The open-source, Internet of Things (IoT) platform FI-WARE wants to become the core infrastructure that will empower our connected future. FI-WARE promises to support smart city infrastructure, enable intelligent factories and precision agriculture, and help entrepreneurs to carve out viable market share in a connected, IoT-enabled world. ProgrammableWeb spoke with the Chief Architect of FI-WARE, Juanjo Jose Hierro, about the progress of the open-source platform and how it will create a space at the table for innovators and businesses of all sizes.
At the latest FI-WARE Challenge announcement in southern Spain earlier this week, Jesus Maza Burgos, Vice-President of the Municipal Association of Seville said:
“FI-WARE can generate employment, offer opportunities for small and medium-sized businesses, and foster the development of applications that can improve the quality of life in cities. There are a lot of problems in cities and in companies that can be solved with the FI-WARE platform. What’s more, we have to put citizens at the center of these projects, and FI-WARE enables this.”
FI-WARE’s latest announcement sought to showcase two key components of the platform. FI-WARE is the open API platform that provides a catalog of open-source tools to enable integrations and connections for IoT and smart city application design. FI-Lab is the meeting point that encourages a community of developers and entrepreneurs to share their experiences developing applications, ask questions, and test prototypes in a sandbox environment. Future components of FI-WARE are expected to include a training system (the FI-WARE Academy); a community fund that will finance new open source tools being added to the catalog; and partnerships that will enable FI-WARE to co-opt other open source projects with similar goals (like the CKAN open data platform).
Juanjo Hierro, Chief Architect of FI-WARE (a public-private partnership funded in part by the European Commission) told the packed audience of media, local businesses and government officials: “Would the internet exist today without Apache, MySQL, or PHP? It has been important for the internet’s success that companies know about those open technologies that have enabled communication and product development.”
Speaking in front of a presentation slide that read ‘The future internet will be the next computer. Do you want it open?’ Hierro pitched the FI-WARE world-view: “The Internet has not stopped being a revolution. And a new digital revolution is coming: this revolution consists of the integration of a lot of technologies we have been using in the last couple of years, they are part of a radical change in what we understand the internet is. Our applications are going to need to be found and be available in any gadget and to be able integrate with the Internet of Things. We are going to be capable of treating a lot of data, analyzing it, and extracting knowledge in order to manage things like smart city processes.”
To make this vision a reality, Hierro believes what is needed is an open platform that can manage scalability, decouples networks from the underlying infrastructure, and that is independent enough not to be monopolized by a few players.
An open API platform for the Internet of Things
In the past year, the connected home market has been able to spur a new wave of economic growth because of one key enabler: open APIs. Prior to this, connected home devices were each seeking to provide proprietary solutions that forced users to choose a hardware manufacturer and stick with them.
As a result, the idea of a connected home where your lights, garage door, heating and cooling, entertainment and appliances could speak to each other never really took off. Once manufacturers began offering open APIs that let developers create integrated solutions and apps that connected the thermostat to home surveillance, for example, the connected home market began to surge. Now, even devices like Nest — that had originally wanted to ringfence their market entry by forcing consumers to stick to their product range — are opening developer platforms to let their devices communicate and share data information with other, non-Nest products.
FI-WARE wants to take this open API model and apply it to other core segments of the IoT landscape, particularly smart cities, but also to the idea of the smart factory, to agricultural systems, and to other IoT realms.
FI-WARE enabling smart cities
While not discounting the potential of using FI-WARE for other IoT endeavors, a key part of the current project’s workload has been to engage with city governments to assist them to use the platform for the management of their smart city infrastructure. 'Smart cities' is often a catch-all term to refer to the twin goals of using sensor technologies to better manage city infrastructure, and to the publishing of government data on open data platforms, all with the aim of increasing city efficiencies, fostering new business opportunities, and encouraging greater civic participation and conviviality.
