SXSWi 2010: IBM's John Tolva on smarter cities

Explains how cities can turn existing data into knowledge

From South by Southwest Interactive 2010: John Tolva, Director of IBM® Citizenship and Technology, discusses the City Forward project, a way to increase the power cities have to be efficient by turning their existing data into knowledge. Part of the A Smarter Planet initiative.


Scott Laningham (, developerWorks Podcast Editor, IBM developerWorks

Scott LaninghamScott Laningham, host of developerWorks podcasts, was previously editor of developerWorks newsletters. Prior to IBM, he was an award-winning reporter and director for news programming featured on Public Radio International, a freelance writer for the American Communications Foundation and CBS Radio, and a songwriter/musician.

17 March 2010

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developerWorks: Scott Laningham at South By Southwest 2010. I'm here again with Turbo Todd Watson and our guest, John Tolva, Director, Citizenship and Technology, IBM® Corporate. John, thanks for joining us.

Tolva: Of course.

developerWorks:[A] Smarter Planet, big IBM theme. We talk about it a lot, but maybe you want to just give the big recap on what we mean by that.

Tolva: Right. Well, for a number of years IBM has been instituting ways of hearing from their employees about where we should take the company next. We do this every couple of years.

And one of the things that we've heard most recently is, not specific business segments, not specific even technologies but actually larger ideas, larger problems and challenges facing a very changing world ... things like optimizing our cities, things like changing healthcare and predicting weather. These are problems that cross traditional boundaries, that they are not solved by single jurisdictions, they're not solved by single approaches to problems.

The idea behind [A] Smarter Planet was to think of these complex systems — financial markets, the human body, weather — as problems of systems engineering which is one reason that a company as large as IBM and as technology focused as IBM can actually tackle something that seems more like a social or a cultural problem.

A complex system is something that we've dealt with for many years. Computers are such a thing. Enterprises are such a thing. They are systems where action and reaction are non-linear — that is, there are follow-on consequences, unforeseen outcomes between you know action A and action B. They are, if you've heard of chaos theory, it's a bit like that. But there is structure in that.

And structure can be instrumented. And that's the first half of the [A] Smarter Planet sort of formula which is in an increasingly instrumented planet, whether through sensors, whether through the billions of microprocessors in the environment or people themselves (the sort of ultimate sensor network there is) ... with the amount of data that that produces, think of those as the vital signs from a complex system.

Those things now are able to be interconnected and interconnected via networking technologies that then can be analyzed, fed back into the system. Think of a thermostat as just the simplest feedback loop there is but scaled up a billion times.

A complex system so instrumented and interconnected can yield a more intelligent thing. In the case of a thermostat, it's a house that saves energy because it shuts off. But that concept scaled up to roads or the human body is what we mean by [A] Smarter Planet.

Now, these are difficult concepts. These are sort of high-minded concepts. And so one of the things we did early on was focus on cities because cities are microcosms of the planet itself, they are where many complex systems come together, and of course, more than half ... at the end of 2007 ... more than half of humanity lives in cities now, first time ever.

So we're focusing on cities and the individual sort of subsystems within a city — transportation, public safety, education — but what we really want to see is ... or, what we really would like to show is the data shows that these can be managed in a totally different way.

You know, if I slug Todd in the shoulder right now, that's a pretty simple interaction, he's going to get mad at me. That's a linear relationship. If I crash my car on the street out there, it's not a linear relationship. Many more things are involved than just a crash. The water system could be affected, certainly traffic flow, commerce will be affected.

developerWorks: Yes, ripple effect.

Tolva: That's not the way we manage that: EMS is dispatched and that's that; a ticket is ... a citation is issued and that's that. The data shows us that there are follow-on effects.

It's a network really. I mean, actually in many ways the city was an Internet before there was an Internet: A kind of dense, diverse network of interaction, of relationship, of force and reaction. And [one] that we're only now being able to sort of conceptualize because we have the model that is the Internet and because we have the expertise for how to deal with network dynamics that is the Internet.

Now we're sort of putting those back on what's called the built environment where we live and figuring out new ways to manage it.

One of the ways that we're showing ... we hope to show the world ... that there can be new ways of management is a project that IBM Corporate Citizenship is doing really as a strategic philanthropic grant to city citizens of the world called City Forward.

And what this is is a layer of applications, primarily analytics and visualization, on top of public city data, data that cities are publishing; so basically, the vital signs of a city.

Much in the same way that a doctor will come into a patient's room where there are a number of different systems that are being monitored ... heart rate, breathing, everything else ... not integrated. He integrates those. He tells a story from those. It's actually the intersection of two or more sets of monitoring that allows him to move to the next step. It's not just that your heartbeat's going down, it's correlated with something else.

This is what City Forward does. It shows the intersections between data sets. It shows the relationship between things like service calls, 311 service calls and crime, something you don't normally associate. There are relationships there that sort of bubbles up areas for further insight by city leaders, by community activists, by experts.

Now the other thing it does in addition to the sort of unglamorous job of just allowing data to be compared, you know, two cities don't describe ... the analogy with the human body ends right there. Two physicians on opposite sides of the planet can talk about the same body. Two urban planners or mayors on opposite side of the planet cannot because of the way the cities are subdivided and managed and that sort of thing.

So we are striving to normalize, it's called, that data for comparison. But then we really bring the technology into it, the visualization of what is just really raw numbers and do a number of different really community friendly and non-data-nerd friendly ways of looking at it: Traditional infographics all the way up to heat maps and more geospatial visualization.

