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How multiple IoT projects contribute to Washington, D.C.'s long-term vision

Submitted by scc partner on June 24, 2016

By Scott Pomeroy, Downtown DC Business Improvement District; John Teeter, Maalka; and Zach Wilson, D.C. Department of General Services

The District of Columbia has multiple IoT-based projects underway. The most public of these projects are participating in the Global Cities Team Challenge (GCTC)  sponsored by US Ignite and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Cyber-Physical Systems Group.

The GCTC DC Supercluster showcases a number of these projects. Each with specific objectives, managing organizations, and community stakeholders. These project are orchestrated by the Office of the Mayor, but are being implemented by various stakeholders within the city.  The recent appointment of  Archana Vemulapalli as the city's Chief Technology Officer ensures ongoing guidance and synergies within city projects as they move forward.

The longer term vision is to provide a city wide platform for agile and open development of city services; a platform for open innovation where agile methodologies prevail; an environment where experimentation is encouraged, failure expected, and success rapidly replicated. Maalka and Urban.Systems are engaging in this effort to bring open platforms to support scalable IoT and Big Data capabilities to the district’s urban infrastructure.

At the edge, sensors that are being deployed providing the Internet of Things (IoT) dimension of the infrastructure. This open platform for sensor integration will encourage both experimentation and low-cost  solutions deployment.

Multiple communications assets to support the sensors are in planning or already available. These range from the high-bandwidth Internet2™ services for research and experimentation, access points integrated with public space WiFi kiosks  and low speed ubiquitous LoRa™networks providing IoT specific sensor deployments throughout the city. These communication capabilities integrate analytics, control and citizen engagement throughout the city.

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Overall, to become a truly ubiquitous information repository, the platform must integrate the various silos of focus into a holistic data/information space with common open application interfaces (APIs) that allows programmers to use them to access the data.

At the edge
The planned LoRa™ deployment is particularly unique. Each LoRa™ access point provides network coverage for a radius of up to 10 kilometers. Each access point is capable of supporting thousands of sensors (based upon sensor communications configurations). The networking bandwidth of these sensors is extremely low speed. Sensors may be configured to only transmit data intermittently, either by time based or event-based triggers. For example, an audio sensor might transmit only when sound levels exceed a specific threshold, resulting in annual transmissions on the order of 10-100 events. This allows extensive battery life for these sensors and, as a result, the ubiquitous deployment of very low cost sensors.  

These network characteristics encourage both experimentation and production service deployments. The District has an active Things Network chapter that is deploying  LoRa™ at a regional basis, supporting a citizen grass-roots network with focus on educational and citizen innovations of new services, that directly supports and integrates with the LoRa™ network to be deployed in the city.

The existence of an open and accessible public/private infrastructure for IoT sensor deployment provides a basis for data acquisition that is unique in high density urban environments. The combination of research and production infrastructure provides the city with a capability to engage stakeholders across the region. Multiple universities and K-12 educational programs are possible. The low cost and reusability of the sensors, including Arduino and other low cost platforms, encourages the use of this community asset in ways that have often been quite limited by cost and availability of experimental components.

At the core
While low-speed, low-power networking characteristics are suitable to support the ubiquitous deployment of swarms of edge devices, many services rely on the availability of higher bandwidth and very predictable quality of service network capabilities.

The DC-Net Project provides managed voice, data and video wire-based and wireless services to all government constituents city-wide over a secure, highly redundant and high-capacity fiber optic telecommunications platform. This standards-based platform lays the foundation for all next-generation government and public safety communications throughout the District. In addition, DC-Net provides broadband services to health and education-based nonprofits. DC-Net is a program managed by the Government of the District of Columbia’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer (OCTO).

The data
Each of the projects being deployed have also defined their own data needs. While this is the right way to go in many cases, this approach also makes it difficult for data obtained in one project to be leveraged to the advantage of others. For example, data collected by an air quality sensor deployment may also be quite useful to a project managing mobility in the district. The two domains have dependencies that may be exploited to the betterment of both.   

