How data wizardry can revive America’s cities

Advanced software analytics is coming of age in many local governments, where city managers and capital planners are using the technology to model solutions to perplexing problems, such as determining the optimum time to repair aging highway infrastructure or showing the impact of air pollution on the costs of public health.

“Cities are looking at how to move forward with the new normal: flat budgets,” said Thom Rubel, vice president of research at IDC Government Insights. As a result, city officials are assessing their IT infrastructure and systems and trying to figure out how this infrastructure can work more efficiently to meet the city’s needs.

So “we see companies create solutions [that focus on how] to create smart city environments, which focuses on transportation, energy, buildings and health care — the holistic community,” Rubel said.


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For instance, consider the work IBM is doing with Portland, Ore. IBM is working with the city to answer questions such as: 

  • How does public transportation affect education? 
  • What impact does population density have on public health? 
  • Is there a connection between CO2 levels and obesity?

Portland officials have collaborated with IBM to develop an interactive model that shows relationships among the city’s core systems that handle the economy, housing, education, public safety, transportation and health care.

A computer simulation lets Portland’s leaders see how city systems work together, how environmental and economic conditions interrelate, and the likely impact of program decisions on city finances. 

The model was built to support the development of metrics for the Portland Plan, the city’s road map for the next 25 years, said Joe Zehnder, chief planner at Portland’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability.

“We wanted to break down our typical policy or investment silos like transportation, housing, economic development and the environment and look at how policy and investments within any of those areas could play a role in accomplishing a limited and shared set of priorities,” Zehnder said.

Portland was a living laboratory during the yearlong collaboration effort to explore how complex city systems behave over time.

IBM approached Portland officials in late 2009 and kicked off the project in April 2010, when IBM experts met with more than 75 Portland-area subject-matter experts in a variety of fields to learn about the city's interconnected systems.

Later, with help from researchers at Portland State University and systems software company Forio Business Simulations, the city and IBM collected approximately 10 years of historical data from across the city to support the model. 

The project resulted in a computer model of Portland as an interconnected system that provides planners at the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability with an interactive visual model that lets them navigate and test changes in the city's systems.

“We’ve been trying to model across cities, looking at how transportation relates to public safety or how public safety relates to education," said Justin Cook, IBM’s program manager for Portland. This will help cities set long-term policy goals.

Through a Web browser, the mayor or officials at the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability can access the model from anywhere, Cook said.

They can see an interactive visual map of interconnections and see, for example, what other areas are related to emissions, Cook said. Or they can draw a map between areas to visualize all of the connections. 

Finally, they can make changes and test policy positions by doing what-if scenarios, such as, “What would happen if the city added more sidewalk miles or more grocery stores per square miles?" Cook said.

IBM has introduced System Dynamics for Smarter Cities, new analytics software and services to help cities predict the results of policy decisions and their positive and negative consequences in the future.

“You have these solutions [such as IBM's] and a lot of sensor devices that are creating opportunities for cities to have information at their fingertips that can help them in their operations and efficiencies,” Rubel said. This creates a bigger picture of holistic systems of information that help multiple city programs work together, he said.

Minnesota, analytics and the environment 

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is creating its own bigger picture from a variety of data it is collecting on environmental conditions and pollution sources across the state. MPCA is using business intelligence analytics to improve internal efficiencies and generate real-time data in response to Minnesota’s legislative body requirements, said Randy Hedgaard, manager of data services at MPCA.

MPCA is also using software from Tableau Software to accelerate the distribution of environmental permits for air and water quality and solid-waste programs, a new legislative requirement. 

“Our agency has begun to use Tableau Software to develop views on the timelines of our permit issuance,” said Cynthia Kaahrmann, a data analyst at MPCA. “From that work, we can see how the programs compare against one another,” she said, adding that the software has given the agency the ability to look at underlying data within each program area.

Designed to make it easier to analyze and share data, Tableau let users connect directly to databases, data warehouses, files and spreadsheets and to generate live data analysis. Users can visualize data and create dashboards for their specific needs.

MPCA had a database for tracking permits before the use of Tableau. But the database didn’t align decision points. The addition of Tableau gives the MPCA staff a more consolidated and consistent approach. With Tableau, a data analyst can see where there are data quality issues. That is useful for improving datasets or unusual records that stand out, Kaahrmann said. It also makes it easier to see how individual data points stand up against the whole or how data grouped in a distribution format stack up against the whole. Or the agency can measure progress within a particular program or across programs, Hedgaard said, adding that the permit process is very complex.

From forestry to highway repair

Advanced analytical technology used by the Transportation Department of New Brunswick, Canada, could serve as a model for how U.S. cities and towns could take a proactive approach to repairing their aging highway infrastructure.

