model of a city on a smartphone

4 U.S. locales win smart city consulting

Sixteen cities around the world are about to get smarter as recipients of the 2014 IBM Smarter Cities Challenge.

The pro bono program, which started in 2011, will help cities and municipalities tackle issues such as clean water, revenue generation, job development, transportation and public safety. Four U.S. locations are among the winners: Baton Rouge, La.; Birmingham, Ala.; Dallas; and Suffolk County, N.Y.

“What we deliver to the city isn’t a software implementation or specific tools or hardware,” said Jennifer Crozier, IBM’s vice president for Global Citizenship Initiatives. “It’s a set of recommendations. Because it’s philanthropic, it gives us the luxury to kind of rise above what IBM does commercially and to think very broadly about an issue.”

In getting started, a  team of six IBM executives spends months studying a winning city’s problem. Then they spend three weeks in the city before delivering a formal report six to eight weeks later. The recommendations – and a plan for implementing them – have borne results.

For example, Syracuse, N.Y., which won the grant in 2011, used IBM’s plan to create a system to analyze and predict neighborhoods at risk for blight because of foreclosures and vacant properties. To do it, IBM helped the city establish a two-part property vacancy prediction model that connected stakeholders and data and a predictive situational analysis system that uses a data clearinghouse, prediction methods and cost estimations.

Today the city has more revitalized neighborhoods and expects to collect millions of dollars in back taxes over the next eight years.

"Really what the Smarter Cities Challenge enabled us to do is to look at data and analytics and to use that as a way to make decisions so we could focus our resources on places where it would have the most change and the biggest change quickly," said Stephanie Miner, mayor of Syracuse, in a video on IBM's website.

Problem solving with data analytics is a technique that’s been catching on. For instance, several years ago, Cary, N.C., turned to SAS Analytics to sift through data to reduce crime. Additionally, several cities are using a diagnostics model created at Rutgers University to predict where crimes might happen. And  AT&T and IBM partnered recently to build an Internet of Things targeted to cities and midsize utilities.

The interest is also evident in the 100-plus applications IBM received this year. A few technologies have emerged as the most sought after, Crozier said.

“No. 1 across the board is data: How do you use data? How do you manage data? How do you have higher-quality data? How do you analyze it and make it predictive?” she said. “There is no Smarter Cities Challenge we’ve touched that doesn’t have some component of data in it.”

Cloud holds second place. “Much like our clients in the private sector, cities are under enormous pressure to do more with less, and I think that by using cloud services, there are opportunities for them to be able to reduce costs and reinvest money on delivering services to citizen in a meaningful way.”

Social and mobile computing were also common.

“One of the things we see one city after another struggling with is how to increase engagement with citizens and not just rely on the traditional town hall,” Crozier said.

To date, IBM has sent 600 experts to 100 municipalities at a value of about $500,000.

In the past three years, Crozier said, applicants have become more aware of what’s possible for their cities.

“At the beginning, I don’t think people even knew what to ask for. We had folks asking us for laptops or servers or ‘Gosh, can you give us software licenses,’” she said. “We’ve seen cities get much more thoughtful and sophisticated in the kinds of things they’re asking for. So now rather than saying, ‘Here’s the technology answer that I want,’ they’re saying, ‘Here’s a problem we’re really grappling with. It’s a top-three priority for the city. It’s something we genuinely don’t know how to solve. We think we have the data and the data could help us to solve this problem, but we’re not sure of the answer and how can we come together and really work through it together to get to the other side?’ And that’s exciting.”

Free programs like IBM’s also help cities get up-to-date on technology while focusing funds on procurement and implementation rather than research, said Jesse Berst, chairman of the Smart Cities Council.

“It lets them get up-to-date on technology expertise, especially the ‘holistic’ approach that avoids redundancy and shares costs between departments,” Berst said. “Most cities (for understandable reasons) don't have that deep expertise in-house. It also helps them get a sense of the possible, what they can do with today's amazing technologies. Finally, it can provide the impetus to create a vision of what they want to be when they grow up and an action plan with simple early steps.”

Some vendors might offer some consulting with their products or services, but IBM’s provides a broader systems view.

“It's a terrific boon to a community,” he added.


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