Blockchains and Data Exchanges: Information Infrastructure for Smart Cities

Next gen city apps will be part of the fabric of urban life


Blockchains and data marketplaces are poised to reshape the information infrastructure for smart cities. The emerging information infrastructure will spawn new city-wide applications and enhance regional services for transportation, emergency management, and city maintenance, among other classes of services.

The current practice of smart city applications development for specific use cases has been underwhelming in its impact. Traffic management at intersections, for example, does little to relieve congestion across a city. Blockchains and data exchanges, by contrast, will help to optimize traffic flows and stem choke points city-wide, and its local region, regardless of the mode of transportation.

The keystone of the new architecture for smart city development will be data marketplaces with or without blockchains. While the value of blockchains is disputed in some circles, we came across a great deal of evidence to show that they will play a vital role.

Data marketplaces will create pools of data for open use on applications development platforms. The data will be aggregated from numerous data sources especially those streamed from IoT devices in real-time. Currently, open data platforms provide mostly historical data within the operational periphery of their city. The data marketplaces will interconnect data sources to capture the dynamics of city activities and their regions.

Building Data Exchanges

We spoke to Mike Nawrocki, Vice President of Technology and Solutions, at the Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions (ATIS), who leads ATIS’ initiative to develop specifications and blueprints for the next generation of smart cities. “The first generation of smart city data exchanges, largely outside of the USA, has primarily been developed through top-down programs initiated by governments. Copenhagen’s program has been built by additionally using vendor investment (Hitachi Vantara) and is promoted as the world’s first open data marketplace. ATIS wants to encourage Smart City data exchanges with a common set of specifications that are voluntarily adopted by cities which invite a broad community of partners to develop applications,” Mike Nawrocki told us.

To advance this goal, ATIS is partnering with US Ignite which has long had a role in connecting funding from the federal government agencies with the needs of city governments. ATIS searched for common challenges in the existing practice for smart city development and identified data exchanges as a significant opportunity for cities. In 2018, it published a Data Sharing Framework. In September of that year, ATIS entered into a collaboration with US Ignite to jointly work with cities and industry to develop a data exchange specification. “Many thought-leading data-centric cities of all sizes have emerged and are making investments in big data. Together with industry, these cities can create a blueprint for data exchanges and open data marketplaces demonstrating the value of data as a key city asset,” Nawrocki noted.

ATIS has been exploring new opportunities for data marketplaces that will provide more value than data stores already available with cities. It discovered that cities, such as those surrounding Seattle, are inclined to share data and create a data marketplace for their region. “The sharing of data between cities is a complex process without a common approach, as cities are deploying distinct data management platforms. In cases where data exchange is appropriate and valuable, cities can share data with other entities with a common data exchange framework. Regional applications across smart regions, such as transportation or those that promote economic development, could utilize data exchanges to better support applications that cross municipal boundaries,” Mike Nawrocki surmised.

Inevitably, the security and privacy of the data is an issue in the context of the participation of many partners. ATIS is exploring distributed ledger technologies (DLT), like blockchain, with its members. Although not widely deployed in the ICT industry, DLT solutions are beginning to gain value in the marketplace. “Ultimately distributed ledger approaches could offer innovative solutions to complex privacy and security challenges,” Nawrocki acknowledged.

Mike Nawrocki: distributed ledgers could solve security and privacy issues in a multi-partners context

Mike Nawrocki: distributed ledgers could solve security and privacy issues in a multi-partners context

The role of cities in the data exchanges may include supplying raw data, aggregated data or real-time data, from many sources. In the case of data for emergency response, they could combine data crowd-sourced from citizens. For commercial usage, they could help to mesh historical data with real-time IoT data. Cities could also categorize the data to make it more valuable. The data could be supplied free to promote economic development, or cities could charge a fee when they add value to it by categorizing it.

In the end, application development is best done by the private sector, and data marketplaces are a convenient way for it to purchase data. “Entities in the government are risk-averse especially with cutting-edge technologies like decentralized blockchains and data marketplaces that are untested and that they don’t have the money or the people to execute — it is too much of a risk. Sharing of data often requires changes in the law that stretch for a year or more,” Curt Savoie, Director, Global Smart Cities Strategies program at IDC, told us.

