By Elly Keinan
IBM Latin America
A year and a half ago, torrential rains in Rio de Janeiro caused floods and landslides that brought much of the city to a standstill and killed more than 100 residents. Eleven inches of rain beat down in a 24-hour period. In a city with a history of tropical rainstorms and flooding, Brazilians demanded to know why the authorities were not better prepared.
Rio’s mayor, Eduardo Paes, vowed that such a disaster would not happen again. He moved decisively to bolster the city’s defenses against weather-related disruptions. Today, the city has a new state-of-the art intelligent operations center where managers monitor dozen of screens for data concerning weather, traffic, police, medical services, and other city departments on a real-time basis and anticipate looming problems—putting defenses in place to diminish their impact.
The mayor’s actions demonstrate convincingly how bold leaders can harness the power of sophisticated technologies to transform the way a city operates—and make life better for their constituents. The technology underpinning the Rio Operations Center, which was set up by IBM consultants and software architects, has matured since the center went live almost a year ago. Now, this kind of management system is becoming available to cities of all sizes—including via a cloud computing offering, which makes it faster to deploy.
These advances represent an important moment in the evolution of cities.
Over time, cities have gradually adopted technologies to monitor and control discrete systems—such as subways, stop lights, air traffic, and the like. What’s different today is that for the first time all of the functions and activities within a city can be integrated with one another. It’s like a conductor directing an orchestra rather than each musician playing his or her own melody.
Integration of streams of information is important because all of the natural and man-made systems that play roles in the life of a city are interdependent. If you do something that affects one of them, others likely will be affected as well. And, also, if you fix one thing, you may unintentionally break another. For example, in the United States, the construction of a highway across one of the boroughs of New York City made it possible for cars to traverse the city more quickly, but also contributed to the decline of whole neighborhoods that were cut in half by the thoroughfare. So it’s crucial to recognize the interconnectedness of systems, and to take that into account when trying to solve complex urban problems.
In Rio, Mayor Paes recognized the importance of integrating data from multiple sources into a comprehensive view of the city. The system even enhances the communications with other organizations, including the police department, which is managed by the state, and the news media. There’s a media center in the building so the city can alert citizens about problem situations via a variety of news outlets.
Right now, because of the 2010 flooding, weather is the hot button in Rio. IBM researchers created a computer analysis model that combines current weather conditions and forecast data with detailed information about topography and transportation. With the model, they can accurately predict potential flooding and mudslides down to the block level up to 48 hours in advance. That gives city operations managers plenty of time to order evacuations, close off streets pro-actively and position equipment to be at ready. In the end, this is about saving lives.
But there was another incentive for Mayor Paes to create an operations center capable of monitoring and managing the functions of the city. He foresaw that such a system would be vital for Rio to deal with the upcoming World Cup Soccer tournament in 2014 and Olympics in 2016. The next phase of the project is likely to address public transportation. Better coordination of the various transportation systems could make travel easier for citizens and visitors, and more efficient for the city—plus reduce traffic congestion.
Mayor Paes and the Rio intelligent operations center demonstrate the potential for cities to be managed much more efficiently and effectively. What’s required is decisiveness, a willingness to make long-term investments and a deep understanding of how cities really work. These are key ingredients of what it takes to create a smarter city.