Co-Founder and CEO of Stream, an enterprise-grade chat and activity feed provider serving more than a billion end-users.
As cities across the United States look toward the future, the importance of collecting and analyzing data is clear. Smart cities — municipalities that use connected technology and data to improve city service efficiencies (think trash pickup and snow removal) and increase equity and prosperity for residents and businesses — are using cutting-edge tech to better citizens’ experience across multiple sectors, including transportation, public health and more.
Application programming interfaces (APIs) are a vital component of smart city development. Typically used by software engineers to easily interact with different components, resources and data repositories, APIs also provide researchers and officials the information they need to elevate city life. This trend in municipalities adopting an API-based approach broadly follows a larger trend in software development. As the founder of a company that builds API infrastructure to power in-app messaging and activity feeds, I can appreciate how a centralized, modular approach helps cities better collect, organize and act on data insights.
Here, I’ll outline how cities use APIs to improve their community and showcase a pioneering project that relies on API solutions to make a city smarter, safer and more socially conscious.
Why Smart Cities Matter
The U.N. estimates that two-thirds of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050. As cities grow, public systems such as utilities, housing and transportation are strained, underscoring the need for data-backed infrastructure to serve more people. Access to datasets is essential for community leaders and other smart city stakeholders, such as research institutions, entrepreneurs and advocacy groups, to make informed decisions and build collaborative projects across sectors.
“The key to smart city success is rooted in cooperation and inter-connectivity,” writes Chelsea Collier, editor at large for Smart Cities Connect, an organization that promotes the adoption of smart technology solutions. Ready and centralized access to real-time data is paramount to examining the effectiveness of aging infrastructure, identifying improvement opportunities and empowering cities to incorporate smart city technology and services. APIs can be the architecture for such data delivery.
Real-Time Data Collection And Access
Local governments and research institutions use APIs to aggregate complex data and make it available for other researchers or private citizens to utilize it for the public good. Low-latency API infrastructure makes it possible for smart city experts to collect and share massive amounts of data with their team and other stakeholders.
One exciting project using APIs is helmed by Mina Sartipi, director of the Center for Urban Informatics and Progress (CUIP) at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga. Sartipi oversees a 1.25-mile roadway running through downtown Chattanooga called the MLK Smart Corridor. A primary artery for traffic, the corridor is a testbed for Sartipi’s team to analyze traffic flow, pedestrian patterns and cyclist safety by collecting and processing information from a variety of Wi-Fi-enabled sensors such as cameras, LIDAR, RADAR, microphones and even air quality sensors. Because the MLK Smart Corridor project is a collaboration with the City of Chattanooga, it’s important for governmental organizations to be able to tap into this dataset via APIs to identify potential traffic light deficiencies or safety hazards.
One interesting find from the MLK Smart Corridor? There were fewer car accidents on the corridor during the pandemic compared with pre-pandemic times. However, the accidents that did occur were more severe and had a higher fatality rate. The jury is still out on why such results are happening, but by using APIs, Sartipi’s team can understand how fast cars were going before an accident, understand when the accident occurred and learn more about visibility levels and weather to get answers that can make a meaningful impact on resident safety.
API Possibilities And Limitations
As city officials continue to realize the benefits of real-time data collection, the importance of APIs in smart city creation will only expand. And already, APIs are integral components in technology that can improve resident and citizen life.
For example, developers use APIs to build apps that track the time of arrival of public transportation, which makes moving around a city in a bus, subway or ferry more predictable. Apps that use APIs can help residents make non-emergency complaints (such as downed trees, overflowing trash cans and graffiti) to municipalities and track the progress of the solution. APIs are even helping tourists identify must-see places of interest and lead them to seek off-the-beaten-path experiences for a more enjoyable visit.
One thing to keep in mind as APIs become an increasingly crucial aspect of smart city framework: Research teams, organizations and developers using APIs should include input from community advocate advisors who understand the civic challenges associated with certain data projects. Incorporating equity into smart city development ensures APIs will help solve real problems and make modern communities more resilient and livable for all.