Companies pitch cities on going high-tech

May 19, 2013

Relatively mundane city-management issues, from parking to water use, are going high-tech as cities seek to use analytics and information to improve their operations.

Companies are pushing this kind of work, arguing that it can improve city services and operations while in many cases lowering costs or even producing new revenue.

In Dubuque, Iowa, for instance, the city government hired IBM to pilot new technology for the water system. The city has equipped homes with automated water meters and, with the help of IBM, delivered consumption information to residents, resulting in greater conservation and quicker response to leaks.

“It was really giving [homeowners] the real-time information, which was a very good incentive to have them change behaviors,” Dubuque Mayor Roy Buol said. “It’s like an ‘aha’ moment.”

The city has since started a similar pilot using smart meters for electricity consumption, and it is recruiting volunteers for studies to analyze data related to wellness issues.

IBM established what it has dubbed its Smarter Cities initiative about three years ago. It is designed to help cities use technology to improve management and handle challenges including infrastructure and social services.

“We’ve moved past the general concept and very high-level view that things should be smarter,” said Michael Dixon, general manager of the program. “We’ve moved . . . to much more pragmatism of ‘What does that actually mean?’ ”

The cities-focused initiatives come as virtually every type of institution, from the federal government to hospitals, seeks to take better advantage of data and analytics. While many cities have tight budgets, some are focused on pilot efforts that allow them to take the analytics for a test drive — at a limited price. Others are looking to revenue-generating initiatives such maximizing use of metered parking spaces or devising systems to charge motorists variable rates, depending on congestion, to use toll roads.

Miami-Dade County has partnered with IBM to use data to improve water management, police work and transportation, among other areas.

“I want the county to be on the cutting edge of technology, because I think it’s just going to allow us to deliver better service,” said Mayor Carlos A. Gimenez, who sought to have Miami-Dade be an IBM test city so it could experiment with new technologies at a limited cost.

The county is looking into predictive analyses such as forecasts of where criminal activity is likely to occur. “They can predict trends, and then we can do a better job of protecting our citizens,” Gimenez said.

He said that although it’s too early to say whether the partnership is working, the county’s early involvement and feedback are allowing it to shape the kind of technology IBM might offer.

“We’re really just scratching the surface here,” Gimenez said. “I’d like to go a lot deeper.”

Siemens, which has its U.S. headquarters in Washington, established its cities and infrastructure unit in October 2011 and has won work with communities such as San Antonio and Reno.

Terry Heath, president of the North American mobility and logistics division within Siemens’s infrastructure and cities sector, focuses his work on transportation improvements, including a system that installs sensors in a city’s parking spots, then links those devices to parking meters.

A smartphone application allows drivers to call up a map and see where spaces are available. The software is not only a convenience to motorists but potentially allows communities to provide fewer spaces by making better use of the ones it has.

Other options include congestion-management systems that change signals to prevent traffic from backing up.

In San Antonio, Siemens managed an initiative to encourage people to ditch their cars in favor of riding the bus. The company spearheaded a project to create a GPS-based bus rapid-transit system, which allows buses to request a green light when they are behind schedule.

The system helped improve buses’ on-time performance, Heath said, resulting in more riders.

IBM and Siemens executives said they usually work with smaller cities, where it can be easier to isolate problems and make changes.

And while smaller cities often have financial constraints, they’re finding ways to work around them.

Heath said some cities are looking to systems that produce revenue such as tolls and “variable” lanes, where fees increase as demand grows.

“It gives you an option to avoid that traffic,” he said. “And it obviously is a good revenue source for cities and states in tough times.”

Buol, the Dubuque mayor, said he sees virtually endless opportunities to incorporate data into management.

“The potential is just incredible around that technology,” he said. “It’s giving that real-time information so that people will make decisions based on their wants and needs.”

Gimenez said the technology will be useful in a wide range of places. Miami-Dade, he acknowledged, is not necessarily the typical U.S. city.

“We’re different because we have different demographics,” he said. “But the core set of issues is probably the same set of issues [for] Miami as it is for small-town Wyoming.”

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