At present, particularly within the smart cities infrastructure landscape, platforms are dominated by proprietary players including Cisco, Siemens, Hitachi and IBM. Although IBM has begun sharing some of their tools via open source (such as the MQTT pub/sub realtime protocol), this is not the norm amongst these infrastructure providers. The challenge for many governments looking to deploy ‘smart city’ infrastructure is that they risk being locked in to a proprietary model that is unable to create integrations across the disparate infrastructure needs that a city must manage.
This is a key reason why industry analyst Eric Woods says that “there is still no example of a smart city that is supporting hundreds of thousands, never mind millions, of people and there are many challenges still to be faced by smart city planners.” Woods is the key researcher behind a recent report by Navigant Research that found that smart city technology growth will reach at least $108 billion in the next 6 years .
“Open APIs for smart cities is critical,” Hierro told ProgrammableWeb, “because one of the things that we are explaining to cities — and those that are connecting to FI-Lab understand this very well — is that no city can set up an ecosystem on their own. No city can mobilize the wider community of developers on their own. And for that wider community and ecosystem, you need standard APIs for developers to be able to develop and to be able to sell their applications, products and services to multiple cities.”
To do this, the FI-WARE team is working to help cities exploit the potential of the platform:
“It depends very much on the city, but what we typically face when we start a conversation with a city that wants to connect with FI-WARE AND FI-Lab is:
“First, we find out (and encourage) that they publish a large number of open data.
“The second scenario is when a city is already managing a sensor-based system, for example, public transport buses may be collecting data that is valuable that we would like to make available in realtime. So what we are doing with them is creating adaptors for the data sources and sensor technologies that the city already has in place. Then they can inject that data into a context broker, and that context broker component will offer standard APIs to allow anyone to consume real-time data. Previously, there was no standard API to manage real-time data for cities.
“Third, we look to cities who have some sensor networks and we help them make those available on the FI-WARE platform.”
‘Generic Enablers’ - creating business opportunities for developers
FI-WARE offers a catalog of ‘generic enablers’ — each driven by open, standard APIs — aimed at helping developers, and government information and data architects, to remove the complexity involved in trying to integrate a variety of smart cities-related systems.
In addition to speeding up opportunities for cities to integrate smart city infrastructures, the generic enablers also allow developers and entrepreneurs to create new applications that have commercial value. In this way, FI-WARE also acts as a business development platform. In fact, it is funding business accelerators to help small and medium sized enterprises to create commercial opportunities using the open source tools on the platform. Given the potential $108 billion that can be generated in smart cities technologies, Hierro is excited by the breadth of business models that will rise out of use of the platform by business innovators.
Hierro gives the example of the context broker which enables any two systems to link together. A government data architect might define entities and elements in one data system (such as sensor data collection) and then use a standard API to enable access to that data for third-party app development. Once the entities and elements have been defined, the standard API enables ongoing, real-time access to the data for anyone who wants to create an application or visualization based on the data.
Carlos Ralli Ucendo is head of the IoT Chapter at FI-WARE. He explains how developers are using FI-WARE generic enablers like the context broker to create new commercial products:
“We focus on the developer, who might say ‘I am a non-IoT expert, and I want to interact with cities’. So the context broker is the magic of FI-WARE. It is the main point that a web developer needs to know. We want to open this wide, beyond M2M developers. We provide simplicity.”
Ucendo gives an example where city sensor data was able to be mined for information about crowded street data, which helped developers create a smart taxi application within four days:
“We are supporting multiple business models, for example, the smart taxi model that enables developers to earn money, gives taxi drivers opportunities, and the city wins. They are already using this system in 500 taxis in Barcelona and in Moscow,” Ucendo says.
“There are tools in the program that will help design business models. My experience is that entrepreneurs come with their startups and they teach us: they come with a business model already mapped out. People are coming in with their talent and their business models. For example [FI-WARE Challenge winner] FoodLoop came to us with their business model already mapped out. This is why we opened this platform.”
