‘New era of smart’ focuses on exploiting Big Data to improve the urban living experience

Dublin is playing a role in the IBM Smarter Cities initiative which aims to help us better manage our resources

Research conducted in Ireland is playing a major part in the insights being gleaned as part of IBM's global Smarter Cities initiative, which involves several cities, including Dublin, as collaborative research centres between the company, and local authorities and services.

Smarter Cities is part of IBM’s larger Smarter Planet programme, which looks at even broader environmental issues. Both are large scale, “Big Data” projects that look to solve pressing problems by applying analytics to huge amounts of data.

Cities are a special focus because the world is becoming increasingly urban. By 2050, the world’s population will be nine billion, of which 70 per cent will live in cities.

"That's the equivalent of the entire world population today," says Dr Lisa Amini, the director of IBM Research Ireland and the Dublin Smarter Cities Technology Centre, during a full day seminar last week on Exploring the New Era of Smart at IBM Ireland's Dublin campus.

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The infrastructural challenges that currently exist, and others that begin to emerge as cities grow, are the target of the Smarter Cities initiative. Amini notes that already, 20 per cent of energy in Europe is lost, due to inefficiency, while 58 per cent of the total energy produced in the US is wasted. Leaks in the US account for 14 to 60 per cent loss of water, figures consistent to Europe, too.

And cities regardless of size seem to share similar problems, she notes. Consider that traffic congestion as a percentage of gross domestic product was 4.14 in Dublin in 2007, making the Irish capital the world traffic jam leader, over famously congested cities such as Manila, Dakar and Mexico City.

What Amini finds interesting is that the same boom in worldwide economic growth, spurring a consequent expansion of cities, was affecting Dublin. Though small, it was not immune to problems affecting cities many times its size.

"[Smarter Cities] started with the premise of wondering, could we do more interesting, more valuable, more accelerated work with local, real practitioners" – so local collaboration is central to the Smarter Cities project, says Dr Katherine Frase, IBM Public Sector's chief technology officer.

The project at its most simple, boils down to a question of “the degree to which a city is human, and the degree to which data and analytics can help” improve life there to make it more so.

For a technical giant such as IBM, obvious sources of information for this Big Data project are devices, computer systems, vehicles, machinery and sensors of all sorts, feeding digital data back to researchers.

“But [people] can often be the sensors of what is happening in real time,” Frase says, offering the example of a safety or health issue percolating through social media. By using such information judiciously, “you can take action sooner”.

Water management is one infrastructure area central to the Dublin Smarter Cities research. Dublin’s water supply has been plagued with leaks that create water loss and affect supply, as city residents know all too well when faced with shut-offs and rationing.

Analysing data streams can improve management, notes Dr Sean McKenna, senior manager of the Smarter Water programme. Research revealed that a reduction in water pressure at certain times of the day would not be significantly detrimental to residents but could allow 30 per cent more homes to be provided with water on the existing system.

Healthcare, through IBM's new Smarter Care initiative within Smarter Cities, is another area IBM feels can be transformed through Big Data analysis and management. Better care can be provided to individuals and families, with a more comprehensive understanding of unique needs, by such an approach, says Ronan Rooney, founder of Irish healthcare company Curam, acquired by IBM two years ago.


Multidisciplinary interventions
Now the chief technology officer at IBM Curam, Rooney says successful real-life solutions are not just about treating the individual, but about also considering social and family contexts.

For example, a non-driving woman in an abusive relationship who has a child with a serious illness needs connected health and social services, so that she is provided with housing in a different area of the city from her husband, close to public transport that goes directly to the hospital caring for her child.

Such multidisciplinary interventions will be increasingly possible with software that can take in data from multiple sources and flag needs that are more complicated than simply giving a mother an appointment time at a hospital.

IBM research facilitates Curam applying large-scale data analysis programs, such as outcome, social context, and citizen engagement analytics, to make sense of large data streams.

“That’s something Curam could never have done without IBM. It takes a lot of resources, and smart people,” says Rooney. The resulting products will be a “world first”, he says.

Smarter Cities research is definitely about producing such products and not pure research, says Amini. Products are “part of research”, she says. “We’re not just researching and writing papers.”

That approach has sparked real interest within IBM, a company more typically recognised for cerebral, “blue sky” research with very long-term, large-scale goals.

“I’ve never seen something go this rapidly through every single division of research,” Amini says.

Maybe it’s because almost everybody cares about where and how they live. And, says Frase, “in the end, [Smarter Cities] is all about how we make the city more responsive to the citizens in it, and how do we make the citizens more likely to care.”