the Democratization of the Smart City

Smart City initiatives around the world are emerging along somewhat divergent spectrums. On one side, large companies such as: Cisco, IBM and Siemens are positioning multimillion-dollar platforms to city governments. And, on the other side, civic hackers are building grassroots ecosystems of applications from the ground-up.


While IoT and data infrastructure provided by the likes of Cisco and IBM tend to be secure and scalable, they are also: closed-off, expensive and take months or years to deploy.

Whereas, on the city streets, the speed of innovation spawned by startups and digitally connected citizens is far outpacing the efforts of their larger counterparts.

These grassroots initiatives are sparked by the confluence of open source hardware and software, standardized data exchange formats, cheap connectivity and the commoditization of IoT platforms.

Indeed, as I will outline, it is now possible for anyone to launch a Smart City with zero capital investment or without any government involvement at all.

Various stakeholders, including cities themselves, are vying to take advantage of the massive opportunity that these new technologies create. However, market inefficiencies and coordination issues still remain in what is a relatively new and maturing space.

Hidden in Plain Sight ~ The Creation of Open Sensor Networks

One thing almost every smart city has in common is some form of a sensor network.

Whereby various types of sensors are placed around the city to capture real-time measurements of environmental conditions such as: temperature, humidity, light, CO, NO2, and noise levels.

In the first phase of the smart city evolution, we saw sensor networks deployed by municipalities in partnership with large infrastructure providers.

Once sensors are deployed, they need some form of connectivity to move readings to a platform where that data can be processed and analyzed. Traditionally, this has been facilitated by public Wi-Fi networks, which are expensive to deploy and are limited in range. These factors have acted as an economic constraint to the wide scale adoption of smart city sensor platforms.

However, in recent months, new trends are taking form.

With the commoditization of sensors, even hobbyists can build data capture devices and make data available to anyone via open sensor networks.

As a result, sensor networks now exist all around us. You just don’t know they’re there. is one such network. With funding from the Open Data Institute, they allow anyone to register a device and publish the real-time data to the world.

Anyone can connect one or more devices and publish Open Data through OpenSensors for free. The data is publicly accessible, shareable and reusable by and for anyone. You can even search for public data such as earthquake, transport and air quality.

By encouraging or, at minimum, allowing the deployment of open sensor networks, cities can reap the benefits of real time data without incurring the expense of developing such networks themselves.

Creating Semi-Private Sensor Networks

Private companies are waking-up to the benefits of leveraging these trends to crowd source data feeds.

Weather Underground, a subsidiary of the Weather Group, has created a crowd-sourced network of weather stations to capture real-time measurements across the world.

According to Weather Underground, their worldwide personal weather station network consists of “weather enthusiasts who report live weather data from weather stations located on their houses or in their backyards”.


As of Nov 2015, Weather Underground claims to have over 140,000 such stations around the world. Individuals purchase their own personal weather station and then register it with the service in exchange for free precision weather forecasts.

On October 28, 2015, IBM entered into a definitive agreement to acquire The Weather Company’s B2B, mobile and cloud-based web properties, including Weather Underground for an estimated $2 billion.

According to IBM, “the combination of technology and expertise from the two companies will serve as the foundation for the new Watson IoT Unit and Watson IoT Cloud platform, building on a $3B commitment made by IBM in March 2015 to invest in related offerings and services.” [1]

Without question, real-time sensor based data has value beyond hobbyist endeavors.

Open Sensors and Citizen Engagement

While, perhaps – not as hardened or “secure” as rival solutions from Cisco or IBM, the open sensor approach may prove to be a cost effective starting point for many cities and citizens that want to get involved.

Barcelona is one such city that encourages citizens to deploy their own sensors. As part of their open CityOS (City Operating System), Barcelona partnered with Fab Lab Barcelona to create the Smart Citizen Platform. As a result, there are now more than 6,000 sensors deployed around the world.

Smart Citizen is a platform to generate participatory processes of people in the cities. Connecting data, people and knowledge, the objective of the platform is to serve as a node for building productive and open indicators, and distributed tools, and thereafter the collective construction of the city for its own inhabitants.

The Smart Citizen project is based on geolocation, open source hardware and software for the collection and sharing of data. It connects people with their environment and their city to create more effective and optimized relationships between resources, technology, communities, services and events in the urban environment.

The Smart Citizen Kit is a device that empowers people to record information about their environment. The kit contains both hardware and software tools for people to capture environmental data in a city and share it with other citizens.


Once you have your kit, The Smart Citizen Platform provides an easy way to connect it and start collecting data.

One example is a construction site. A citizen takes a picture of the site, then places their Smart Citizen device near the site to capture real-time noise level. Let’s say that construction site’s decibel level is over 90db, which might be over regulation.

Extending this notion, cities can deploy these on their own as a way of monitoring compliance of various regulations.

The Platform itself encompasses an API for getting data out and building your own applications.

The entire platform is open source, which makes it available for any city to plug into, or anyone to set-up his or her own instance.

While this approach may be appealing to a city, there are other options as well.

