Instrumented Interconnecteds Intelligent

By Kui Kinyanjui
IBM East Africa

Six months ago, the city of Nairobi, Kenya, was rocked by an explosion that left over 100 people dead. The cause: residents had scooped oil from a broken pipeline, hoping to later sell the product on the black market. The oil accidentally ignited, setting off the explosion.

The city was sent into turmoil. A power outage hindered efforts to communicate and rescue victims. Traffic was backed up, making rescue efforts even more difficult as emergency medical personnel battled against time to get to the victims. The water supply in the surrounding neighborhoods dwindled to a trickle as fire fighters used up the last drops of the resource to put out the fire.

The explosion and its aftermath show the vulnerabilities of cities when confronted with major disasters. But the situation didn’t have to be so bad. If Nairobi had had a system for managing disasters some of the loss of life and property could have been prevented.

Rio de Janeiro shows the way. The Brazilian city teamed with IBM to create an intelligent operations center, which serves as a model for how cities can improve management of their critical services. The IOC coordinates the activities of more than 30 municipal and state departments plus private utility and transportation companies. “You can imagine the impact that using a city-wide intelligence system would have had on the day of the Nairobi explosion. In seconds, city officials would have known exactly how to respond to the disaster and lives would have been saved” says Tony Mwai, country general manager, IBM East Africa.

Mwai led a roundtable discussion of government services in Africa in Nairobi on October 6, 2011. A white paper summarizing the takeaways from the conference,  A Vision of A Smarter City: How Nairobi Can Lead the Way into a Prosperous and Sustainable Future, was published today.

As Nairobi seeks to enhance its image as one of Africa’s most attractive business hubs, it continues to face the dual challenge of unprecedented population growth and over-stretched infrastructure. The doubling of the city’s population in the next ten years will introduce new challenges – chief among them the need for a streamlined response to safety and security issues.

Many gains have been made. For instance, car-jackings in the city have dropped by half due to more effective policing. Yet one of Nairobi’s biggest headaches remains its public safety record. With the increasing population, public safety concerns have grown as resources are simply too over-stretched to meet rising demand.

In Nairobi, residents have grown accustomed to 90% of all calls to emergency services going unanswered. In a city where the wealthy are able to buy their security by investing in electric fences and high-tech alarm systems, the poor are often at the mercy of thugs who prey on them.  Nairobi is now looking to technology to resolve its security issues.

A lot could be done without spending a tremendous amount of money. For instance, private companies have already covered over 90% of the city with cameras that are used to pinpoint security black spots and reduce crime. But because none of these private firms share these resources with each other, or allow that information to be viewed by the government, the impact of these impressive investments is limited.

The white paper suggests that bringing these two groups together by deploying a city-wide video surveillance system would allow all stakeholders to harness this vast network of cameras to the good of the city. These pieces of infrastructure could be instrumented to produce valuable data that can be used as intelligence to help make better public safety management decisions in real time.

In addition, by enhancing the use of analytics solutions to manage events like the Sinai fire, public safety officials could bring together vast amounts of relevant information to protect the public’s safety.

The Rio initiative is already capturing the imagination of Kenya’s government. Officials envision a future city that will be able to better handle disasters like Sinai–speeding response and saving lives.. “We look to Rio as the future we want, a city where technology allows public safety to be more accessible to residents,” said Bitange Ndemo, Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Information.

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