Growing interest in an independent distributed data storage network
One of the key messages at the FI-WARE event this week was that in addition to the open source platform and FI-Lab ‘meeting point’, the public-private partnership also aims to build data centers that will offer cities an independent data storage infrastructure. At the event, Seville was announced as the first node in this distributed data server architecture.
Hierro says that while the FI-WARE platform is currently funded by the European Commission and private companies situated in participating European member countries, the platform plans to become a global tool. “We are not just limited to Europe,” Hierro said. “We are actively trying to reach agreement with other regions that may share a similar view in regards to open source platforms and open data storage.”
Some South American and Asian countries have been particularly interested in FI-WARE following revelations earlier this year that U.S.-stored data was being accessed by the U.S. National Security Agency. Hierro has said that FI-WARE is fielding more international interest — from both companies and governments — who are looking for alternatives to having data and services stored on U.S. systems like the omnipresent Amazon Web Servers. During Hierro’s presentation, he stressed that offering a data center alternative to the ‘incumbent’ players is a core component of FI-WARE’s future infrastructure roadmap.
Discussion with cities and governments around the world indicate that at present, many use internal storage systems to manage their data, but where cloud-based storage is used, Amazon monopolizes current practice. Some Swiss government departments store primary data on Amazon S3. In Australia, government departments like the WA Department of Parks and Wildlife use hybrid storage systems that include Amazon Web Servers alongside making use of unique infrastructure like the Pawsey petascale data center, which is normally used to manage radio-astronomy data. Data UK maintains internal hardware systems, mostly because of political issues rather than technical decisions, demonstrating the lack of trust many governments may have for commercial data servers, like Amazon.
“Hosting data servers creates trust for governments and cities to open up data,” says Ucendo.
“One of the things we are enabling with FI-WARE is choice around what data center is being used,” adds Hierro.
“I believe we have to ask ourselves why is FI-WARE so important,” said Ignacio Ochoa, Southern Territory Business Manager at Telefónica, at the launch. “Europe in this moment is deciding what is its role in the future society, and things like energy control, and the control of digital information, these are very important. One of the things that affects us all is the process of consolidation of businesses. Europe is now the epicenter of this. As we all know, we have 2,3,4 big companies that control all the apps and the digital content. People are now deciding who is going to be part of the future. It is very important that we know that we can be part of this whole process. It is important to know that we need to have a global vision of the problems, that big companies can offer opportunities to smaller businesses to get to a global market, that we are capable of encouraging business development.”
Building a developer ecosystem
Going forward, the biggest challenge FI-WARE faces will be the uptake of its platform. To this end, it is running hackathon challenges with some serious prize money to encourage developers to join the emerging ecosystem. The platform has also outlined its future intentions to provide monetization opportunities for app makers and entrepreneurs who use the open source tools, and initiatives like FI-Labs and the forthcoming FI-WARE Academy may provide other opportunities for developers to identify viable business models, if needed.
However, there is still a lot of work to be done. Like a lot of European Commission-funded projects, the FI-WARE website can often read like it was by a bureaucrat, and this has already been one complaint leveled at FI-WARE. One commentator we spoke to said “I’m glad you explained what FI-WARE is, I went to http://www.fi-ware.org/ and was more confused than I was before, it isn’t really clear what it is from the homepage.”
While the FI-WARE website’s generic enabler and open API specification wikis are detailed, they read more like the technical documentation of old rather than the sort of best practice API documentation developers may be more familiar with in recent years. ProgrammableWeb will be canvassing developer opinions on the quality and use of the documentation in an upcoming article summarizing some of the existing use cases and ideas developed using the open API platform.
Thanks to Stefan Oderbolz, Florian May, Antoine Logean, and Ross Jones for support with background material.
By Mark Boyd. Mark is a freelance writer focusing on how we use technology to connect and interact. He writes regularly about API business models, open data, smart cities, Quantified Self and e-commerce. He can be contacted via email, on Twitter, or on Google+.