Smart Cities: Technology challenges for the IoT

As part of a recent Smart City hackathon, a series of questions were asked to the local organizers of the cities involved in the Global Urban Datafest. The questions and answers give some useful insight into the main issues we are trying to address and my thoughts on how Sense Tecnic can contribute to the missions of organizations like Urban Opus as it tries to tackle Smart City issues
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As a faculty member at the University of British Columbia and President and CEO of Internet of Things platform company Sense Tecnic, you spend a lot of time in Vancouver, the third-largest population center in Canada. What do you see as the biggest challenges facing Vancouver and other cities around the world in the near future? How can making cities “smart” help?
Vancouver, like all cities is having to do more, with less. Citizens want more from their cities, more services, more access and even more control. However, like all cities, Vancouver has less budget and fewer resources to meet the growing needs.  The only solution to this is to be smarter about the way the city uses technology to meet needs. So for me a smart city isn’t so much about smart infrastructure, smart meters, smart parking, it’s about working smarter to better meet the needs of the citizens. Of course that often means more efficiency, but it also means engaging citizens to better understand their needs and looking for ways of doing more, with less – that is, being smarter!
What do you consider to be the major technological challenges currently holding back the development of smart cities? How do you think these challenges should be addressed?
I think most of the issue around smart cities are not strictly technologies issues – I think the technology is at a stage where we can do most of the things we want to. The problems are more around exposing data, sharing data and using the data – this comes in two area:
  • Infrastructure data: most infrastructure data in a city is still locked away. Open data has only scratched the surface of ‘freeing’ this data. We need better and cheaper solutions to allow cities and infrastructure maintainers to get their data out and expose it.
  • Citizen data: Citizen data is the gold standard of city data – it’s a ground truth for peoples wants, activities etc – yet people are often unwilling to share data because they are concerned about privacy and trust issues. We need to develop trusted data brokers that will allow citizens to have confidence that they have complete control of what data they share, who uses it and if they want to, that they can revoke that data sharing.
Both as a systems researcher and as an executive at Sense Tecnic, you have been deeply involved with developing platforms that support Internet of Things application development and deployment. What is the biggest recent innovation towards enabling general-purpose infrastructure for IoT applications? What is holding it back?
A combination of cloud computing and open source technologies have led to the recent explosion of the IoT. It’s now possible to develop significant technology platforms and IoT solutions without massive investment. This has allowed many small startups and small tech companies to quickly develop innovation platforms and IoT solutions that in the past would have only been possible for well funded large scale corporations. For me, these are the two greatest tech enablers that have made the IoT space so exciting and innovative.
You have also been involved with interoperability efforts. What is the state of interoperability in the Internet of Things? Where will solutions come from, academia or industry? 
IoT interoperability is at still a very early stage. Most technology waves go through a similar innovation cycle – often referred to as the innovation S curve. There is a rapid explosion of innovation, many new systems and solutions appear on the market, and companies scramble to promote their approach. During this phase, standardization is hard and often gets overtaken by events. As the rate of innovation levels off (top of the S curve) standardization efforts are possible – they are usually led by companies with strong market positions as they try to impose a de-jure or de-facto solution. At the moment, the IoT space is still to early for clear standards and is somewhat chaotic. Although I’d argue there’s no possibility of comprehensive standards being accepted at this stage, there is a possibility for high level frameworks that provide some degree of standardization. The work I have been involved in on HyperCat is a good example of that. HyperCat is a high level mechanism to allow IoT systems to expose their catalogues of things – however it’s really just a simple framework, it doesn’t go beyond a basic ability to find and query. The details of the actual formats and the APIs are left to the underlying system. This, I think, is the best approach when innovation is still underway because it doesn’t stifle the innovation.
You are organizing the Vancouver hackathon and have organized smart city hackathons in the past. What motivated you to get involved with these events?
 I have two main motivations. Firstly, as a principal of Urban Opus, a non-profit aimed at kickstarting Smart City solutions in Vancouver, I’m interested in bringing together stakeholders in the city to explore solutions. These can be cities of non-profits who have problems, challenges and issues they need help with, as well as tech companies, makers and hackers who want to use their skills to help solve these problems. Hackathons are a great way to bring these groups together and to seed the ideas. In our Urban opus model, we then take those seed ideas and try to form properly funded project sto move the solutions forward.
My second motivation is selfish, I’m a techie at heart and I enjoy seeing people use technology to help solve problems. Hackathons are great fun, lots of energy, lots of great ideas and it’s always surprising what comes out of them.
Do you have a challenge for the participants of this smart cities hackathon?
We had a number of specific challenges that we set, however Urban opus had two overarching themes.
  • Find ways to engage citizens and look for opportunities to gather data that citizens were comfortable making available because they could see the benefits from doing so.
  • Aim to source both citizen, open and company data and push it to the Urban Opus data hub as a resource for the metro Vancouver region to use to foster further Smart City services.

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