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Visualization tools a 'game changer' for Smart Columbus

The cloud-based integrated data exchange that ingests information from multiple sources in Columbus, Ohio, now offers visualization tools to help users quickly make better sense of the data.

The tools are the latest feature to come out of the Smart Columbus Operating System (SCOS), the open-data foundation of Smart Columbus, a regionwide smart city initiative co-led by the city and the Columbus Partnership, a nonprofit group dedicated to the region’s economy.

SCOS is a cloud-based integrated data exchange that ingests data from multiple previously siloed sources -- including city and state government agencies, regional food banks and an external parking services group -- and makes it all available and usable in one place.

Smart Columbus uses an agile development approach for SCOS, adding and tweaking features every two weeks. The visualization tools came out last month, although the system launched in 2017.

“Visualization is a game changer with respect to data,” said Mandy Bishop, deputy director of public service and Smart Columbus program manager. For example, by visualizing data, city officials saw that a section of one street had an unusually high number of parking violations. An employee investigated and found that a “no parking” sign was so faded that drivers couldn’t read that it was a permit-only area.

The Smart Columbus team is also working with the Department of Public Service’s Division of Infrastructure to pull data out of work orders to see where the bulk of employees' time is being spent. Responsible for jobs such as trash and snow removal, pothole repair and mowing, the division can get backed up on requests.

“We’re looking to pull data in from different systems and help align it with the resources that that manager has and help him project and align resources for the next 30 days in order to tackle the work orders that he has in the system,” Bishop said.

Other visualizations on the Smart Columbus website include weather data, statistics on infant birth weight and data from the Central Ohio Transit Authority.

Visualization will also help the city make better predictions, added Jordan Davis, director of Smart Columbus for the Columbus Partnership, the nonprofit side of the initiative that focuses on strategy and partnerships.

The partnership wants to "better and more rapidly correlate need in the community,” Davis said. “If we understood where increased demand for food occurred in a neighborhood," for example, we could see how that correlates to potential homelessness.

The effort is in its infancy, Bishop emphasized, and much of the information is still siloed and static, and some has to be input into SCOS manually. Data comes into the system in four ways: application programming interfaces or CSV, JSON or shape files. All of the data goes to a data curator who scans it for compliance with the city’s data management and privacy plans before placing it in the operating system.

Data refresh rates vary, and many of the 3,000 datasets in SCOS now are static, but Davis expects that to change. “The world is moving toward a more real-time, machine-generated data environment,” she said. “So, the way that this operating system is built is to ingest large amounts of real-time data on an ongoing basis. We’ll have a lot of complex projects coming online from the connected vehicle environment and others that will demonstrate that.”

The Smart Columbus team built SCOS using open source code in hopes that other communities and the private sector would be able to contribute back to the project or adapt it to create their own systems. SCOS is hosted on an Amazon Web Services cloud, but the architecture would also work on premises or with Microsoft Azure or Google Cloud.

SCOS came to be when the city won the U.S. Transportation Department’s first Smart City Challenge in 2016. Columbus' proposal to implement an integrated data exchange ultimately became SCOS.

“It really came about out of a vision to develop a data management platform that was sensible, replicable and sharable,” Bishop said.

Other smart city efforts under way through Smart Columbus include connected electric autonomous vehicles, which went live in January; mobility assistance for people with cognitive disabilities, which went live in April; and the Multi-modal Trip Planning app, which became available in August. Projects in progress include a connected vehicle environment and smart mobility hubs.

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.

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