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Manel Sanromà, chief information officer of Barcelona City Council

Manel Sanromà, chief information officer of Barcelona City Council

Having recently won the European Commission’s iCapital of Europe award, an honour bestowed upon cities that lead in using new technologies to bring citizens and governments closer together, Barcelona is among several international cities at the forefront of experimenting with using new technologies to support the city’s diverse services.

Manel Sanromà, the chief information officer of Barcelona City Council tells Business Cloud News that cloud computing, mobile technologies and the Internet of Things are front and centre for Barcelona as it moves to improve city management and break down silos across municipal government, the city, and ultimately Europe.

Sanromà, who has been the chief information officer of Barcelona City Council since 2011, and heads up the city’s innovation department, says that he loves acronyms. And somewhat fittingly, the one he uses to define the city’s technology innovation strategy takes the name of the famous Argentinian footballer that plays for Barcelona FC: M = Mobility, E = e-Government, S = Smart City, S = Sustainable IT, I = Innovation.

Mobility is particularly important for the city that also hosts the world’s largest annual mobile communications industry gathering, Mobile World Congress, and Sanromà says that from 2018 Barcelona plans to ensure every action between the city government and citizens can take place on any mobile device, which is a huge undertaking.

“We believe that smartphones and tablets are the platforms that will act as a one-stop-shop for the relationship between the city and the citizen,” he says. “We are organising all of our processes related to citizens in the mobile sense, and this is changing the way we conceive and build processes within the city hall.”

In addition to switching from a telephone-focused to digitally-focused service delivery approach the strategy will also see any new application developed by the city move primarily into the cloud, in part a result of the city’s bid to keep its technology platforms as accessible as possible from a platform point of view.

Platform openness, Sanromà says, is something that informs nearly every aspect of the city’s technology strategy and something he believes is the high watermark of innovation in municipal government.

“We’re using primarily open cloud platforms and services so other municipalities can use our applications and systems, technology and services, to which they can then apply their own look and feel, and their own data,” he says.

Sanromà says Barcelona has been pushing hard towards implementing a concept aptly called the City Protocol, which is to some extent related to the notion of smart cities – but much broader in terms of the scope of the implemented solutions. In essence the idea is to standardise technology platforms and reach agreement with other cities, companies and academia on how to deploy similar solutions to similar problems. The initiative is being backed by about 50 cities, academic institutions and companies.

Cities are like people, Sanromà says: each is unique but they have many issues and challenges in common.

“Right now every city is trying to reinvent the wheel in every aspect of their management, and we want to foster this idea of establishing agreements, recommendations, loop-ins, even standards on different aspects of the city’s management, which includes taking a common approach to technology platforms,” he says.

At the moment the city is building a tax collection system based on SAP’s platform, one of the first EU cities to build such a system in the cloud, and it is working with other cities on its development and implementation. When the project is complete in the next two or three years other cities will be able to implement that platform and leverage both the economies of scale it offers, as well as standard data management approaches.

Barcelona is also in the early stages of working on something it calls CityOS, which is part of its City Protocol strategy. The goal, Sanromà explains, is to create an open source operating system that brings together all of the separate gadgetry, sensors, data, physical platforms for managing sensors, and different applications used across the city into one OS.

“Of course there are security and privacy issues, but we believe that it’s more practical to tackle those issues from the outset than to build big systems with big walls that make them very difficult to interoperate. Interoperability was the mantra, but now it’s all cloud, it’s about openness.”

The final version will be a single platform capable of metabolising Internet of Things sensor data as well as deploying virtual desktops and productivity applications across the various departments in the public sector. The city also plans to recoup its investment into the development of the platform by helping other cities implement it.

“Companies are trying to sell these cities ‘smart city’ platforms, and they are trying to sell you their gadgets – and that’s fine. But these platforms tend to be vertical solutions and don’t cover the whole city in all its aspects – energy, lighting, transportation, and so forth. So after talking with many of these companies, the IBMs and the Schneider’s and the HPs of the world, we came up with the idea for CityOS,” Sanromà explains. “We would like that operating system to be open source so that any person, any professional, any company can write applications on that operating system.”

And whereas building open platforms traditionally created interoperability challenges – in terms of technologies as well as government processes across different cities and regions, he says — taking a ‘cloud-first’ strategy is paying off because many of the platforms emerging in the market today are more open than their on-premise predecessors.

That’s not to say that they’re open source necessarily, or that proprietary innovation is declining in the cloud space. But there is a pronounced emphasis on service integration, a certain seamlessness – led in part by what consumers today experience with digital services outside the enterprise – targeted by cloud service providers which beckons a high degree of openness, whether that be in terms of core software or higher-level APIs.

“It’s no longer a question of interoperability. It’s a question of openness, and building solutions that can be leveraged by other cities,” he says. “The discussion around interoperability ten years ago used to be about how to break apart proprietary systems and inevitably, spend a lot of money on making diverse systems interoperable. But why bother with that now? Open, and particularly open source systems, are the way forward.”

Ultimately the major thrust of Barcelona’s IT strategy has, more than anything, to do with breaking down silos, which tend to inhibit the flow of information (i.e. solutions) in any environment. Of course, the city isn’t unique in this respect – but the way it’s going about trying to solve the challenge puts technology, particularly cloud and mobile, front and centre in its bid to completely reform theses relationships and the processes that defined them.

“The first silo we broke with the innovation department, which now underpins all IT projects across each city department, was interdepartmental. The second big silos we need to tackle are the ones between the public and private sector – there are big companies, suppliers, private contractors that work with the city. Of course there is a collaboration but we want to go beyond that, and sit them at the decision making table so the silos between public and private disappear,” he says.

“The last silos are the cities themselves. Every city is trying to solve its own problems in their own way, and that’s okay and normal, but we think there is enormous value to gain in collaborating from the outset.”

“We want to foster this idea of collaboration at every level. We don’t think this makes us crazy revolutionaries – just enlightened despots,” he jokes.