Public-private partnerships aim to deliver services that cash-strapped cities can't provide on their own. In Boston, pilot projects tackle energy, traffic and more.

Michael Fitzgerald, Contributor

March 14, 2013

4 Min Read

IBM Smarter Cities Challenge: 10 Towns Raise Tech IQs

IBM Smarter Cities Challenge: 10 Towns Raise Tech IQs

IBM Smarter Cities Challenge: 10 Towns Raise Tech IQs(click image for larger view and for slideshow)

The city of Boston seems brainy enough, with its 35 universities and 150,000 college students. But at an event to tout technologies that make cities "smarter," Boston CIO Bill Oates said the city had a long way to go.

"We've only scratched the surface here in Boston" Oates told Information Week during Wednesday's Smarter Cities: A Roadmap for the Future event put on by the city, IBM and Boston University.

Cities look to technology to help them keep up with population growth in a time of flat or shrinking budgets.

[ What else is IBM up to? Read IBM CEO Rometty Shares Vision Of Big Data Era. ]

"We are drowning in the complexities of city functions," said Kenneth Lutchen, dean of the college of engineering at Boston University. He said cities able to effectively use mobile, sensors, analytics and other technologies will do better than rivals at improving quality of life and economic development.

An example of cities thinking smarter is Boston's Citizens Connect, an iPhone and Android app that lets residents report potholes, broken street signs and other problems directly to the city. Oates said that the Citizens Connect app had helped the city communicate better with its residents, and respond to them more quickly.

The app, first launched in 2009, has been updated multiple times, spawned a similar app for city workers and, later this year, will be updated again to version 4.0, which will merge the city workers app with the citizens app, as well as adding in a recommendation feature called "Street Cred." It's also being made available to other Massachusetts cities. Oates said that by the end of March it will be available in 35 other communities.

Smarter Cities also look to cut costs via technology. IBM, Boston and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts announced a series of projects Wednesday.

Two of the initiatives announced are ongoing. The Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA) says it's using IBM predictive software to reduce unnecessary maintenance and has cut work orders by 38%. The Massachusetts Port Authority will expand its use of predictive software at Logan Airport from Terminal A to all terminals and a new rental car facility opening this fall. It's also adding vehicles to the system.

Pilot projects announced included:

-- In Boston, the Mayor's Office of Arts, Tourism and Special Events is testing an "Intelligent Operations Center," a software dashboard that draws in cross-departmental data. Its goals include reducing traffic congestion and improving public safety during major events such as the Boston Marathon.

-- Boston's Public Works Department is using an asset management system from IBM Maximo to help maintain its 60,000 streetlights. If the program works well, it will expand to other uses.

-- Boston University's Sustainable Neighborhood Laboratory has partnered with IBM to examine energy usage in residential areas.

-- At the state level, Massachusetts said it will work with IBM to change how it manages maintenance, energy usage and space management across its 72 million square feet of property. The state says it gets 120,000 work orders related to its properties each year.

IBM declined to say what the pilots would cost, but one official said efficiency projects can pay for themselves within a year. Oates said more efficient management of events and assets indeed yields "short-term benefits to the taxpayer."

Cost savings are crucial, as the daylong event made clear that cities lack the skills and finances to develop smarter infrastructure.

"Cities have no money," said Ruthbea Yesner Clarke, director of International Data Corp.'s Smart Cities research program.

Cities touted for their smart infrastructure investments tend to be places like Rio de Janeiro, where governments are spending heavily to prepare for hosting the World Cup and the Olympics.

Clarke said cities might be able to adopt the Boston model of matching technology vendors, city and state IT and university talent. Adding foundation and non-profit support may be the best way to increase momentum for implementing technology to manage cities more effectively.

For IBM, the event was a tactical extension of its Smarter Cities challenge grants, a three-year program where IBM is donating $50 million worth of employee time to help cities address their challenges. Boston received a grant in 2012, which spawned the working relationships between Boston, the state of Massachusetts and IBM, a major employer in the state.

Relationships, not technology, matter most for cities. Oates said "the real valuable part of today is this conversation about partnership between the private sector, academia and cities."

About the Author(s)

Michael Fitzgerald


Michael Fitzgerald writes about the power of ideas and the people who bring them to bear on business, technology and culture.

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