New Smart City Global Hackathon Encourages Dev API Use


The goal of Global Urban Datafest is to bring developers together with local experts, including journalists, community leaders, urban planners and subject-matter experts, to create teams that can solve some of our cities' greatest challenges.

Two winning teams from each city will be selected to go head to head in a global competition at a future Global Urban Datafest event.

The event will be held in more than 25 cities on the weekends of Feb. 21-22 and March 7-8.

The diverse city hosts include:

Civic tech is an emerging field aimed at using technology to create solutions that address the challenges of our growing urban environments. Global populations continue to grow, with forecasts predicting that by 2030, 60% of the world’s population will live in urban areas.

Along with this pressure comes an increasing use of all resources, from oil to food and water to increased use of infrastructure like roads.

Cities are beginning to prepare for these challenges in similar ways to how businesses are adopting Web infrastructure: They are taking a platform approach and reorienting themselves into composable units that can be shared and orchestrated into new solutions.

Opening data pipelines, adding sensors to resources like waste management and public transport infrastructure, and updating business processes like procurement are all ways that local governments are preparing to work with entrepreneurs and to create more internally tech-savvy environments that can respond to the population challenges that are also happening at a time of global climate change. Of course, governments move much slower than business, so in many cases these changes proceed at a near-glacial pace and are impacted by politics at every level.

The Urban Datafest event series aims to help quicken this rhythm and inspire participation between technologists and urban subject-matter experts so that new collaborations can be formed and new ideas brought to the fore.

A Challenges Approach to Competition

Each city is posting a series of challenges for local teams to address as part of the Urban Datafest hackathons.

In the Boston area (Holyoke), the challenge revolves around how to use the Internet of Things to improve the pedestrian experience, while Boston (Somerville) is looking for new ways to crowdsource data from community stakeholders to create new policy interventions.

According to Anna Calveras, one of the organizers in Barcelona, the Urban Datafest hackathon will dovetail with the iCity Platform Challenge (open to anyone), which seeks apps made using the iCity Platform APIs. Barcelona-specific APIs on the iCity Platform draw in data from a variety of sources, including:

  • Sentilo infrastructure sensors for the environment, waster container usage, pedestrian flow, parking and irrigation
  • Smart citizen sensors for noise, light and other environmental health measures
  • Urbiotica's wireless sensor APIs available to developers
  • Wolfram's developer platform  
  • Open 311-type citizen complaint records

In Vancouver, competitors will use the Urban Opus Hub APIs to access real-time sensor data from transport and the environment and city open data sources to view, graph and analyze data when creating smart city solutions. Urban Opus is also encouraging developers to try the Node-RED IoT visual programming tool and will bring IoT devices like Arduinos and Raspberry Pi to the event so that participants can experiment.

(UPDATE: All challenges will also be able to make use of free access to the IBM Bluemix platform.)

But Can Individual City Challenges Solve Smart City Problems at Scale?

While the goals of the Urban Datafest are admirable, one of the key stumbling blocks remains: With each city setting its own challenge using a variety of data sources, APIs and device infrastructure, this raises the risk that solutions created in one place cannot be adapted for use in another city. Open API standards are essential to making smart city solutions scalable.

This issue may well come into focus during the subsequent round of the competition series when team winners from each city will compete against each other. At that time, the capacity for teams to demonstrate how they can deploy their solutions in other city environments may create the fertile ground needed to solve one of the greatest challenges in civic tech: the capacity for new entrants to quickly move to a platform approach, drawing on open API standards in order to create lasting, efficient solutions that can be deployed globally.

Participants can find out more at the Global Urban Datafest website. For details of the iCity Platform challenge, which runs until Feb. 28, see the iCity website. Across Feb. 21-22 and March 7-8, interested onlookers can keep up with what is happening by scanning the hashtag #SmartCityHack.

Mark Boyd is a ProgrammableWeb writer covering breaking news, API business strategies and models, open data, and smart cities.