Smart city platform aggregates, maps open data

Smart city platform aggregates, maps open data

Although the number of open, public data sets available is growing, IT managers find it difficult to combine or compare data in ways that would illuminate some of the chronic problems now facing local governments. But now cities have a one-stop shop for aggregating information in multiple data sets and applying time and location parameters that can deliver actionable analytics.  

That’s the objective of Plenario, a tool launched in alpha form in September that aims to become the platform and framework for building smart city applications. Plenario lets users to study regions over specified time periods using all relevant data, regardless of original source, and represent the data as a single time series. By providing a hub for open data, the company said, Plenario lets city managers ask the right questions with as few constraints as possible.

The first step toward that  goal is enabling users to download data from multiple, independent data sources so they can be easily correlated against the same time and location coordinates.  

Before Plenario, someone who wanted to research the correlation between outside temperature and local robberies would have to get data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association and local robbery data from the police department, a process that could take a month to organize, said Brett Goldstein, Plenario developer and senior fellow in urban science at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy.

“The core idea with Plenario,” Goldstein said, “was how can we hook into initially all of these open data portals, consume their spatial data, put it into a big data platform and offer it up with a single API so there was one-stop shopping for the story of place.”

With the Plenario tool, all that information can be downloaded in about six seconds.

“With millions of rows of weather data and millions of rows of crime data, how would you bring this together?” said Goldstein, the former chief information officer for the city of Chicago.

“Now you simply connect with Plenario and say, ‘Plenario, I want to have every robbery since Jan. 1, 2001, and what the temperature was.’ Because we put all of this data into the architecture, you have now downloaded every single robbery and it has the temperature at the time of the robbery.”

Plenario, whose name is based on the word “plenary,” was developed using PostGIS, an open-source spatial database extender for PostgreSQL object-relational databases that adds support for geographic objects and allows location queries to be run in SQL.

The system automatically creates connectors to portals. If an analyst wanted to add Chicago crimes to a query, he would take the URL from the Chicago crimes dataset, give it to Plenario and include how often  updates were desired. Plenario would  automatically update at that interval.

In addition to the underlying data work, Plenario also offers a map on top of which users can draw a box to see and export all the data available for a particular region. Most users are happy with a map representation, but more advanced users have the option of writing code and making their own tools, Goldstein said.

“We’re hoping to reach constituencies that range from my mom, who can get on and will get some data in a real friendly way, to your intense data scientist who’s working on a really hard problem,” he said.

The tool launched at the local level – with the Chicago data sets – but it’s applicable to all levels of government, Goldstein said.

In a large city, for instance, Plenario might help officials understand and and tailor policy according to specific data coordinates rather than having to apply blanket measures.

“On the federal level, this is going to be enormously powerful because as they understand all the different parts of the country that act in different ways, this is one-stop shopping for them to access the data in the different levels to help them customize and tailor policy,” Goldstein said.

Looking ahead, Goldstein and his team want to continue to build out the self-submission features of Planario and  continue to solidify to its architecture. Their ultimate goal is make cities smarter so they can predict and prevent problems instead of reacting to them, he said.

Cities nationwide and overseas are expressing interest in Plenario. One draw could be its high return on investment. Up front, it saves on licensing fees because it’s open source. It could also help save money down the line: as cities become more predictive, they can save on operations costs, Goldstein said.

As an example he cited the correlation Chicago found between broken garbage cans and rats. In areas with broken cans, the number of rats increased about a week later. Now when officials see multiple reports of broken cans with Plenario, they can respond – before the rats do.

Plenario is the culmination of work Goldstein started when he was chief data officer and CIO under Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a proponent of open data. Goldstein released more than 400 datasets in 2011 and launched the WindyGrid the next year as a way to unite disparate spatial data in a NoSQL big data platform.

Plenario grew out of his concern that releasing data without context or ways to visualize it was no better than putting “spreadsheets on the web, where we’re just dumping data out.”

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.

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