This problem is compounded when we think of the information content of the data. The term “information silo” is used to describe the situation. When one thinks of a city’s infrastructure as a “system of systems”, as is described by the NIST Cyber-Physical Systems Public Working Groups, it becomes clear that silos are a distinct impediment to unleashing the full potential of technology deployments in cities.

Overcoming Silos
Open data has become an important aspect of the technological capabilities nearly all public organizations around the world. At the U.S. federal level, the current administration has focused heavily on the development of as the primary open data platform. All federal agencies are required by Presidential Order to inventory their data repositories and to publish that inventory. In addition, APIs are being developed that allow programmers access to those repositories. At the city level, we also have active initiatives, exemplified by the recently announced OpenGrid effort sponsored by Chicago, that are bringing open data and Open APIs into reality.

While we are seeing a broad proliferation of open data efforts in the public space, we are also seeing very significant efforts from the private sector to provide open source technologies that support these public initiatives. For example, the Linux Foundation’s Open Data Platform Initiative (ODPi) has the stated objective:

"By providing a specification for a common runtime, reference implementations and test suites, ODPi Core removes cost and complexity and accelerates the development of Big Data solutions."

These open efforts, delivered in collaboration with commercial players, are providing a gigantic opportunity to advance the state of the art in urban technology infrastructures. The emergence of Big Data as an open asset for cities is occurring.

The efforts in DC are leading in this emergence. We are deploying an information cloud over the city that will provide transparent inclusion of siloed data repositories. The effect will be to reduce both the cost and time required to both integration solutions and to move solutions from the experimental stage to production.

Encouraging experimentation
A platform for agile experimentation will drive innovation in the way we deliver citizen services as well as how we monitor and manage our urban environments. Our goal in DC is to encourage experimentation, in the educational/academic arena as well as public and private service delivery.

The Downtown DC Business Improvement District (BID) is supporting a project to find ways to use BID personnel and equipment more efficiently as they perform the daily operations of emptying waste and recycling bins in the BID’s service area. Intelligent waste receptacles will inform BID personnel when it is necessary to empty the bins, reducing unneeded traffic and also providing better services as scheduling of solid waste removal becomes more intelligent. Enevo will partner with the BID to provide a solution that  will utilize a combination of the latest sensor technologies, condition reporting by individuals, and big data analysis tools to:

  • Document baseline conditions, and
  • Optimize timing and frequency of daily service routes, and
  • Anticipate the impact major events and activities that regularly occur downtown have upon the daily service routes.

This simple first step will be followed by additional, incremental deployments that improve both service delivery efficiencies and quality of life in the downtown area.

At the university level, the national MetroLab Network is engaging Georgetown University, George Washington University, and Howard Universityin active urban experimentation. Through this initiative, a network of environmentalsensors placed on campuses throughout Washington, DC that are participating in the DC MetroLab partnership. This effort will enable public access to environmental data like temperature, wind, gas and particulate concentration, and even traffic flows, simultaneously from all over the city. Involves city technology, planning, and networking agencies and MetroLab partners; George Washington, Georgetown, American, Howard and DC universities.

Information from these disparate efforts, as well as future experiments, will become part of the overall information fabric of the city. The data collected through common APIs will enable new experiments to be defined and executed at an increasingly rapid pace, creating a platform for urban innovation.

Future Big Data opportunities enabled by this platform are extensive. One of the primary characteristics of big data is that it allows us to be surprised by the insights that might arise from analytics that are applied, gleaning insights from associations and patterns we might not have considered.

Following standards
Interoperability of the projects underway is key to providing the greatest opportunity for successful integration of IoT and Big Data returns.  To this end, the team is actively participating with  NIST's Smart City Framework  effort. The agreement on consensus-based standards of interoperability is key to breaking down both information silos and preventing vendor lock-in as the city moves forward. In the NIST activity, project leaders and vendors are engaged with peers from around the world in articulating and implementing key aspects of this framework within the city infrastructure.

A showcase for the world
Finally, the District of Columbia team, composed of public and private organizations, foresees a future where we have in place an evolving infrastructure that is solid, safe, and secure while encouraging innovation through agile experimentation. Where the successes propagate into production and the failures factor into future successes.  Truly, a Nervous System of the City that encourages engagement and responsive excellence!