The programmable city: How Cisco is helping Manchester find its Verve |...
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The programmable city: How Cisco is helping Manchester find its Verve | Smart city Q&A

Smart cities demand strong, flexible, and reliable data platforms, and top-tier tech companies are jostling to develop and support such initiatives.

Cisco is a key player in this area, and the platform it has implemented as part of Manchester’s CityVerve smart city and IoT demonstrator focuses on the ability to build smart cities “from the bottom up”.

The Manchester programme is designed to explore the ways in which technology can be used to improve the lives of all Mancunians by helping them gather and share information in new and exciting ways, supporting everything from healthcare and transport to culture and the environment.

“We’ve set out to learn what it takes to build the smartest city in the world and create more opportunities for everyone who lives, works, and plays here,” says the project’s website.

But from a vendor perspective, what do these types of project really mean, and what are their key benefits? Internet of Business spoke to Pete Rai, principal engineer in the Chief Technology and Architecture Office at Cisco, to learn more about building smart cities “from the bottom up”, and about Cisco’s self-styled “platform of platforms”.

Internet of Business: What is the key benefit of your data platform?

Pete Rai, principal engineer in the Chief Technology and Architecture Office at Cisco

Pete Rai: “Our ‘platform of platforms’ creates a clear picture of the city’s data as a whole, rather than having to analyse all the various datasets individually. In this way, the platform empowers developers to consider the relationships and overlapping value between datasets – for instance, between travel data and healthcare data – and then build solutions in accordance with the findings.

“These datasets can come in many forms, but the platform always presents them with consistent semantics. They can be used to revolutionise the way we drive innovation – such as combining data about crime levels with the use of streetlights to identify key behaviour patterns.”

How future-proofed is the platform? How confident are you that it can accept data from any new devices that come onstream?

“The architecture of the platform is designed to be fully layered, flexible, and scalable. It creates a secure ‘catalogue’ of data, capable of uniting an almost infinite number of applications to meet the evolving demands of a city.

“The Manchester instance of the platform already has over 140 datasets coming from a variety of sources and in a plethora of source formats and protocols.”

Does the platform require devices to present their data in specific ways, and might that be limiting for either devices or the platform itself?

“We recognise that the IoT edge is messy. Useful data is present in all sorts of systems, and each one has its own function and history. Trying to impose downward order on such systems is never going to work. Besides, that’s not even the correct approach, as the ‘messy edge’ is shrinkwrapped around the current problem set.

The CityVerve approach is different, we embrace the mess and don’t fight it!

“We apply consistency at the top – the read point – and not the bottom, the write point. In fact, we put no burdens at all on the source systems that we feed from. Instead, we swallow the work of making their data interoperable through our flexible transformation engines, which can automatically reshape the data to maximise the overlapping value between datasets.”

Can you explain how the platform helps smart city administrators focus more on the specific needs of their city?

“With this platform we are exploring the idea of ‘the programmable city’ – the city as a software platform.

“CityVerve is a developer platform, not just a data platform. Data platforms end with the act of publishing, but developer platforms end with someone actually using the data.

The whole platform is designed to act as a honey-pot to attract the sharpest minds with the neatest ideas and to make it as simple possible for them to build great apps for the city and its citizens.

“The platform delivers a ‘bottom up’ smart city, with all the data being gathered in one place. This allows for applications to be developed based on the real issues and challenges facing the city.

“For example, data compiled from See.Sense’s 180 sensor-enabled ICON bike lights is fed into the platform. These devices work in two ways: first, to make the bike light flash brighter and faster in riskier situations, such as crossing busy junctions, and second, to feed environmental data into the platform.

See.Sense’s ICON smart bike light

“The data from these sensors could, for example, influence the local council’s decisions to improve roads, with the sensors capable of monitoring the quality of the road surface. Alternatively, they could highlight near misses or traffic incidents, empowering local services to act while making other cyclists aware of the most danger-prone sections.”

What’s next for the platform in terms of development and deployment?

“CityVerve is the first place where the platform of platforms has been piloted. Although it offers a solution that fits Manchester, it isn’t designed to fit Manchester and Manchester alone.

“This technology is designed to be applicable to cities across the world. In fact, it can fit any domain where complex, heterogeneous datasets could find overlapping value by being presented in a consistent developer experience.

“Cisco is actively pressing ahead with the platform and the next version is already taking shape. It fixes many of the pain points we found when building the Manchester instance. It promises to be simpler to operate and even more powerful to use. So watch this space!”

Internet of Business says

It is easy to imagine a smart city as something static: smart street lights or street furniture, for example, and networks of fixed sensors. However, the CityVerve project underlines the fact that intelligence and data move as people move – and jump on their bikes to get around this modern, diverse, and always exciting city.