Every move we make . . .


Today’s wealth of data collected by cameras and sensors may ensure we are always watched, but also that everything works, says IBM chief Sam Palmisano, writes MARK HENNESSY

A PLAQUE hangs on the wall outside Flat 27B in Canonbury Square in now-fashionable Islington in north London, once home to 1984author, George Orwell. Within 30 yards, there are more than 30 CCTV cameras.

The existence of the cameras would, no doubt, copper-fasten Orwell’s concerns about the influence of an all-pervasive state monitoring its citizens’ every movement, even if they are largely popular with the very ones being watched.

IBM chief executive and chairman Sam Palmisano acknowledges that high-tech systems such as CCTV, traffic sensors etc require the public to accept a compromise, even more so as all of this information is increasingly brought together to the point where “information becomes intelligence”.

“I’m okay giving up some of my privacy if I know that there will be no crime in my neighbourhood or in the Tube system in London. There is a conscious trade-off,” Palmisano told a gathering in Chatham House in London last week.

“Yes, people like lower crime, less traffic, shorter queues, better health and all the other benefits of smarter systems. But they may be increasingly uncomfortable having so much information known about them.

“Who has all this data? What will they do with it? Do I trust them? Is it secure?”

He adds that governments and businesses need to be convinced that “smart” rail and electricity grids are not open to danger because someone loses a laptop.

However, Palmisano is certain that this will be “the decade of smart”, so much so that he has placed an $18 billion bet that he is right.

He has sold off large chunks of the “old” IBM that made disk drives and other hardware and buying 100 companies that have developed skills in using the information produced, rather than just simply being able to capture it in the first place.

“We are amassing an unimaginable amount of data in the world. In just three years, [internet] traffic is expected to total more than half a zettabyte. That’s a trillion gigabytes – or a one followed by 21 zeroes,” he tells industry, academic and political leaders.

“Where we once inferred, we now know. Where we once interpolated and extrapolated, we can now determine. The historical is giving way to the real-time and it’s not just about volume and velocity. The nature of the data we are collecting and analysing is changing, too.

“All this data is far more real-time than ever before. Most of us today, as leaders and as individuals, make decisions based on information that is backward-looking and limited in scope. That’s the best we had, but that is quickly changing.”

Despite last year’s economic crisis, IBM under Palmisano’s leadership began “a global conversation” with civic and political leaders, and others to see how this tide of data can be used to make government, cities, healthcare services operate more cheaply and better.

In a study of 439 cities that use some form of IT systems to improve traffic flow, including congestion charging, delays were cut in each by 700,000 hours, while peak traffic volumes in four cities using IBM systems dropped by 18 per cent.

“CO2 emissions from motor vehicles were reduced by up to 14 per cent and public transit use increased by up to 7 per cent,” he says.

Eight Spanish hospitals and nearly 500 clinics improved their performance by 10 per cent using better IT systems that make information available immediately to medical staff.

However, the public must be brought on board, he warns.

In the Swedish capital Stockholm, local officials, frustrated by the delays in introducing smart traffic systems, started with a pilot scheme, showed that it worked and were then supported by the city’s residents.

In Houston, Texas, a local energy company boss, Patricia Graham, introduced automatic metering, but only after she had first convinced her staff that it would work and benefit everyone. Today, her company reads its meters every 15 minutes, rather than once a month.

Such change has consequences. The US department of energy says that homes and businesses with smart meters save 10 per cent on their electricity bills, and cut power use by 15 per cent at peak times.

“The potential savings are enormous,” Palmisano says. “One industry study found that even a modest 5 per cent drop in peak demand in the US would be equivalent to eliminating 625 power plants and associated delivery infrastructure.”

Although the worst of the economic crisis may have passed, the damage left will remain, he adds. More will have to be done with less.

Smarter technology, he argues, will play a critical role, helping to drive down and increase efficiency.

“I believe it holds promise to deliver on the sense of hope we all felt just 10 years ago, at the dawn of this new millennium. I believe we have a responsibility not to let this moment slip by,” he says.

“The time to act is now and the way to act is together.”