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2/4/2013
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IBM Helps Schools Run Smarter Campuses

IBM's 'smarter buildings' initiative helps stretch school budgets by using analytics to save energy or identify opportunities to rent underutilized facilities.

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IBM wants to help school districts stretch their budgets, especially as many schools are facing steep cuts from reduced state budgets and local tax rolls.

School systems that are showing results with IBM's "smarter buildings" technologies include The School District of Palm Beach County in Florida, Portland Public Schools in Oregon and Clark County School District in Nevada. The goal is to reduce operating costs such as energy consumption, to generate new revenue, and to increase returns on invested capital by helping school systems make smarter decisions on how their physical assets, including school buildings and facilities, are used.

The Palm Beach school system expects to generate about $4.5 million in facilities rentals in the current fiscal year because it now has a better way of tracking the availability and bookings of its facilities on nights, weekends and vacation periods. That revenue compares with about $1.4 million to $1.7 million in past years, according to Joe Sanches, chief of support operations for the school district. Combined with the savings from the elimination of paper-based processes in its call center, the school system is past break even on its investment in IBM software and services, which Sanches estimated at about $7 million. That means the budgetary impact should be positive going forward.

[ Need a better crystal ball? Higher education is working on it. Read To Avoid Nasty Surprises, Higher Ed Turns To Prediction. ]

"We had been renting out cafeterias and auditoriums for years and years, but the process was paper-based, which was a disincentive for anyone to use it," Sanches said. Besides being a hassle, the paper-based process was prone to audit problems if schools didn't collect and retain all the necessary insurance documentation from those using school facilities, he said. Now that school employees can manage and track the process through an online system that ensures all the correct steps are followed, they're getting more ambitious about pursuing rental opportunities.

"There's a lot of money left on the table through inefficient practices," said Jim Fletcher, distinguished engineer and chief architect for IBM Smarter Infrastructure. "We're seeing that in schools, commercial buildings and mines." This is one of the ways IBM wants to put its investment in analytic technologies to work -- by helping organizations of all sorts identify and eliminate efficiencies.

Most institutions are surprised by the savings that prove possible, Fletcher said. IBM also faced skepticism from its own facilities managers until it showed them the numbers. Generally for such programs to succeed, someone in the organization who believes in the potential needs to takes the initiative. For example, at Tulane University in New Orleans it was the dean of the school of architecture who pressed the case because he wanted a showcase of what was going on. In an energy audit of Tulane's century-old Richardson Memorial Hall, Fletcher said, IBM was able to produce double-digit savings for the university.

IBM has built its smarter buildings portfolio around the acquisitions of TRIRIGA facility management and Maximo asset management software, which are managed as part of the Tivoli product family.

The Palm Beach School District had actually implemented Maximo previously but it had not kept up with product upgrades, Sanches said. Also, their implementation did not allow remote access by personnel at individual schools. Beyond the facility rentals issue was a more basic one: routine work orders were being faxed into a call center, and then dispatched out to the field -- a slow, error-prone and expensive process. At the start of every school year a flood of these requests would come in, Sanches explained, and often the faxes would stack up waiting for call center personnel to enter them into the computer system. "I'd get calls from people asking, 'why hasn't someone fixed this?' and I'd have to tell them that request was still in the pile."

Rather than upgrading Maximo, the school system decided to purchase TRIRIGA as a better match for its needs. This made it possible to cut call center staff in half, while retaining enough personnel to handle emergency requests that might not come through the computer system. Next, Sanches would like to get maintenance personnel working with the system through handheld devices so they can get work orders and log completions on the go. "The system can do that; we just haven't implemented it yet," he said. Exploring ways the software can help monitor and reduce energy consumption is also on the school district's to-do list.

A TRIRIGA implementation is also helping prioritize modernization efforts at Portland's public schools, where the average school building is nearly 70 years old. In addition, the Portland schools are using the software to create predictive and efficient maintenance practices, which have shaved 15 percent off facilities management costs, according to IBM. Meanwhile, the Clark County School District is using Maximo to help maintenance staff make smarter decisions. They use it to prioritize, respond to and repair more than 110,000 work orders generated each year at 392 schools and administrative buildings, across 8,000 square miles, according to IBM.

Follow David F. Carr on Twitter @davidfcarr or Google+.

Can data analysis keep students on track and improve college retention rates? Also in the premiere all-digital Analytics' Big Test issue of InformationWeek Education: Higher education is just as prone to tech-based disruption as other industries. (Free with registration.)

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