How multiple IoT projects contribute to Washington, D.C.'s long-term vision


By Scott Pomeroy, Downtown DC Business Improvement District; John Teeter, Maalka; and Zach Wilson, D.C. Department of General Services

The District of Columbia has multiple IoT-based projects underway. The most public of these projects are participating in the Global Cities Team Challenge (GCTC)  sponsored by US Ignite and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Cyber-Physical Systems Group.

The GCTC DC Supercluster showcases a number of these projects. Each with specific objectives, managing organizations, and community stakeholders. These project are orchestrated by the Office of the Mayor, but are being implemented by various stakeholders within the city.  The recent appointment of  Archana Vemulapalli as the city's Chief Technology Officer ensures ongoing guidance and synergies within city projects as they move forward.

The longer term vision is to provide a city wide platform for agile and open development of city services; a platform for open innovation where agile methodologies prevail; an environment where experimentation is encouraged, failure expected, and success rapidly replicated. Maalka and Urban.Systems are engaging in this effort to bring open platforms to support scalable IoT and Big Data capabilities to the district’s urban infrastructure.

At the edge, sensors that are being deployed providing the Internet of Things (IoT) dimension of the infrastructure. This open platform for sensor integration will encourage both experimentation and low-cost  solutions deployment.

Multiple communications assets to support the sensors are in planning or already available. These range from the high-bandwidth Internet2™ services for research and experimentation, access points integrated with public space WiFi kiosks  and low speed ubiquitous LoRa™networks providing IoT specific sensor deployments throughout the city. These communication capabilities integrate analytics, control and citizen engagement throughout the city.

Overall, to become a truly ubiquitous information repository, the platform must integrate the various silos of focus into a holistic data/information space with common open application interfaces (APIs) that allows programmers to use them to access the data.

At the edge
The planned LoRa™ deployment is particularly unique. Each LoRa™ access point provides network coverage for a radius of up to 10 kilometers. Each access point is capable of supporting thousands of sensors (based upon sensor communications configurations). The networking bandwidth of these sensors is extremely low speed. Sensors may be configured to only transmit data intermittently, either by time based or event-based triggers. For example, an audio sensor might transmit only when sound levels exceed a specific threshold, resulting in annual transmissions on the order of 10-100 events. This allows extensive battery life for these sensors and, as a result, the ubiquitous deployment of very low cost sensors.  

These network characteristics encourage both experimentation and production service deployments. The District has an active Things Network chapter that is deploying  LoRa™ at a regional basis, supporting a citizen grass-roots network with focus on educational and citizen innovations of new services, that directly supports and integrates with the LoRa™ network to be deployed in the city.

The existence of an open and accessible public/private infrastructure for IoT sensor deployment provides a basis for data acquisition that is unique in high density urban environments. The combination of research and production infrastructure provides the city with a capability to engage stakeholders across the region. Multiple universities and K-12 educational programs are possible. The low cost and reusability of the sensors, including Arduino and other low cost platforms, encourages the use of this community asset in ways that have often been quite limited by cost and availability of experimental components.

At the core
While low-speed, low-power networking characteristics are suitable to support the ubiquitous deployment of swarms of edge devices, many services rely on the availability of higher bandwidth and very predictable quality of service network capabilities.

The DC-Net Project provides managed voice, data and video wire-based and wireless services to all government constituents city-wide over a secure, highly redundant and high-capacity fiber optic telecommunications platform. This standards-based platform lays the foundation for all next-generation government and public safety communications throughout the District. In addition, DC-Net provides broadband services to health and education-based nonprofits. DC-Net is a program managed by the Government of the District of Columbia’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer (OCTO).

The data
Each of the projects being deployed have also defined their own data needs. While this is the right way to go in many cases, this approach also makes it difficult for data obtained in one project to be leveraged to the advantage of others. For example, data collected by an air quality sensor deployment may also be quite useful to a project managing mobility in the district. The two domains have dependencies that may be exploited to the betterment of both.   

This problem is compounded when we think of the information content of the data. The term “information silo” is used to describe the situation. When one thinks of a city’s infrastructure as a “system of systems”, as is described by the NIST Cyber-Physical Systems Public Working Groups, it becomes clear that silos are a distinct impediment to unleashing the full potential of technology deployments in cities.