India needs open systems to build smart cities
Experts plan a ‘City Data Exchange’ to build an open stack that can be used by all
India has an ambitious smart city programme, which was kicked off by the ministry of housing and urban affairs three ago. City municipal bodies will be expected to provide seamless, operationally excellent ways of delivering citizen services and to increase the level of civic engagement from city dwellers.
For those of us who are city dwellers in India, this sounds like a far-off dream. Many of us have experienced the lack of coordination among civic bodies in our cities. For instance, roads are dug up over and over in quick succession with first the water supply and sewerage departments laying new pipes then the electricity department deciding to provide better underground connections. Meanwhile, a third city body lays new asphalt soon after the water department is done only to have the asphalt dug up all over again when the electricity department’s effort starts.
I met recently with professor Bharadwaj Amrutur and Inder Gopal, a visiting professor, both of the Robert Bosch Centre for Cyber-Physical Systems at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru. They say that smart city solutions currently deployed are actually siloed and application-specific, thereby limiting the ability of the city administration to truly leverage the value of the variety and volume of data being produced by these solutions.
This is not the failure of city administrations, but rather points to the fact that the vendors for each of these systems tend to use their own proprietary solutions since smart city implementations are actually multiple independent implementations, each optimized for their own targeted objectives. Different implementations have different vendors, who use different types of hardware, firmware and software. Vendors internally use open source software such as Linux to write the software or firmware that manages their devices or systems, but in actuality, each system is a stand-alone fortress that at best has “open” application programming interfaces, or APIs, to allow other systems to communicate with it.
Amrutur and Gopal acknowledge that this is driven by old-fashioned perceptions of value. Private firms expect to make money on the uniqueness of their overall solutions and so fear that a completely open system will not allow them this opportunity. Gopal, however, says that the opportunity to make money in installations such as these does not lie in a closed, monolithic implementation, but is facilitated by an open system with the ability to easily add new applications, sensors and services. So, raising all systems with enabling open source in an infrastructure like this is akin to a rising tide, which consequently raises all boats.
In such a model, not just the APIs, but every aspect of the enabling infrastructure is open, including its internal schemas and interfaces, and the entire programming “source” code of the implementation is also made available on a royalty-free basis.
The current reference “stack” provided is of a variety that is not dissimilar to traditional closed systems. This architecture is based on a sensor (or hardware) layer at the bottom, with a communication layer being the first layer directly on top of the sensor layer. These two are followed by a data layer as the third layer in the stack, which is finally topped off by an application layer that actually provides the services. In such a stack, the data layer becomes the most important enabling layer—or the backbone—on which city services are provided.
This in turn means that the backbone or data layer of the current stack needs to be enhanced with additional detail and rigorous specifications, which need to be backed up by robust open source reference implementations. Amrutur, Gopal and team call this architecture a “City Data Exchange”, or CDX, and are working with various firms, which have interest in India’s smart city programme, in order to build an open stack that can be used by all players. The vision is to allow seamless data exchange among various private providers’ applications so that communication between city civic bodies is enhanced.
It is heartening that public-private partnerships are harnessing some of the best technical and scientific brains in the country to build an infrastructure that can be useful to all. One hopes that the CDX will end up being adopted nationwide.
Siddharth Pai is founder of Siana Capital, a venture fund management company focused on deep science and tech in India.