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Jane Snowdon Makes the Case for Smarter Cities

Watch a video of the lecture here.

Why smarter cities, and why now?

Jane L. Snowdon, senior manager and research staff member in the Industry Solutions and Emerging Business department at the IBM T. J. Watson Research Center, is quick to list off the reasons that IBM is interested in making cities better places to live. By 2050, 70 percent of the world’s population will live in a city, and many cities are facing tough economic challenges and eroding tax bases. Fresh water, now only 2 percent of the world’s water, will become even more scare through an increasing population and climate change.

But most importantly, she told a room of faculty and students on April 27 as part of McCormick’s Dean’s Seminar Series, we now have the data available to make the best choices, and computing power lets scientists and engineers crunch those numbers faster than ever before. (When Snowdon worked on airline optimization problems in the 1970s, one problem took nine hours on an IBM mainframe to solve. Twenty-five years later, that problem took less than a minute on a ThinkPad.)

So what’s the goal of a smarter city? More sustainable development, less consumption, an extended information capacity, and more attractiveness. A smarter city is more sustainable, more dense, and more connected, and uses data to make its goals possible.

Just how much data? Consider this statistic: 988 exabytes of digital content was created, captured, or replicated in 2010. That’s the equivalent of a stack of books from here to Pluto and back.

“How do you really find that nugget of data to make a decision?” Snowdon said. “That’s why analytics is important.”

A major goal of smarter cities is real-time traffic management. In Singapore, where toll booths are automated, city officials had detailed information on how many cars were on the streets at any given minute. They asked IBM to develop a model for congestion-based pricing, which resulted in IBM’s Traffic Prediction Tool. The tool allowed traffic controllers to take preemptive measures to mitigate congestion through road signs that inform drivers of traffic and prices. As a result, traffic has gone down 13 percent.

IBM’s Smarter Cities initiative extends to buildings, too: the company is working with New York City Public schools to reduce energy consumption. The city spends $1 billion annually on electricity and thought its 1,400 schools might be a good place to start reevaluating utility bills. That’s where IBM came in.

“How do you take large volumes of data and develop models for energy consumption?” Snowdon said. The model they created will use weather, energy use, and building characteristics to create forecasts and simulations for energy optimization.

IBM’s Smarter Cities initiatives don’t just look at the big picture: they go all the way down to the lowly meter. In Washington, D.C., they helped the city save money and encourage sustainability by adjusting water rates for people who use the most water. They also helped the city decrease meter inspection costs by 50 percent by creating a system that inspected only defective meters.

“We need to do the best we can to have sustainable living moving forward,” Snowdon said.