Why Smart Cities Need Open Standards: A Conversation with Kary Främling

By The Open Group

The concept of the “smart city” is beginning to be adopted by cities and municipalities worldwide. By providing “smart,” digital services, cities will, ostensibly, become more attractive places to live, offering better living conditions to citizens.

However, many of the companies offering smart services today are private entities with their own proprietary service platforms, a model that ultimately discourages the kind of competition for affordable services that most governments are required to seek so they can provide services to citizens at a reasonable cost.

Kary Främling, Professor of Computer Science at Aalto University in Finland and Founder and CEO of Control Things, argues that in order for smart cities solutions to remain affordable, cities will need to adopt open standards and open platforms for their digital services so they can maintain competition and keep those services affordable. We spoke to Främling in advance of his talk at the The Open Group Berlin event April 24 – 27 to learn more about how open standards can benefit the smart city model.

Terms like eGovernment, smart cities and digital government tend to encompass a broad range of things on the digital services spectrum. When you refer to “smart cities,” how are you defining the term?

Looking at it from the citizen’s point of view, cities should really serve their citizens and that means that somehow they should take care of people’s well-being—that they have good air, that they can get around easily, that they can get to their workplaces in reasonable time, that they can deal with the public authorities in the most convenient way possible, for instance, for doing their tax declarations. Smart cities should become smart in order to make life easier for their citizens. This also includes companies because availability is an important factor of well-being. However, these services should not get too expensive. With open standards, you can still remain competitive with the service provisions and avoid vendor lock-in.

What types of “smart” services are cities considering today to create smarter cities?

One system that we’re developing in a current project, for instance, is smart parking. Also, once you start getting more electric vehicles, other than Tesla, then how do you find a charging station when you come to a city and drive around? Both of these cases are pretty similar.

For example, when I come to Helsinki, or whatever city, with my car and I want to find a parking place or charging station.  I don’t want to think about who owns the parking place or even whether it’s in a parking facility, underground parking or street-side parking or whatever as long as I can get some kind of information about where I can find a free parking place for a reasonable price. That’s how it should be—services that make life simpler for everybody. Making them simpler also means that, as an end user, you shouldn’t have to care about who owns the parking place. For the moment, the challenge is that providers all tend to have their own portals, services, payment systems and so on. We want to have these services that we use in everyday life become simpler.

What are the types of services that you’re seeing cities consider today?

We have Lyon and Brussels as partners in an ongoing EU project. In Brussels, for instance, they would like to simplify and make the roads or routes for school children to go home safer or for parents to pick them up at convenient times so you can avoid having all the parents blocking the same street at the same time. Also, if you do have this condition, how can you transmit that kind of information to other cars so they don’t come there and block the street too?

There are also pilots being developed in several places for air quality. We are working quite a lot with building automation companies and air handling companies to measure the quality of air outside and inside. In many places they’re actually putting air quality sensors on bikes, and I guess we’ll have them in our phones in some reasonable future. But the point is that the city should be able to get a real-time map of the air quality they have in different places, and then people could also choose their biking or walking routes based on where you have sufficiently good air quality.

In Lyon, they have more industrial use cases. They have these bottle banks—and in St. Petersburg (also a project partner) they have different kinds of waste systems. With the bottle banks, what they want to do there is to have sensors in the recycling containers so that they can let people know which ones are full or to avoid them getting full By having this information sent to the bottle bank emptying company so they can optimize their collection routes so none of the bottle banks ever gets full.

The real challenge is to get these systems up and running on a real-life scale where everything works as it should without too much maintenance and hassle and at a reasonable price. But the challenge is that you still don’t get these services for a reasonable price at the moment. It’s challenging to get these solutions made so that you don’t get locked-in by one specific vendor, who, once they have the system sold and installed, make you start paying quite heavily.

Your abstract for The Open Group Berlin event mentions that it’s important to maintain competition between smart city service providers. What kind of competition do you think it’s important to maintain and why?

I think companies such as Apple and Samsung are trying to sell complete solutions for parts of the smart city. But all these systems, if you buy them from one of these companies, tend to only feed their own cloud service. Once you’re locked in, it’s difficult to do anything if ever they raise their prices. Or if somebody else would eventually offer something less expensive or with better functionality, then it’s difficult to change to that. HPE and IBM, among others, are also working on these solutions.

Open standards are one way of avoiding vendor lock-in, and you have at least two important and distinct aspects to that that I don’t see that often in what I hear and read.

The first is that if you have a system installed, these IoT systems are made for collecting loads and loads of data and getting information from that. But the problem is that data is usually not properly annotated using any kind of standards. What we are proposing as a solution to this issue is the Open Data Format from The Open Group.  This is one way in which you can store the data in your data lake or whatever and then at least you can keep track of what you measured, where the data source is located, when it was collected, why it was collected and all this kind of information.

If you don’t store data with the proper annotation, then you can’t analyze it properly because you don’t know what it was about. Even worse is that if ever you change to some other company, they’ll understand even less of that data. So you actually get data lock-in. If you’ve been collecting lots of data for the past five or ten years, then you change to another company or provider, then you might lose most of the value of that data. We see that happening in facility management for buildings.  For instance, where you have buildings that are controlled by one facility management company and then when the building owners change to another company, all of a sudden they reinstall a lot of sensors and information systems and none of the collected data is transferred to the new company.  Then they have to start the whole data collection again themselves. That’s one example.

Another example is the APIs by which you publish your services and let other services and citizens use your services. If the APIs or service interfaces are completely proprietary, then it’s really challenging to change the system or change components of the whole system or platform into others. In The Open Group terms, that means that APIs should be specified using some kind of standards, for example, Open Messaging Interface plus the Open Data Format. But that’s really the challenge now with companies saying they provide REST APIs. In practice REST is not a standard, and I haven’t seen one single API that would be non-proprietary yet, no matter if it’s for parking facilities, energy controlling facilities, building automation or something else.

