Data is all around us in the modern world. Virtually everything we do electronically, especially when connected to the internet, is recorded in some way. Every action we take online is generating data for someone. This phenomenon is now starting to manifest in the offline world as well.
Modern cities are a treasure trove of data, especially as a growing number of them embrace the concept of the smart city - a city run by and on data, where automated systems are constantly gathering and evaluating data in order to make real-time decisions. Much of this data is available to the public, enabling app developers and social activists to take advantage of it, so most of the time it’s important to stay anonymous online.
How Much Information is Out There?
The internet is big, to put it mildly. Not only is it big, but it is also comprised entirely of data. Whether it’s text, images, videos, sounds, cats, the internet has it all. The internet is also a little bit like the universe itself - it continues to grow and get bigger with each passing moment.
The big four of the tech industry - Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook, and Google - account for an unfathomably large amount of the data that is out there. Between them, they are holding somewhere in the region of 1.2 Petabytes of data, which is 1.2 million terabytes. 1 terabyte itself is 1,024 GB.
The data online comes from a variety of different sources. In some cases, it is being put online manually by a person, but it is also increasingly coming from automated systems. As businesses increasingly embrace cloud computing and software as a service solutions, more and more data is making its way onto the internet. Much of this data will be gated off from the average user and will only be accessible to the application that is using it.
However, cloud-based apps and services can share data with one another easily, and many databases are deliberately left open so that their data is available to anyone who wants to use it. This is a notable trend in the scientific community - data from NASA and ESA missions are routinely made freely available online. Similarly, CERN has made all the data from the Large Hadron Collider free to download, along with the software needed to analyze it.
The infrastructure of modern cities is becoming increasingly automated. Traffic lights are perhaps the simplest example of this, but even these are ultimately underpinned by data. Data regarding the flow of traffic at different times of the day is used to decide which lights are given priorities. If you have ever lived in an area that commuters drive through to get to and from work, you may have noticed that the traffic lights will behave differently during the morning and evening rush hours, this is all part of modern traffic management techniques.
All across modern cities, there are numerous systems generating, recording, and sharing data. An increasing amount of that data is being made available to the general public. Throughout the EU, the Open Data initiative envisages member states pooling the data they collect in their cities so that everyone can develop a better understanding of how urban populations behave and evolve in the modern world. There are currently close to 100 cities involved in the initiative, with more set to follow.
This data can provide us with unique insights into a diverse range of areas, including urban planning, tourism, transport, and commerce to name just a few. Small increases in the efficiency of traffic flow, for example, translate into a significant decrease in the amount of pollution being generated by idling vehicles.
The rise of open data sources that are publicly available presents some unique opportunities for businesses. There are lots of businesses today that are fuelled by data; they wouldn’t be able to exist without it. For most of these businesses, gathering and collecting that data represents a difficult and expensive logistical challenge. Open data sources raise the possibility of profitable enterprises being built around publicly available data.
Making data publicly available requires local administrations to build and maintain data portals and so that citizens can actually access and use the data, and APIs so that third parties can build apps for navigating databases. This is an expensive undertaking and cities are eager to see a return on their investment. In some cases, this will occur directly through the monetization of data. For example, anonymized data can be sold to advertisers.
However, there are also financial benefits to cities that manifest in boosts to local economies. For example, a private business could use publicly available data to produce an app that gives real-time updates on the locations of buses, trains, and other public transport. By either charging users a subscription fee to use the app or by selling advertising space within it, the developers can monetize the app and ultimately pay business taxes. In this way, the city is able to indirectly recuperate some of the costs of providing access to that data.
Making Data Useful
An application programming interface is needed to enable users to navigate databases and make use of the data contained within. APIs are sets of procedures, protocols, and subroutines that enable anyone to build applications that can interface with databases. For example, by using the Reddit API, app developers are able to make their own apps that can interface with Reddit. Because the API provides a collection of universal functions, these third-party apps are able to do everything that the official app is capable of.
Similarly, APIs enable app developers to interface with the open data made available by smart cities. As long as the database is updated frequently, apps will be able to access the latest data. If databases aren't updated regularly, it will limit their usefulness to developers.
The flow of data, from the moment it is generated until it is deployed by applications, is generally automatic at this point. The automatic generation, flow, and analysis of data will be at the heart of the smart cities of the future. These cities will be able to manage their own traffic flows, schedule public transport, and even manage essential utilities with minimal input from a human.