Unlocking Data to Power a Smart City
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Unlocking Data to Power a Smart City

Mark Patton, VP, Smart Columbus, The Columbus Partnership
Mark Patton, VP, Smart Columbus, The Columbus Partnership

Mark Patton, VP, Smart Columbus, The Columbus Partnership

Today it seems there’s “smart” everything. Smart phones. Smart homes. Smart toasters. Smart cities. But what makes something “smart”?

It’s data. Data, applied to a challenge, to create a better outcome. To identify trends. To anticipate problems. To devise new solutions. Before any city can call itself a smart city, it must learn to capture, glean insight from, and act upon data.

Examples of cities using public data to better serve residents are emerging daily. In Boston, city managers and the public can view real-time city performance analytics thanks to CityScore. Buildingeye lets residents in Pittsburgh and San Francisco access the status of building permits, business licenses and capital projects through the visualization of city data. Such initiatives open up and visualize feeds of public data so city and non-city actors can use the data to make informed decisions more quickly.

Public data can also have applications well beyond public service. Trulia is one of the biggest consumers of open government data, layering feeds of data on crime, schools and transit with real estate listings to help users find (or fawn over) their next home.

Yet these successes in the use of open public data are largely isolated victories. All too often, public sector data goes into a spreadsheet populated by one department, for one purpose. It then sits on a drive accessible to that one department, never realizing the potential value it could offer another department, a startup, or the public at large.

Breaking through the barriers to using public data is one of the key challenges the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) had in mind when creating the Smart City Challenge in 2015. The USDOT envisioned a city where transportation and community challenges were addressed by technology and data driven-solutions, and they offered up $40 million to a mid-size city that could bring that vision to life.

  Before any city can call itself a smart city, it must learn to capture, glean insight from, and act upon data 

Seventy-eight cities applied for the Smart City Challenge, and Columbus won. We weren’t selected because we had the largest public transit system or the most robust data processing capabilities in place already, but because we presented a vision to partner across the public, private and academic sectors to use data and emerging mobility technologies to solve real problems. We envisioned using best practices from shared mobility services to get expectant mothers on Medicaid to their prenatal care appointments in an effort to fight infant mortality. We envisioned using connected vehicle technology to make drivers and pedestrians safer. We envisioned using apps and autonomous vehicles to help our residents find and keep a job.

At the center of these technologies, we envisioned the Smart Columbus Operating System, an integrated, holistic integrated data exchange where data could be collected, aggregated, published and used to power these solutions.

Three years into our grant implementation, the Smart Columbus Operating System is the central deliverable of our grant portfolio, budgeted at $11.6 million over four years. The operating system serves as the data “backbone” for seven mobility projects, serving to collect and transmit data about the projects, and to capture performance data reported to the USDOT and the public.

Public, anonymized data is syndicated via the operating system as open data accessible to other Columbus city agencies, academic researchers, startups and app developers and the community at large. By opening transportation data to the community, we hope that it may be leveraged within or from outside the public sector to help our city move more efficiently and safely. 

Yet the application of the operating system extends well outside our city. Our legacy as the winners of the Smart City Challenge will be to create the data platform that not only powers mobility in Columbus, but will also enable other cities to become “smart.”

From the inception of the Smart Columbus Operating system, we agreed with the USDOT that the platform should not be purchased off the shelf. Cities around the world are buying into proprietary data management platforms, meaning each city pays each time it implements such a platform, and is then locked in to costly upgrades to access future functionality. Instead, we decided to build the operating system anew in open source code.

Building in open source would enable other cities to “fork” the code for our operating system for free, unlocking them from costly contracts and providing access to an $11 million system they wouldn’t otherwise have the means to build or access. Without the impetus of the Challenge, no other city would have had cause or incentive to initiate the development of an open source data management platform for the public good, but this federal investment will serve to democratize cities’ ability to process and leverage data.

Additional tenants of the development of the operating system include scalability— it is built to scale to any size organization— small towns, counties, cities, startups and even large corporations. It is also capable of managing near-real-time data, setting the stage for to-the-minute use cases; and built on a standard API, enabling users to build web, desktop and mobile apps that pull data from the platform.

In June of this year, the Smart Columbus team released the code of the Smart Columbus Operating System on Github, meaning any city can now access, use, augment and scale the operating system, leveraging the foundational code to power data-driven solutions to their own unique challenges.


But while we can toss you the keys to the data processing capability of the operating system, cities still have a road to travel to become “smart.” While any city or organization can now fork the code of the Smart Columbus Operating System’s data processing platform, each user will need to build their own platform of localized data, relevant to their unique challenges and needs.

This makes it incumbent upon cities to:

• Identify use cases for data: Cities can prioritize safety, service, job creation, affordable housing and more as applications for data processing. In Columbus, we’re leading with mobility to help improve access to jobs and community resources. City leaders must define their unique priorities and then focus on modernizing the associated data systems that support those challenges.

• Standardize data: Cities are likely capturing data today using disparate, legacy systems built over the life of the city’s IT capability. The challenge is to standardize and optimize data collection, analysis, sharing, publishing and analysis in order to operate on data that can be consistently processed. This means cleaning data that exists and creating standards for capturing new data.

• Develop data policies: Cities must determine what public data feeds will be open, to whom and how it is structured. Cities must also determine how to protect personal information while balancing the desire to make data as open as possible.

Wrangling city data in order to meet the smart city challenges of today is no small task, even with millions of dollars of grant funding behind you. But it’s a critical task presented to Columbus and to every modern city.

Improved data capture, processing and analysis can power projects that provide residents with greater transparency, improved public services and enhanced city efficiencies. And today’s opportunities pale in comparison to the potential value of big-data processing applications such as IoT, which promises to revolutionize the delivery and management of city services.

Data is the key to becoming smart; but in Columbus, we say that “smart is just the start.” Unlocking and managing data and building the data management tools required by today’s cities is the start of building smarter cities, more accountable public agencies, more empowered residents and more vibrant communities.

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