Making Location Work for Smart Cities – the Case for Location Standards

October 15, 2014

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The Case for Location Standards

The OGC’s chief engineer, George Percivall, believes there are a few relevant trends in  “smart cities” and identifies the importance of open location standards to any smart city undertaking. Smart cities, as we will explain further below, exhibit “close collaboration between public, private and voluntary sector,” as well as a high-availability of technology and information to citizens.

The year 2008 was a turning point for smart cities. For the first time in modern history, urban population accounted for more than half of the world’s population. Today, urban population accounts for 54 percent of the total global population (World Health Organization 2014). Accompanying the growth in cities is the advancement in mobile technologies. According to Cisco, by the end of 2014, there will be more mobile-connected devices than the number of people on the Earth. Location is important for almost all of those mobile users and to almost all of those fixed or mobile Internet-connected devices, which might be, for example, smart phones, sensors, cameras, switches or vehicles.

Another trend that calls for open location standards is the growth of 3D spatial visualization, well represented by the city of Berlin’s implementation using OGC’s CityGML standard. Spatial visualization includes efforts to map indoor spaces, which require integrated indoor/outdoor navigation. OGC’s IndoorGML candidate standard for navigation/routing is coming up for adoption in the next few months.

The growth in the Internet of Things (IoT) is part of the smart cities phenomenon. The ability of the sensors to connect to the Internet almost anywhere plus the ability to put inexpensive micro-sensors almost anywhere results in the potential to add intelligence to ordinary objects. All objects and sensors in the IoT have location, so IoT location intelligence depends on open standards that enable communication of location as well as sensor observations, capabilities and control parameters.

Another trend is the growing use of augmented reality (AR). AR gives users information portrayed by means of computer graphics overlays on (usually) photographic views of real landscapes or objects. In a sense, the world thus becomes the map. A recent demonstration at Mobile World Congress 2014 of three major AR browsers showed the browsers sharing and displaying the same information to more than 50M users, which was possible because the information was encoded in the candidate OGC AR Markup Language (ARML 2.0) encoding standard.

Smart city applications such as these can benefit from location services that implement open standards:

  • Citizen services
  • Energy/utilities management
  • Disaster/emergency response
  • Urban maps with building information modeling (BIM) interoperability including 3D city models, indoor venue maps
  • Sensor webs for situational awareness

Percivall sees that cities and citizens face risks in the new world of almost ubiquitous location tracking. When people carry or wear GPS devices or sensor/actuators, such as radio-frequency identification (RFID) chips, they enable human mobility tracking. Citizens need to be aware that the convenience and value they derive individually and collectively from location services, the monetary value derived by companies and the social value derived by governments come with risks of individual criminal use, government malfeasance and corporate abuse. These are issues that need to be debated publicly and in some cases might be addressed by standards.

While we are focused here on technology, we must consider the implications on social policy. Much smart city technology focuses on command and control approaches in order to respond to emergency and disaster response needs. The technology and standards must also enable providing information to all people in the city to allow them to assess their needs and risks. This is similar to Jane Jacobs’s revolution in Urban Planning some decades ago, which focused on the value of community life and social networks. A smart city enables better choices by its citizens, organizations and governments.

Smart Cities in Action

Carsten Rönsdorf, head of Advisory Services Middle East, Ordnance Survey International, defines a smart city as having the following characteristics:

  1. Ubiquitous availability and exchange of information
  2. Technologyimplementation to make life better and safer
  3. Close collaboration between public, private and voluntary sector as well as citizens

To illustrate these characteristics, he describes Dubai’s current smart city implementation that focuses on smart government services in areas such as new telecommunication lines, schools, events and visitor venues.

Smart cities such as Dubai require a framework of trusted/authoritative data, for example, core reference data in 2D and 3D (i.e. topography), identifiers and addressing, smart infrastructure (BIM, smart grid), and sensor feeds. Also critical is a smart city's openness to all data types, such as volunteered, unstructured and linked data. Such a framework needs a robust data integration platform, which is provided, in part, by OGC’s CityGML.

With CityGML, spatial data become an “operating system” for a virtual version of a city. Practical use cases include things such as optimization of transport and efficient energy use. Berlin's city model enables a variety of improved city services including economic development/investment, real estate, city marketing and event management. For decades, cities have used GIS and geospatial data to improve various services and operations. A good example is London’s use of geospatial data for the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games to establish the route network and determine traffic impacts. Authorities in London also used geographic data to manage security operations and help direct building of needed infrastructure.

