Jim Lingerfelt learned about the power of information in a very personal and devastating way. Back in the 1980s, when he was a police officer with the D.C. Metro Police, a fellow officer was shot and killed by a man who had been released from jail that same morning. There were outstanding warrants for the shooter’s arrest, but, because the department’s computing system was archaic and slow, he was released by mistake. A few years later, Jim participated in a project that automated the department’s arrest booking process. “I saw how information could slip through the cracks,” Jim says. “I saw the importance of a well-designed processes supported by technology.” Inspired by this revelation, he studied system design and later became the department’s IT director.
Today, Jim, who now works for IBM, is in a familiar spot. He is one of six IBMers on a team that is intended to help leaders in St. Louis use data to improve public safety and education. He and his colleagues are coming face to face with a truth that’s vital to making cities work better: It’s not just the data that’s important; it’s the connections between those bits of information and between different elements of the community that matter most.
St. Louis was one of the first 24 cities selected to receive IBM Smarter Cities Challenge Grants, a program that will invest US$50 million of dollars worth of technology and consulting services in 100 cities worldwide over the next three years. The winners were announced earlier this week, and include a diverse array of locales–everything from Antofagasta, Chile, and Jakarta, Indonesia, to Nice, France, and Tshwane-Pretoria, South Africa. Each city will receive on average $400,000 of time, talent and technology from IBM.
Unfortunately, St. Louis routinely ranks among America’s most dangerous cities, and, even though the crime rate has improved, leaders in their application to the Smarter Cities Challenge asked for help in improving their community-oriented police initiatives, including a youth gang training program in city schools.
To learn about St. Louis’ crime problems and potential solutions, the IBM team is meeting this week with a wide swath of the community. Their contacts include the police chief, aldermen, judges, prosecutors, and leaders of the Boys and Girls Club, the local chapter of the Urban League and the convention and visitor’s bureau. “Since many of the tough issues facing cities can’t be solved by executive orders from the office of the mayor, there needs to be buy-in from people across sectors, agencies and communities,” says Lyell Sakaue, a program director for IBM Corporate Citizenship.
That lesson struck home in a meeting the group had on Tuesday with Melba R. Moore, the city’s commissioner of health. “Her approach to youth violence is to treat it like a disease,” says Jim Lingerfelt. “She believes the organizations in a community need to come together and collaborate to take on youth violence just like you would a health epidemic.”
Other members of the IBM team bring skills for managing complex and high-stress situations that compliment Jim’s. For instance, Thomas “Shep” Sheppard, a consultant in IBM Global Business Services, served as a U.S. Army officer at the time of Hurricane Katrina and in Iraq during the country’s first democratic elections in 2005. Katrina was especially relevant to the St. Louis project. He was in charge of coordinating the logistics and communications for a First Cavalry Division platoon that was sent to New Orleans from Fort Hood, Texas. He arranged to get the unit’s equipment to the scene, but then had to scramble to get the soldiers connected to a network. In the end, he hooked up to one belonging to the 82nd Airborne. “It was a complex system,” he says. ” We had to make things work. In order to do that we had to make connections that we didn’t have before.”
Of course, St. Louis isn’t a disaster area. It’s a big city with all of the challenges that go with its size and complexity. But some of the same lessons apply.
The IBM team will spend an intense three weeks in the city. The first week is about gathering information. Then they develop and test hypotheses. Then they prepare and present a proposal to the mayor and his senior staff. During the entire process, the team members are in touch with technical and consulting colleagues back at IBM and with mentors who have participated in Smarter Cities engagements in the past.
This melding of the IBM knowledge network with the St. Louis network has the potential to produce innovative solutions to stubborn problems. Hopefully, all these new connections will pay off.
The engagement got some press today, including this story from the CBS affiliate in St. Louis.