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ReshAPIng Cities – Using APIs to Build Smarter Cities

By Alan Glickenhouse posted Thu October 15, 2015 05:47 PM

Cities are competing to attract new residents, businesses and visitors and of course keep the residents and businesses that are already there. As we have previously discussed in “Government APIs – Do more with less”, resources and budgets are tight. So, cities need to use new techniques to provide a high quality of life and positive economic climate while keeping within their budget.   City leaders need to foster collaboration across disparate agencies and are looking to cloud, mobile, social, and big data analytics to make this happen. How are they accessing these technologies? – APIs.

future city

Smarter Cities covers a wide range of areas: Planning and management (public safety, smarter buildings, city planning and operations, smarter_cities_ecosystemgovernment management), Infrastructure (water, transportation, energy), and People (social programs, healthcare, education). Each of these could be covered by a blog post of its own and some of these are related to prior blogs I’ve written. To keep this blog consumable I will choose a small smattering of examples across these areas mostly focusing on areas where multiple organizations need to work together or where citizens can benefit by a consolidated view across organizations.

So, let’s investigate how APIs are used in Smarter Cities. Once again I’ll use the structure I previously introduced (here).


city quoteMobile (Internal) App Development – Internal development examples for Smarter Cities include:

  • Basic APIs: providing citizen access to information, offerings and services via a mobile App at a city services level. Citizens can report a situation (crime, pot hole, traffic, etc.).

  • Custom APIs: Dashboards for city leaders to see what is working in their area of control and what is not. Citizen can register interest in specific topics and obtain information as items are posted that match. This could include road closures in their area, events, etc.       Law enforcement access to information while on patrol.

  • Mobile advantages include using the camera to capture information local to a police situation and use this to inquire on history or archive data.

What APIs are available today in Smarter Cities? Here are just a few samples of existing public APIs:

  • Toronto 311 - The City of Toronto 311 system is customer service for the City of Toronto government. Toronto 311 allows citizens to call and report a pothole, order a new garbage bin, learn about programs at local community centers, and more.

  • Cityworks - a platform for managing and scheduling municipal services provided by city and local governments. It includes cloud-based functions for scheduling service calls, public maintenance, and similar public service activities along with internal functions for city and county departments.

  • CitySDK Mobility API - A project that's designed to make it easier for cities to expose useful information to developers. So far, the cities of Lisbon, Helsinki, Lamia, Rome, and Amsterdam have joined the project. The CitySDK Mobility API exposes information on basic geography, street-level mapping, public transportation, and Amsterdam-specific infrastructure and transportation.

  • Open NY Daily Traffic on Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) Bridges and Tunnels - provides access to a catalogue of data on the vehicles that pass through all 9 bridges operated by the MTA each day. Cars, buses, trucks and motorcycles are accounted for, and the dataset includes field types that such as date, bridge name, number of vehicles that paid in cash per bridge, and total vehicles per bridge.

Besides creating Mobile Apps, there are many other areas where APIs can provide value for Smarter Cities.


Partnering – In an emergency situation it is often necessary to coordinate activity across multiple organizations: police, fire, ambulance, Interagencyhospitals, etc. This can be combined with information from traffic management, social networks, and weather to provide the optimal response. All of the agencies and departments need to exchange information and cooperate to be most effective. APIs allowing status to be sent, requests to be issued, and analytics to coordinate the best actions can result in saving lives. A unified dashboard can be created for leaders to direct activity and issue actions via APIs to the mobile devices of the personnel supporting the response.


career planningPublic APIs – As today’s topic is Smarter Cities which is dealing with public support for citizens almost all of the APIs discussed may be public APIs, although a few may be internal only or partner specific for security reasons.

A specific example in the area of Education can be job placement APIs. Job postings can be made available via APIs with school counselors accessing the listings and matching job qualifications to graduating students or directing students to classes required for areas of interest.


Social – APIs can help remove barriers between healthcare providers and other health related organizations providing a holistic view. Cities can use social media to offer programs to encourage overall wellness (smoking cessation, weight loss, etc.). Social media APIs can encourage collaboration with personal networks and groups to support these positive lifestyle changes. Citizens can use APIs to track their weight toward a goal, schools can use APIs to advertise events (e.g. runs, health fairs, etc.).


Devices – In the area of Infrastructure device APIs can play a large role. Water can be conserved through sensors that report issues (e.g. trafficleaks) when they occur. Bi-directional communication can occur between homes and the electric grid to support consuming electricity when it is least expensive or supplying excess solar generated power back to the power companies.

The European Commission (EC) estimates that road traffic congestion affects 10 percent of the road network, and costs the EU about 1 percent of its GDP annually. Sensors on roads or mass transit systems can report status. This can be communicated to citizens or vehicles to help calculate optimum routes.

In the case of an incident vehicles can automatically notify that the incident has occurred and report potential traffic impact and call for assistance (medical, police, and fire).


Data – Law enforcement agents need to combine their real time situation with analytic data to help predict best courses of action (see Durham police reduce crime). APIs can be used to combine current information (e.g. location) with analytics to assist in reducing/preventing crime.

Supporting social programs for citizens can be enhanced through APIs. Social workers can access all necessary systems when supporting a citizen to check that they are in compliance with all requirements (reducing fraud), but also to see what other options are available to support the citizen’s needs.


dnyc_logoIBM recently announced our 8th digital city in Bangalore India. Prior cities included New York, Berlin, Porto Alegre (Brazil) and several others around the world. All of these provide access to city specific resources for developers. The purpose for all of these is to create a collaborative environment that fosters creativity for the developers in the community. Quoting from the mayor’s initial announcement of Digital NYC in October 2014, “…providing information and resources to help turn ideas into businesses, deliver valuable tools for digital startups, and connect New Yorkers to opportunities in the City’s tech ecosystem.”

city strategy

All cities have systems that run their businesses – police, emergency management, energy, water, transportation, social programs, etc. Smart cities are recognizing that these systems need to work together to provide solutions. APIs are a great technology to provide the necessary interactions and quickly form valuable solutions.

Remember that to achieve success you should always put controls around the APIs so that you know who uses the APIs and how much and can map this to the results. With this visibility, you can use the analytics to determine which techniques are working and which are not.

Connect with me through comments here or via twitter @Arglick to continue the discussion.   You can also read my earlier blogs.