Smart cities require standards that enable data and apps to easily interoperate, but this requirement is often overlooked. A good way to begin is to develop a citywide 2D and 3D urban data model to integrate different sources of available geospatial data. The data model becomes the city's open standard, a language that all actors, datasets and technologies use to interact. This has been done in cities including Berlin and Abu Dhabi, and countrywide in the Netherlands, Bahrain and Germany. CityGML enables semantic modeling, that is, each element in the model includes data about meaning, structure and relationships. OGC standards including CityGML and the candidate IndoorGML and 3D Portrayal Servicesare open international standards that deserve consideration when cities are designing their smart city technical architectures.

Smart Cities and the Internet of Things

Steve Liang, associate professor at the Department of Geomatics Engineering, University of Calgary, has focused his work on the importance of connected devices as part of the smart cities initiatives. He notes that Cisco estimates that by 2020 the IoT market will grow to $14.4 trillion in net profit with 50 billion connected devices. Sensors attached to objects collect data, but also every sensor and every thing in the IoT has a location that needs to be carefully described in terms of outdoor and often also indoor geometry, topology and semantics.

Examples of companies providing sensors integrating location in the IoT for smart cities applications include:

  • Enlighted – light and passive infrared sensors with a variety of uses for managing building environments
  • Fybr – magnetometer and radar sensors used for parking availability in San Francisco, allowing demand-based pricing
  • Smart Citizen - sensor kit with temperature, light sensor, sound pressure, air quality, humidity for many smart city applications
  • Propeller Health – Smart inhaler for asthma and COPD; health/medical sensors are a hot area for IoT

Unfortunately most of the sensors generate silos of data – the sensors and their data collections are connected to the Internet but not to one another. Therefore, device data cannot be easily integrated into solutions. The big problem now is that it is difficult to maintain ad hoc connections – there is no interoperability, vendor lock-in is common, implementations are high risk, and product life cycles are short. The real potential of IoT to make cities smarter lies in service enablement through the combination of data from multiple sensors. The best solution is for cities to encourage one application programming interface (API) for every sensor system, so that solution providers can focus on app creation, not building dozens of different interfaces to connect everything.

The OGC Sensor Web Enablement (SWE) SensorThings APIcandidate standard, now in draft, can be that standard for IoT. It builds on the OGC's comprehensive SWE standards suite, but it is designed to be lightweight and easily implemented. It incorporates REST-like API & JSON encoding, supports standards-based location encodings (indoor/outdoor, mobile/stationary), is linked data ready (JSON-LD), and is Pub-Sub ready (MQTT). Rather than using vendor lock-in APIs, Dr. Liang encourages smart city developers to try the SensorThings API and provide feedback to OGC.


From the OGC’s perspective, there are three unifying themes.

First, smart cities can improve services to citizens and visitors through innovative methods for connecting people with relevant information derived by combining 2D and 3D data from multiple sources with sensor data from multiple sources. Benefits include:

  • Economic – new forms of production
  • Civic – better participation tools
  • Political – better governance/leadership
  • Theoretical – new boundaries for a new “polis”

Second, location data and services are critical to a smart city information architecture, but there are many parameters to accommodate in location encodings and interfaces, and thus geospatial standards are essential. Open standards provide a basis for sound spatial architectures in smart cities. The ubiquity and variety of 3D data and sensor data in cities means that interoperability is fundamental to any smart city value proposition. OGC SWE, CityGML, IndoorGML, KML and 3D Portrayal Services are examples of relevant existing and candidate standards for smart cities that make location information publishable, discoverable, assessable, accessible and usable. Open architectures that feature open interface and encoding standards enable seamless interoperability of independently developed technologies. Working in an open fashion, OGC aims to develop an architecture of spatial information for smart cities for reuse in multiple cities.

The third theme is that there are significant market opportunities through innovations in open standards. OGC standards are international standards that are established as best practice in cities around the world. App vendors, sensor vendors and solution providers that implement OGC standards can provide products and services that are reusable in any smart city.

The presenters at the Directions Magazine webinar, Making Location Work for Smart Cities – the Case for Location Standards, made the case that some of the most successful smart city initiatives are progressing well because of OGC support through its open standards and implementation testbeds. OGC will continue its support of implementations of this architecture in several cities over the next year. More discussion of these initiatives will occur at the OGC Smart Cities Location Powers Summit in Tokyo on December 2, 2014.


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