The importance of being open

By: | Updated: February 1, 2016 1:03 AM

The vision of tomorrow no longer features flying cars and jetpacks; instead, we see seamless digital connectivity spanning across one’s entire lifestyle.

The vision of tomorrow no longer features flying cars and jetpacks; instead, we see seamless digital connectivity spanning across one’s entire lifestyle. We imagine a world where one’s morning alarm is reset based on the time it will take him/her to reach work, taking in to account traffic conditions, where one calibrates his/her environmental impact on individual usage of natural resources so as to establish a balance between the two, where urban development will be measurably connected to factors such as surrounding water supply, impact on existing infrastructure and long-term forecasts of the city’s needs.

It’s clear then that at the core of the ‘smart city’ concept, lies its most significant currency—information. And thus, the difference between our now and our next will be how we use this information that is being copiously generated each time we take a digital step forward.

Tech is the game-changer

To understand how we can take definitive strides towards efficient data

usage requires us to first recognise technology as the backbone of a smart city. A smart city is one that uses ICT to improve the quality of urban services, be it traffic management, healthcare, infrastructure development and waste management. The government defines a smart city as “those cities which have intelligent social, physical, institutional and economic infrastructure while ensuring centrality of citizens in a sustainable environment. Its sustainability needs to offer economic activities, employment opportunities and quality of life to a wide section of its residents, regardless of their level of education, skills or income levels.” What sets a smart city apart is its ability to react intelligently. Professor Kirthi Ramamritham from IIT-Bombay explains this well: he says a smart city is one that senses, measures, analyses, and

responds in time.

To be this, mobile-based technologies must be pervasive and national infrastructure must be cloud-based. Automation must be the norm with all government-based activities using efficient digital platforms. With this level of connection, communication will be not only unified but truly in real-time, almost a 21st century utopia! To achieve this, however, the most fundamental criterion that we will have to fulfill is being fully connected.

It’s time to open up

Being connected means that we have to completely do away with data silos. Operating various activities separately and isolated from one another will not allow each of these to complement or benefit the other. This results in data fragmentation across various systems and hampers us from drawing valuable insights. To circumvent this, we need our many smart solutions to be connected and communicative. This solution is not a lofty one, especially given the fact that the data it generates, essentially, belongs to the people generating it, that is, you and me. Why then must it be locked up in vendor systems? Open data, it would appear, has the potential to create new value chains, encourage innovation and transparency, each of which is crucial to the sustainable functioning of a smart city. What we need is wider collaboration between government agencies, academia, private sector players, technology providers and citizens to build a solution based on certain standards via an open-source consortium for smart cities in India.

Why must the potential of tech be ‘unlocked’

The lack of an open source consortium for smart cities will render several key challenges that will directly impact our ability to “get smart.” The complexity of every city’s ecosystem plays a significant role in implementation of smart solutions. Service silos, for example, energy, parking, traffic management would lead to heterogeneous data formats and

inconsistent visualisation. Such user experience is akin to using many

“remote controls” simultaneously to operate different devices at a time.

Access to real-time and citizen generated data in a smart city is very critical since it will help city administrators to take informed policy decisions. A smart solution must make open data access as its first priority. However, this remains a big challenge and manifests itself to exponential level with diverse systems in different cities with data locked in proprietary solutions and vendor data centres.

Has it worked?

Though it is apparent that there is a need for a horizontal open platform that can address current challenges, the question that remains is: Can such a service delivery platform be created? And if yes, can it succeed? Yes, a scalable and secure platform that provides common services, based on open data standards, and ensures interoperability between services has positively impacted a city’s ability to respond.

Take for example the US’ famed

9-1-1 emergency contact. Its efficiency clearly elucidates the importance of open connections. When the distressed person/party calls 9-1-1, the mobile telecom operator immediately routes the call to a centralised 9-1-1 Call Centre. The operator also provides the location of the call. The 9-1-1 centre locates the call, and displays its location on a digital map. Based on this, the nearest vehicle is dispatched based on the type of emergency. Additionally, the updated location of caller is tracked throughout the incident.

The time is now

Based on our current digital trajectory, it is estimated that we are approximately 10 years shy of realising the smart city vision. That means the time to put in place the requisite open infrastructure is now. To think intelligently, as a city, we need to keep in mind inherent physical limitations of our cities, while deliberating outside the box and adopting an approach that is uniquely suited to the needs of the task at hand. A me-too solution may not suffice simply because the goal is complex and entirely distinct. We need to free data in a way that lets it interact amongst one another and in doing this, we will be able to harness the truest potential of technology for a significantly ‘smarter’ tomorrow.

The writer is founder & CMD, Persistent Systems

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