A Hybrid Approach ~ Chicago’s Array of Things

Chicago is embracing Smart City across many facets, most recently with their Array of Things project. Starting next year, 500 Array of Things (AoT) nodes will measure data on Chicago’s environment, infrastructure and activity to scientifically investigate solutions to urban challenges ranging from air quality to urban flooding.

The Array of Things (AoT) is an urban sensing project, a network of interactive, modular sensor boxes that will be installed around Chicago to collect real-time data on the city’s environment, infrastructure, and activity for research and public use.

The nodes will be mounted on streetlight traffic signal poles around the city by 2017. Fifty nodes will be installed in early 2016, and the number is expected grow to 200 by the end of 2016 and 500 by the end of 2017.



The nodes will initially measure temperature, barometric pressure, light, vibration, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, ozone, ambient sound intensity, pedestrian and vehicle traffic, and surface temperature. Continued research and development will help create sensors to monitor other urban factors of interest such as flooding and standing water, precipitation, wind, and pollutants.

All data collected by AoT will be open, free, and available to the public. The nodes will transmit data to a secure central database server at Argonne National Laboratory. Data will then be published openly to allow individuals, organizations, researchers, engineers and scientists to study urban environments, develop new data analysis tools and applications, and inform urban planning.

Raw data will also be posted to the City of Chicago’s open data network and Plenario, a web-based portal that supports open data search, exploration, and downloading with open datasets from Chicago and around the world.

Similar to the Smart Citizen Platform in Barcelona, all software, hardware, parts, and specifications will also be published as open source, to encourage participation and oversight from the developer community and public.

AoT is currently partnering with universities in 9 North American and global cities to collect data, including New York City, Seattle, Portland, Atlanta, Mexico City, Newcastle (UK), Glasgow (UK), Bristol (UK), and Amsterdam.

Do It Yourself with Open Source

The further adoption and promotion of open technologies enable cities that lack multimillion-dollar budgets or grants to still get in the game.

As example, Sentilo is an open source sensor and actuator platform designed to fit in the Smart City architecture of any city looking for openness and easy interoperability. Sentilo was originally built as the sensor platform for the City of Barcelona. With an aim of openness from it’s beginning, it uses only open source components. After its deployment, the City Council has released the code under a free and open source software license.



cropped-cropped-CHRIS_LOGOx1_HD_W.pngBarcelona is using Sentilo as the component that interconnects the networks of sensors and actuators deployed citywide with the applications that monitor and control them.( The Barcelona City Council continues to be the main sponsor and code contributor to the project.

Given the open nature of the platform, anyone is free to download the software and set-up their own sensor network anywhere in the world.

Connectivity ~ The Last Mile of IoT

Deploying a sensor network is futile unless you can get that data from the sensor and into the cloud on a reliable basis. Legacy technologies such as: Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and Cellular each come with their own unique constraints. Even if the core software and hardware components of an IoT platform are open source, deploying a Wi-Fi or using a cellular network can be cost prohibitive.


Image credit Daniel Conrad

However, within the last twelve months, new options have developed that are already proving to be disruptive.

Several different standards are hitting the market now, with LoRa, Sigfox, and Ingenu in the lead. Collectively, they are known as Low-Power Wide Area Network radios, or LPWAN.

Each standard uses a different technique to maximize range while minimizing transmission power. Sigfox uses a well-known modulation technique, but transmits slowly in a very narrow band of spectrum to maximize signal penetration. LoRa radios use a modulation technique that can find signal well below the noise floor. Ingenu uses their own novel form of spread spectrum modulation.

I am personally most excited about LoRaWan.

LoRaWAN is designed to provide Low Power Wide Area Network with features specifically needed to support low-cost, mobile, secure bi-directional communication for Internet of Things (IoT), machine-to-machine (M2M), and smart city, and industrial applications.

It is optimized for low power consumption and to support large networks with millions and millions of devices. It has innovative features, support redundant operation, location, low-cost, low-power and can even run on energy harvesting technologies enabling the mobility and ease of use to Internet of Things.

All of this means that, with a relatively modest investment, new companies can become wireless carriers for IoT devices. 

I believe this the single most disruptive technology we’ve seen to date with respect to the Internet of things. We are already seeing new “carrier-style” IoT networks being built ( , if only because the barriers are so low.

A Global Call to Action


With each passing day, it becomes easier to connect devices to the Internet and not only share that data, but to take intelligent action.

The effects of real-time data capture across cities will create visibility and force transparency across all sectors. Whether a municipality embraces the notion of their own sensor network or not, they will be forced to reckon with the effects of such.

Each of the above approaches highlights the emergence of new options that exist for cities to embrace a smart city initiative with some degree of urgency. It is in no way an exhaustive analysis.

The danger, however, in adopting only one approach is the risk of creating even more silos and making a city too dependent on specific technologies, products or providers that create isolated compartments where applications cannot share their data among them.

Furthermore, with the barrier to entry approaching zero, private sector companies and engaged citizens will continue to adopt these technologies and plug their devices into the networks of their choice. In this vein, cities will have to be aware of the data and react to it.

Xaqt CityAware can provide this visibility by helping cities understand what information is already out there, and then create a path to their own smart strategy.

Regardless of your approach, the Xaqt CitySense platform presents a way to bring it all together.


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