Future applications for smart cities

The academic and consulting community has recognized the importance of data marketplaces and blockchains in accelerating the adoption of smart city applications. We spoke to Herb Sih, Managing Partner and Co-founder of Think Big Partners, based in Kansas City, who has consulted with dozens of smart cities and is aware of the implementation of next-generation applications enabled by blockchains and data marketplaces. “Blockchains record the origin of data, track all activities, people, processes, and associated performance and achievements which establishes the integrity of the system,” Herb Sih told us. “Fleet management has picked up momentum and cities can use blockchains to track their vehicle assets. Their location, condition, idle time, speed, maintenance, would then be known for optimizing their usage,” Herb Sih explained.

Activity tracking on blockchains underpins V2V (Vehicle-to-Vehicle) communications now under implementation in Denver. Data from vehicles could be used to alert drivers about potential collisions, safe lane changes, and congestion management on streets. “Vehicle manufacturers are wrestling with the problem of including all cars. Some cars like Tesla are more connected than others. 5G will make it more attractive to adopt V2V technologies with only milliseconds delays in message communications,” Herb Sih told us.

V2V communications will improve transportation security and manage congestion in cities

V2V communications will improve transportation security and manage congestion in cities

Drones have become more acceptable to urban communities for emergency management. “People will be able to call in quadcopters by entering their phone numbers on their smartphones. The drones will find them with the location information revealed by their smartphones, detect activity on the ground using infrared and send in a lifeline to people in situations such as fire or kidnapping,” Herb Sih told us. “In domestic terrorism cases, drones will map key reference points such as people hurt or exposed to danger for law enforcement to zero down on their strategic options all with reliable data from blockchains,” Herb Sih revealed based on his knowledge of current pilots by smart cities.

Drones will respond to calls for help from smartphones to manage emergencies

Drones will respond to calls for help from smartphones to manage emergencies

The emerging applications will span the length and breadth of cities and regions, and this is illustrated by CubeMonk which has set out to reduce congestion on the roads of smart cities by shrinking the number of trucks on the streets by increasing their utilization. It has created a centralized data exchange for carriers and shippers who have access to a single source of logistics information, to help match the supply of transportation capacity, in specific locations, with the demand for carriage. “We have an IoT layer, embedded with GURU devices which measure contextual information. It validates where is the shipment located, what is the shipment, where is it going, and who owns it. The other side is the supply of equipment. Demand and supply are divisible into small units measurable as standard cubes,” Todd Haselhorst, President, and Founder of CubeMonk told us. “The IoT devices create a mesh network which can communicate with the city infrastructure and pings information on what is contained in which cube or truck and how it will move in the supply chain,” Todd Haselhorst explained.

The blockchain-enabled logistics information infrastructure sets the stage for applications development. “In the second quarter of 2019, we will create leasable freight assets like cubes, but this model can also apply to trucks, containers, warehouses,” Todd Haselhorst revealed. The information will expose market signals for capacity planning.

A decentralized version of the blockchain will follow soon and will deliver information to truckers on the least congested path to their destination. “We are developing a device which will track data on the state of progress of a driver from point A to point B and compare with that of other drivers to determine which is the most optimal path,” Todd Haselhorst revealed.

Getting smart off-the-grid with blockchains

Cities can become more intelligent without any help from their governments at all. Individual city-dwellers can be sources of data, transmitted over networks that use unlicensed frequencies, curated on privately developed blockchains, paid with tokens for city services that fill gaps left by municipalities. MXC, in partnership with Match X, and Citiesense, is implementing such a plan in New York City.

“Waste clearance is a systemic problem in New York City, and our pilots are in some of the busiest commercial areas where local groups like Business Improvement Districts or BIDs supplement the work of municipalities,” Starling Childs, the CEO of Citiesense told us. “The initial pilots in three business districts will collect data on volume and weight of the trash, the extent of utilization of trash bins, and the frequency of trash clearance to help understand the problems of optimizing waste management and sanitation,” Starling Childs explained. “The data will be gathered from Match X gateways using unlicensed frequencies, and it may eventually be monetized when private waste haulers purchase the data and pay for it with MXC Coins,” Starling Childs informed us.


Institutional changes that encourage increased participation by the private sector will accelerate the growth of smart city applications. City Governments can help create an environment by promoting investments in the information infrastructure that underpin next-generation applications instead of individual projects. Data exchanges and blockchains help to create an open environment to unleash the creativity of the private sector. Future smart city applications will become a part of the fabric of city life and their impact will be felt in every pulse of their activities