Latest CityVerve Blog - Hypercat: Our data hub explained

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Professor John Davies, BT 

November 2016

As the second largest technology provider in the CityVerve project, BT has a number of roles to fulfil.

Perhaps the biggest of these is the provision of a Hypercat-enabled Internet of Things (IoT) data hub. This will be one of several data platforms in the project, making interoperability vital – so that data from multiple platforms can be easily combined.

The Hypercat specification was developed as part of previous Innovate UK-funded projects. It’s ideal for addressing the challenge of interoperability and avoiding the siloed approaches that have formerly stymied some smart cities projects.

Breaking down barriers

The specification is ideal for meeting CityVerve’s core aim of seamless interoperability and breaking down information siloes.

We want to see how we can use data that is transport-related in combination with, for example, data concerning the environment or healthcare.

Hypercat achieves this by aggregating lots and lots of different heterogeneous data sources and then publishing that data to a hub in a uniform way.

This also effectively lowers the barrier to entry for people contributing to the project.

An SME with an innovative idea for an application, for instance, might require data from multiple sources perhaps hosted on more than one hub to make that idea work. With Hypercat, we can do the leg work of pulling data from those various sources together.

This not only encourages innovation by freeing up time and resources, but also produces economies of scale by preventing multiple partners from incurring the costs associated with aggregating the data individually.

Reading robots

Another key aspect of Hypercat is that it publishes its data catalogue in a way that is machine-readable.

This means that a computer program can automatically interrogate the hub and see what data is of use. Crucially, it doesn’t require a human to be in the loop to make these discoveries – an important factor in standardising the collection of relevant data from the hub.

In this way, a program can be used to make simple queries of the dataset: “what data is available about air quality in Manchester?” or “what data is available about traffic speeds on Oxford Road?” for instance. In a nutshell: “what data do you have, and how do I get hold of it?”

Hypercat uses a file format called JSON, which is a well understood and widely used web technology with an API that allows making these kinds of queries straightforward.

It also means allows users – both data providers and consumers – to specify the terms and conditions on which data is made available.

Data providers, when uploading data to the hub, can set the terms under which they’re happy for it to be used. Consumers, which in this case would be those developing applications for the project, are granted an easy understanding of the conditions under which they can use the data on offer.

Open to all

Hypercat is open source and royalty free. Its current status with the British Standards Institute is as a Publically Available Specification.

This means that it hasn’t been adopted as standard as such – but a PAS is the first step on the route to standardisation, and the BSI is considering the most appropriate international standards body for Hypercat.

What’s particularly interesting about this, from a CityVerve point of view, is that we will be actively contributing to the development of Hypercat to help make it first-choice specification for IoT projects of all kinds. Things we learn in CityVerve when applying Hypercat can be used to refine the specification.

This, of course, is very much in keeping with our wider aim to provide a blueprint for smart cities the world over – the ever-developing Hypercat specification (we’re using version 3.1) will be a key aspect of this.

Keeping personal data private

Another area of the project BT is working on is to address pertinent issues of data privacy. Key to this is allowing for a fine-grained level of data control.

People tend to use apps on their smartphones, and in the process of doing so might give away a lot of data – their location, email address, date of birth, etcetera.

There’s a growing awareness – and rightly so – that people need to be more cautious before ticking the box that allows organisations’ access to their data.

CityVerve’s approach is about letting citizens and other users know which applications are using which portions of this data and how.

If you think of CityVerve as including a matrix of applications that a citizen might use, then there will be multiple instances in which a preferences around data usage will apply.

Citizens will be able to specify which bits of data they’re happy to provide in return for the various service on offer – their location, for instance, in return for accurate public transport information.

These preferences are recorded, and then an intuitive user interface will show the citizen which apps they will have access to according to their data sharing choices.

It’s about giving that control and transparency back to the citizens, showing them who is using their data and what they’re getting in return.