Kerrie Holley wasn’t shocked when he viewed the poor neighborhoods of New Orleans with their derelict buildings and empty lots. He had grown up in a poor section of Chicago in the 1960s. But the lingering evidence of a city ravaged by Hurricane Katrina combined with the optimism and determination of the people reinforced his resolve to help them fulfill the city’s potential. “I hope people will see it as one of the great cities in the world and that more people will migrate there,” he says.
Holley was a member of a team of five IBMers who spent three weeks in New Orleans in September as part of the company’s Smarter Cities Challenge program. New Orleans leaders had asked for an assessment and advice on how to use technology to make the city run better. The IBM team responded with a package of recommendations for how the city can better gather, integrate and manage information about everything from crime statistics to city services. They delivered the formal report to New Orleans this week.
New Orleans has made great strides in its comeback. For instance, the city moved up 44 positions in the ranks of MarketWatch’s Best Cities for Business for 2011, from last place to 33rd. The economic indicators are improving: the city’s unemployment rate beats the national average, personal income growth is high and growth in economic output is above average.
Yet the city’s information technology systems still lag way behind those of most major American cities. Mayor Mitch Landrieu and his staff recognize that fact, and their challenge for the IBM team was to help the city integrate information from its many departments. Today, all of the city’s information is stored in separate technology silos and is hard to access. As a result, if Landrieu is walking in a neighborhood and gets questions from residents about city services, it’s difficult for him to respond with detailed answers.
Holley, who is an IBM Fellow and is chief technology officer for the company’s worldwide application innovation services, felt quite comfortable with this task. He and his IBM colleagues recommended the design of a system that would give the city managers a single view of each citizen and an integrated view of the city’s key service indicators.
In a city with a reputation for past mismanagement and lingering public corruption, the system also needs to make all of the city government’s activities more transparent and to be able to track performance of managers and departments.
The team called for the creation of a mayoral dashboard that will allow Landrieu to track the performance of the city on a near-real-time basis by viewing key indicators represented graphically on a computer screen–and even on his mobile phone.
For Holley, spending three weeks in New Orleans was an intense experience. The team worked seven days a week and lived together in a B&B in one of New Orleans’ neighborhoods. They met with a host of city leaders from government, academia and community organizations. “It was an invigorating experience. It was like a roller-coaster ride that we didn’t drop off until the last day,” he says.
Early on, when Holley toured the city and people told him about how the neighborhoods had once looked, he felt like he was peering back in time. Now he feels that he’s looking toward the city’s future.