The tip of the iceberg

Data are becoming a crucial asset in the smartification of cities. Credit: IBM

Today we are having an EIT Digital event at EXPO discussing Data Economy in the context of Urban Life and Mobility, one of the activity areas we are pursuing. I am the one introducing the discussion and so I thought a bit on what to say, and I am sharing here part of that.

I posted a few commentaries on Data Economy in Smart Cities, so I won’t be repeating them now.

When we feel the pulse of the city we happen to live in (most of the time or just for a few days as a visitor) we actually interact with the city using sensors, mostly our sensors: sight, smell and hearing above all (yes we also use taste and appreciate the local “cusine” but we would seldom associate the smartness of the city to the tastiness of the food…).

More recently, we have started to interact with the city using artificial sensors, encoded in “apps”. Through apps we access data and the way these are represented helps us to make sense of the city. We have actually come to the point that a good part of appreciating the smartness of a city is tied to the quality of the apps.

This is also being played in the reverse: if you want to make a city smarter you just develop some nice apps!

It is tempting, indeed. Developing an app is cheaper than deploying a new sewage system or a broadband infrastructure.

However, the apps represent just the tip of the iceberg: they can offer services and insight because there is some real stuff in the world of atoms and some sort of connection needs to be in place between the atoms and the apps. Most of the time an app is a terminal point of a complex chain of data gathering, data crunching and semantic analyses.

The better the data gathering, crunching and analyses the easier for an app to deliver real “smartness”.

This has been recognized long time ago and companies, municipalities have started to develop platforms. These are ensembles that decouple a complex and diverse world from the apps, making it simpler for these to deliver.

Actually, the concept of platform has become so abused that nowadays every time a researcher asks for funding to develop –yet another- platform suspicious brows are raised.

The fact is that platforms are invisible, and useless, unless someone is feeding them and someone else is using them.

Hence today whoever proposes to develop –yet another- platform has to promise to develop the applications as well to make use of the platform. This usually does not work well, since the skill and approaches to create a platform are quite different from the ones needed to create a good app (in my experience).

Another pitfall is that engineers designing –yet another- platform are usually oblivious of the issue that sustain any data aggregation, and these are not technical ones (technical issues are the bread and butter of engineers), they are related to policies and organization (processes).

After many years of watching people building platforms (more recently they have been renamed middleware, to muddy the water) and witnessing the failure (in term of adoption and hence usefulness) I am convinced that a smart city needs smart administrators with a vision and capacity to create and execute a roadmap. The Roadmap is the real platform, it provides for regulation on data (like open data framework), incentive to a varied constituency to buy into the idea of open data, economic sustainability of the roadmap.

Along with the execution of the roadmap we see the adoption of tools, some existing some to be created and the roadmap should provide in itself the architecture so that every new tool, every new process piggy back on existing ones.

We should understand that a platform is not the solution, just a tool, and first you need to have a very clear idea what you want to build and then you need to create the condition to have players and users buying into your project.

Author - Roberto Saracco

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