IBM’s Smart Cities program learns as it goes

In Miami-Dade County, a network of sensors and scanners is quietly collecting data about the area’s population and relaying the information to local government.

Meters embedded in public pipes rapidly gather data about water usage, sometimes identifying leaks before they spread. Analytical software combs through records using algorithms to identify high-probability suspects for particular crimes. The county is piloting security cameras capable of recognizing faces, intended to alert police if sex offenders appear in public parks.

Miami-Dade is one of several counties and cities using IBM’s Intelligent Operations Center, a software system designed to help city leaders collect and process large volumes of data. As part of its Smarter Cities initiative, IBM works with leaders to select appropriate analytics programs for each problem — sometimes it is the company’s proprietary software, other times it’s provided by partner firms — often for an annual licensing fee. Public agencies in San Francisco, Boston and Hono­lulu, among others, also use the platform.

IBM introduced Smarter Cities five years ago as a division of Smarter Planet, the company’s sustainable development initiative. IBM projects that Smarter Planet’s revenue will reach $10 billion by 2015.

Since the product’s launch, IBM’s development team has been refining the product to accommodate a greater number of uses, Smarter Cities Vice President Karen Parrish said. Contrary to expectations, not all cities use data the same way, she said. Urban leaders tend to fall into two camps: those running cities that are experiencing a rapid influx of people, and those hoping to do so.

(David Saracino)

Initially, IBM thought most cities’ needs would be similar. The company tailored its software to help monitor the status of infrastructure, for instance, making a bet that cities would be most concerned about the state of roads and bridges. Governments were spending more on infrastructure, and population trends showed a rise in people migrating to cities, Parrish said.

“Interestingly enough, that did not happen as we had expected,” she said. Some cities were more interested in public safety — “ ‘I may have the best bridges in the world, but if I don’t have public safety, people aren’t going to want to live here,’ ” Parrish said clients told her.

International clients had different needs. Cities in parts of Africa, for instance, were most concerned about bringing in clean water or making sure roads were accessible.

IBM began developing modules for different uses to reflect the various needs, Parrish said.

The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission uses IBM software called Maximo to monitor water usage, among other utilities. Sensors in pipes and pumps provide a real-time, location-tagged feed of water usage, so staff can respond quickly to leaks. After the recent Rim fire in Yosemite National Park, several park staff members separately assessed the damage over hundreds of acres. The commission is analyzing the data in aggregate, General Manager Harlan Kelly said.

The software is most helpful in managing budgets, Kelly said. “You’re not fortunate enough to get money to put everything in the state of good repair in a timely manner,” he said. “[If] a pipe has a 60-year life, and you need $2 million to keep it on a 60-year life cycle and they only give you half a million dollars, you have to wisely spend that half a million.”

Miami-Dade’s use of analytics has evolved along with the city, said Carmen Suárez, a division director in the county’s IT department. Several years ago, the county began using data analytics software to monitor water usage in pipes. Since then, the city has applied the same template to crime response, public transportation and, most recently, to analyze and promote tourism in downtown Miami.

Once the county has made progress tackling basic infrastructure problems, she said, “it’s a natural progression to just use this technology to improve the quality of life.”

Mohana Ravindranath covers IT and small business for the Washington Post and its weekly Capital Business publication.
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