That means that if you have one big platform for your whole city, you can’t split out anything from it.  Whereas for city wide services, those platforms should really be component enabled so you can have many different smart parking facility providers, for example, that publish their services using the same or similar APIs and the same thing for other systems like traffic control systems. Most of these services are provided by private companies.  So if you have many different service providers and they all have their own APIs, it’s really difficult to build a service system that would combine all of them. That means that building a platform that combines loads of different parking operators and information from them together is pretty hard. Then if one of them becomes dominant then it’s also quite difficult to split that up because then you tend to be stuck with their API.

Most municipalities, in the US at least, are required to gather contract bids for public services and look for the most affordable choice before they implement them. Could this be problematic in terms of lock-in? Won’t an open platform be necessary for local governments to operate?

Google and other companies are trying to build huge platforms that provide everything as a turn-key solution, but then you do tend to get locked in. It’s the same bidding system in Europe, you have to take the cheapest offer.  But of course the question is, what do you prefer, is it the cheapest installation cost or the lowest lifecycle cost for the next 10 years or 50 years? What is still missing in this is that cities don’t include any requirements for supporting open standards. If they would, then that would force the companies proposing the solutions to actually include that in what they are doing.

One example from Finland is in the construction sector. You have these building information models (BIM) for which you do have some standards, which means that when you do CAD drawings, especially in 3D for a new building, then you can have it in a format that is compatible between all different CAD systems; you should also be able to also use it for facility management. At least there is one government-owned company and some others that have started requiring this from the design and architecture companies. But it’s nothing that’s commonplace yet. I don’t know when this will happen, but the current way that bids are done, interoperability and standards are not taken properly into consideration. In my personal opinion, I think it’s really not in the interest of the citizens or the taxpayers to do it in the way it’s done now. It would be in their interest to start considering open standards. Then, of course, the question is which standards, but at least if there were some standards, that would be much better than what’s happening now.

Where do you see smart cities intersecting with The Open Group Open Platform 3.0™?

It’s really about linking information together from social media, buildings, vehicles, everything together so that you can combine information on-the-fly when you need it for new services. I’m chairing the Internet of Things Work Group, and we’re focusing on these standards and trying to get them accepted and used widely all over the world. I think the world would be a much easier place if those would be used but those are only the technology level standards. The Open Platform 3.0 Forum as a whole really looks into the business incentives of interoperability, how does the money flow, how do you do billing between different organizations or companies involved and enabling these as a whole.

What advantages can open standards ultimately offer to cities and municipalities as they move toward becoming “smarter” and offering more digital services?

The new digital services are a value but they need to be kept affordable. Keeping these systems open too is not just about the money and maintaining competition in the marketplace.  It’s also about once you have this data and services more open and available, that opens up completely new possibilities for innovating new services.

Let’s say that even if Google is an excellent company with loads of smart people, if you extend that into more open information systems and services that you could combine on-the-fly, then even some start-up companies could come up with new services on-the-fly that use the existing ones. It could really spur innovation.

I quite often use the web as a comparison. The guys who developed HTTP and HTML, told me it wasn’t that obvious that anyone would be interested in the whole thing. But it happened that loads of people started to use HTTP and HTML, and we eventually started having one single web rather than having 10,000 of them. That’s really what’s enabled the web economy because you don’t have to have one browser per server or something like that. That’s really what we have with the Internet of Things for the moment. If you’re in the Samsung Internet of Things platform, then you need to have Samsung supported devices that speak to the Samsung platform and the same thing for Google and so on. The point is that if we had 10,000 different webs, we would never have gone nearly as far with the services and information that we have on the web now because there wouldn’t have been the same momentum and level of open innovation.

Lastly, one thought that crossed my mind was about pricing. What we are also developing is a kind of marketplace where you can publish and market your services. For instance, if I were to publish a charging station that I have at my home, how do I advertise that thing? In Finland, we have loads of these charging facilities for everyone because we need to warm up our cars in the wintertime. That takes us to a new marketplace and services like Booking.com vs. Airbnb and those types of services. I think there will be some kind of marketplace for different services that provide ways of looking up those services that you may or may not need to pay for.

For example, when I drive my car to San Francisco, where do I find parking places or other services? One option could be that there is a look-up service, it could be Google or whatever, that provides me with a list of parking operators. You never know how business will evolve, but for instance with Booking.com they have a marketplace for all hotels in the world and they take a high provision for doing that—they’re just mediators but they take money for doing that. Now you also have eBookers and other services doing the same thing but cheaper—there could be an interesting market there. But then you also have the Airbnb model where I could publish my electrical power plug at home or my charge or parking place, so then that would be something closer to Airbnb. That might be far into the future, but it’s a possibility.

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Kary Främling
Kary Främling, Professor, Aalto University, School of Science, Finland

Kary Främling is a Professor in Computer Science at Aalto University (former Helsinki University of Technology).

He is also a Founder and CEO of the company ControlThings that develops commercial Internet of Things (IoT) solutions. Kary is the current Chair of the IoT Work Group of The Open Group, as well as the main contributor to the IoT standards Open Messaging Interface (O-MI) and Open Data Format (O-DF), published by The Open Group in October 2014.

Kary is an author of over 100 articles published in scientific journals and conferences, including the (presumably) first article that mentions the IoT in 2002. That article presented a middleware implementation that fulfilled most requirements for IoT architectures and was used in several industrial systems.

Since then, Kary has been the main architect of IoT systems in various domains, such as buildings, HVAC equipment, vehicles, supply chain management etc.