Most highway departments take a worst-first approach to repairing infrastructure. But it is more expensive to fix roads at the end of their life cycle, said Kimberley Daley, the department’s acting assistant deputy minister of corporate services and fleet management.

There is a sweet spot in the deterioration curve of roads at which preventive work can be done to save municipalities from making more costly repairs later, Daley said.

“You have to have the right business framework and types of data in place, as well as the right tool to optimize all the data, to give you the output you need for decision-making,” she said. For the New Brunswick DOT, that tool turned out to be forest management software from a Canadian company called Remsoft that was converted into a transportation asset management tool.

As a result, the New Brunswick DOT has saved about $210 million in the past three years and expects to save $1.4 billion in the next 20 years, Daley said.

“We would have had to spend $210 million to get to the new upgraded condition that we have now in our province with our assets,” Daley said. 

How did the department move to what officials call the least life cycle cost approach?

Ten years ago, New Brunswick officials realized the province was not managing its assets in a sustainable manner. To address the situation, they established the Asset Management Business Framework to aid in developing solutions for problem areas.

The New Brunswick DOT has 3,000 bridges and 11,185 miles of highway to manage, in addition to a variety of traffic control devices, buildings and ferries, Daley said.

Most modeling tools the department used could provide detailed analysis for operational or tactical planning, but they didn’t do optimized modeling, which focuses on finding the best possible choice from a set of alternatives.

Some staff members were familiar with the Remsoft tool because they had used it on a project with a forestry company. The forest industry uses the software to model the age difference rate between different types of trees. Once trees reach a certain age, the density of the wood is at its best and can yield the best profit on the market. The technology allowed forestry workers to build a model that helps determine the optimal yield of trees at certain ages.

Deterioration curve

“We thought: What if we could use that for highway assets?” Daley said. Instead of a yield curve, they would devise a deterioration curve to help the department make the best decisions about where and when to spend money on road repairs.

With the help of Remsoft and consulting firm xwave, a Bell company, the DOT team developed a modeling tool that could give them high-level or detailed data. “You can start with a proxy for deterioration, such as age, or you can input sophisticated, quantified condition measurements that you may have,” Daley said.

The Remsoft technology was expanded to include multiple assets, such as bridges and different types of road surfaces. If New Brunswick officials have limited funds to spend and must choose between road or bridge repair, they can do a trade-off analysis to determine how best to spend the money.

“We’ve never seen a modeling tool that could do cross trade-off analysis and optimized long-term strategic” planning for deteriorating assets, Daley said.

Remsoft pulls data from existing asset management systems, enterprise resource management systems, spreadsheets, or almost any source that contains mapping and inventory data, said Steve Palmer, co-CEO of Remsoft.

The software is designed for collaboration across departmental and agency systems and for use by people who are not modelers but instead are business analysts, planners, auditors, investors, asset owners or corporate executives, Palmer said. Modelers can start with whatever data and constraints are known and easily refine the model over time.

As an example, Daley described how the software’s analytical and predictive modeling capabilities can be applied to moose fencing. DOT analysts might use the software to get data on areas where there have been more than five moose collisions in five years within a 50 kilometer stretch of highway. They might then view the data by year and road type.

The analysts can tap into their asset management systems, and because Remsoft uses spatial technology, they can spot the locations on the highway that meet the statistical guidelines. They can also review the cost of fencing to prevent moose encounters. Then the optimization software can present data on the fencing program for the next few years.

Or if a new mill is being built, the software can help reprioritize roads leading to the mill so they are fixed every 10 years instead of 12, Daley said.

North Carolina, Oregon and Washington are using Remsoft for forestry management. No state in the United States is using the software for transportation.

But that could change “once people catch on to how powerful [the tool is] and what it can do,” Daley said, noting that New Brunswick has received national and international awards for what it is doing in the area of highway maintenance.

“I think you are going to see a lot more of its application in the transportation industry,” Daley said.

Strapped for cash, many cities are turning to analytics, which means more players such as Remsoft will be entering the market, IDC's Rubel said. “Analytics can go across multiple domains or programs.” 

For now, IBM is the dominant player in this area, especially when it comes to developing solutions for smart cities. Cisco Systems has been pushing its concept of Connected Communities, and Rubel said he expects companies that haven’t pursued analytics yet, such as Hewlett-Packard, which is realigning to offer more services, to also enter this arena.

Reader Comments

Mon, Oct 3, 2011 walter Washington

Wow, the Portland project is really ambitious. I wish them will. One of our biggest problems is how to best use our limited resources. Without tools like this, it too often falls on politicians to make the decisions with little or no facts involved, and we have all too often seen what that gets us. This could not just save money and resources, but also improve living conditions in these cities and control urban sprawl and other problems.

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