The Smarter Cities Challenge is a worldwide initiative from IBM to improve the way cities function. John Longbottom, IBM’s Smart Cities leader in Canada, pinpoints the reasons behind the project.

“The time is right for change,” he says. “As urbanisation increases, more than 70% of us will live in cities by 2050. Worldwide, cities consume 75% of the world’s energy, emit more than 80% of the world’s carbon emissions and lose as much as 50% of their water supply due to infrastructure leaks, while urban traffic congestion in both developed and developing cities costs between one and 3% of GDP.”

Longbottom adds that technological advances are now allowing cities to be instrumented, facilitating the collection of more data points than ever before.

“Cities are becoming increasingly interconnected, allowing the free flow of information from one discrete system to another, increasing the efficiency of the overall infrastructure,” he said.

According to Longbottom, the collection and analysis of real-time information on diverse city sectors provides smarter infrastructures that can support cities with the level of services required, while conserving valuable resources and avoiding harm to our environment.

“And IBM has the expertise to help,” he adds.

“Urban traffic congestion in cities costs between one and 3% of GDP.”

The uses for this information are almost limitless: it can be used to empower citizens, build political capital or develop new business models and partnerships with the private sector. Data can also model and predict how changes to one system will affect others, decreasing the risks of change and speeding the return on investment; for example, Longbottom explains how a small city could tap GPS data embedded in roadway sensors.

“This information can be interpreted with sophisticated algorithms to predict traffic jams around a special event or large construction project before they happen, automatically notifying drivers ahead of time, suggesting multiple alternate routes and shifting public transportation schedules to better handle demand,” he says.

Recommendations from IBM’s Edmonton Team

The team tasked with providing recommendations for Edmonton looked at how to improve the integration, analysis and dissemination of data that can be used for decision-making across the city, with a specific focus on traffic safety issues and prioritising road safety initiatives.

Its recommendations included the creation of an integrated and safer transportation network for all modes: freight, transit, road, cyclist and pedestrian, the empowerment of citizens via social media portals and the creation of an Analytics Centre of Excellence to support a road safety data governance model and analytics leadership.

Ashley Casovan, the City of Edmonton’s strategic coordinator for information technology, believes that IBM has enhanced pre-existing efforts in the city.

“Edmonton was already engaged in looking at improving traffic safety and budgeting through the more effective utilisation of data,” she says. “What the Challenge did was allow us to expedite and validate the direction we were taking. It also showed how we can apply what we are doing with traffic safety to other business areas.”

Edmonton aims for traffic safety leadership

Casovan relates how the City of Edmonton’s mission to be the global leader in urban traffic safety is being conducted within the context of IBM’s strategic framework to empower citizens and centralise information.

“The pilot project has a 90% accuracy rate in predicting the volume and speed of drivers.”

“In order to implement the IBM Smarter Cities team’s recommendations concerning the creation of a Data Analytics Centre of Excellence and continue with our Open Governance initiative, it is imperative that we improve the way we integrate the collection and dissemination of data within the City,” she explains.

The data analytics centre will afford Edmonton a better understanding of when, where and why collisions and other traffic violations, are taking place.

“Increased access to this information will provide a new lens for us to make better policy decisions that will make our roads safer,” says Casovan.

“We hope to use the model that we will create with traffic data analysis, and apply it to other areas within the City to continue to improve how we make decisions.”

An IBM pilot project in Singapore shows just how much can be achieved through pre-emptive data collection, as Longbottom reveals that the city state can now examine traffic patterns and predict congestion up to 45 minutes ahead of time.

“The pilot project has a 90% accuracy rate in predicting the volume and speed of drivers, information, which is then used to adjust the city’s 1,700 sets of traffic lights,” she says.

Social media apps: empowering citizens

Central to Edmonton’s mission to become the worldwide leader in traffic safety is the use of social media platforms and other dynamic, citizen-centric communication tools to publish information online, improve information and allow citizens to contribute to City decisions and processes.

“Central to Edmonton’s mission to become the leader in traffic safety is social media.”

There are many different applications that can improve traffic safety, from pre-trip planning and alternate route suggestions to avoid traffic delays, to citizens being able to report closures or accidents either online or by phone and provide post-trip feedback via pulse surveys, Twitter, blogs, forums and crowdsourcing for application creation.

“The success of this strategy is based on effective bidirectional communication, feedback loops and pervasive use of social networks, media and new applications for smart devices,” says Casovan.

“This is how today’s citizens prefer to engage with and get information from city authorities – it allows them to provide suggestions about information that is important to them, as well as encouraging open data and industry-based application development,” she continues.

City Forward

IBM’s City Forward website is one tool that has been developed to enable a wide variety of constituents within cities to collaborate and learn from each other. Longbottom gives the example that the site can help to analyse data on bridge and tunnel use and compare it to public transit ridership trends, air quality measurements, employment levels and many other issues.

“This allows citizens and city officials to form new judgments about how once-controversial and abstract ideas such as traffic congestion pricing might be approached anew, supported by a clearer way to measure and demonstrate the positive effects on the quality of life in their city,” he says. “As open data becomes increasingly available from cities around the world, this site will continue to get more and more powerful in terms of generating insight by comparing cities around the world.”

Looking to the future

Casovan and other City of Edmonton officials are highly optimistic as the partnership between IBM and the City of Edmonton moves forward.

“The IBM Smarter Cities award has put Edmonton on the international stage,” says Casovan. “To be recognised as excelling in municipal governance is an incredibly important opportunity for the City of Edmonton, as we are in the midst of large-scale growth. Edmonton is working towards becoming a top-tier, mid-size city by 2040. We believe that we have all the ingredients to make this happen – a beautiful city, healthy, happy citizens and a vibrant business, arts and sports community.”

Casovan praised the IBM team sent to the city.

“The IBM Smarter Cities award has put Edmonton on the international stage.”

“The IBM Smarter Cities Team validated our own views of the city’s potential and this project has acted like a catalyst, providing expert advice for improvements on some of the ongoing-initiatives that will ultimately shape Edmonton’s future, both as a city and as an effective government,” she says.

Longbottom, meanwhile, believes that the benefits afforded by Smarter Cities are already being realised: “American Cities like New York and Washington DC have already become ‘smarter cities’, and have seen lower costs, fewer crimes and less wastage of water and energy as a result.”

With IBM’s Smarter Cities Challenge is in full swing, with 24 cities around the globe benefiting from the company’s hand-picked teams of experts and their various expertise.

“With very tangible results achievable in a short space of time, more cities will be seeing the benefits of optimising urban operations in the very near future,” says Longbottom.