wireless networks and supporting wearables which all add up to an enormous amount of data. The rationale for IOT in cities is spreading to every type of service provided to citizens, from traffic to energy to health. All of this is generating huge volumes of data, data which is in bite sizes but very frequent, as well as creating complication in deployment and control. Cities have banded together with Open Source partners to tackle some of these issues with products such as Sentilo. This multi faceted system allows cities to manage, monitor and analyze their sensors centrally, as well as enabling the storage of that data in, you guessed it, Hadoop, for deep analysis.

Of course all these Open Source systems have to run somewhere and be run by someone. As mentioned Cloud hosting is a strong ally as it provides the ability to quickly and cheaply host Open Source and other systems, while reducing the need for manpower to manage them. The next step of Software as a Service is even more useful to cities as all the set up, configuration and management of the system is done by the cloud provider. For example, multiple Hadoop based Data as a Service solutions have sprung up, where cities pay low monthly fees for storing large amounts of data. The fees are all the more economic because the software itself is free. Nor are Open Source systems being used exclusively on their own. Many commercial solution include Hadoop, CKAN is taking data from traditional databases and Sentilo works with commercial sensors.

So while Open Source is not without cost, it has been a method for cities to control budgets while providing new services and develop the local economy.