The sort of highest end application of IBM technology in this is our growing practice around data analytics. So historical data mining for trends that permits us then to do predictive analytics running it forward in time where you can actually ask yourself what might happen.

Watson: So on that point, John, maybe give us a specific example to really bring this home for people because we have been investing a lot in the business analytics and optimization both in terms of software companies ... we bought Cognos, SPSS ... and the build out of that practice. So where in the world have we taken that kind of information and added value that's had actual either bottom-line or lifestyle impact?

Tolva: Well, Cognos, SPSS, and ILOG are really the heart of this project. The project actually hasn't launched yet, that's the end of May where we'll be rolling out with cities whose data is available.

People ask me all the time, are you going to choose my city? Well, it's not really like that. It's, has the data ... has the city already taken the first step of publishing its data?

And then, think of City Forward as kind of a middleware layer or an application layer that sits on top of the database that is cities. And it increases.

Now, I can give you some examples of some interesting things we've seen in prototyping.

Watson: Or even some of the TV spots we've seen, like the City of Stockholm, right? That's taking real-time data from GIS and camera, traffic cameras, and then trying to help either reflow traffic or potentially drive down the congestion by encouraging people to take public transport.

Tolva: Yes, I mean, that's a perfect example, actually, because traffic is such a dynamic part of the system that is the city. Traditionally we know so very little about what's actually happening in real time that this is actually slightly different than City Forward which is more about historic and future prediction.

What's being done in Stockholm is taking those same data feeds in the moment and making decisions, some of which are automated decisions or automated actions, to change the flow of traffic, to change the barrier to entry to that traffic, mostly in the example of congestion pricing, charging you to be in certain areas.

Singapore is doing interesting stuff around this right now and they're moving to a model that is the most literal version of real time in that the cars themselves are outfitted with GPS and you're automatically debited based on where you are. In other words, there's no bottleneck at the perimeter of a city like London to enter the central business district; you just go about your business during your day sort of like in tolling and you're charged for your usage.

It's that kind of ... and what I'm describing is actually just a giant feedback loop, right? You're feeding back into the system data that's coming from the system to effect some sort of positive outcome; in this case, less traffic.

Watson: So I know also that you have been one of, you were one of the original participants in IBM's Corporate Service Corps program. And I know a lot of people have expressed interest in this, both inside and outside the company. Clearly it's an opportunity for us to develop future leaders like yourself.

But it also seems to kind of have a unique tie back to some of the work that you're now doing in this role. Could we step back just a moment and maybe talk a little bit about that program and how that informed some of the work that you're doing now?

Tolva: Sure. Corporate Service Corps started two years ago, partnership across every unit in IBM because it involves every IBMer. It's modeled on the Peace Corps and yes, the original idea was leadership development. Let's take high-performing non-executives and put them in areas of the world and areas of the business that we have no footprint, none, and put them to work for five weeks or so as a team.

Now there are about 10 people per team from different business units and different parts of the world. I'd like to think of it as more of an experiment on what really does it mean to be an IBMer because there aren't a lot of things you share. You're outside of the mothership, you're outside of the walls of the office. In some cases you don't have email.

I don't know the first thing about supply chain, but the person on my team, my subteam, was the supply chain expert. And in some cases you don't even speak the same first language. And it really comes down to sort of a reducible professionalism and in some ways the values, the IBM values that enabled us to actually work together.

But the other thing that it is — and this is what sort of ties into what we're doing with City Forward — is extreme long-range market development. We were working in areas of the world both geographically, I was in West Africa and in industries, for instance, emerging industries, that we just don't do business in right now, but we may.

And after two years of this, there are several hundred sort of rising IBMers who have had first-hand experience with that and can report back. I mean, think of it as sort of market survey ... not to mention that we actually do establish in some cases lasting business relationships. There's an IBM office in Ghana now. There wasn't one when we were there.

Watson: Really?

Tolva: You know, which is to say we were the only factor there. But I know there are actual business deals that have come out of this.

But more than anything, it's really the knowledge that's gained. You know, how is Ghana solving typical business problems? I mean, you won't be surprised to learn it's not like we were installing BladeCenters in these places. It was sort of low-level business consulting. But that's where you really learn what the problems that society is facing.

So, we just launched a couple weeks ago the first Executive Corporate Service Corps. So we're sending Band D execs out for specifically the cities. So this is more aligned with the Smarter Cities campaign and we're sending them to work with the cities themselves.

It's a bit of a shorter deployment, but the idea is, the reason that there are 51 percent of the human populations living in cities isn't because of the Shanghais and New York Cities of the world ... it's because of the cities in these emerging markets, the cities ... the Lagos of the world. And we have a lot to learn about that.

So that's one of the reasons why we're doing the Executive Corporate Service Corps.

developerWorks: That's a cool program and it sounds like a little bit different thing than "Undercover Boss" which is this show everybody's watching. [LAUGHTER]

Tolva: Well, we likened it to "Survivor" at times, but yes.

developerWorks: I wanted to ask you, John, about South By Southwest and all this stuff you're talking about, especially the smart city stuff. What kind of conversations are you having here? What's your sense of the pulse of this event and the kind of folks here in relation to that topic?

Tolva: Yes, I've been pleasantly surprised actually. There's lots of sort of microconferences around these topics. But what you see actually is that smarter cities and city as a system type thinking is really a subset of a larger movement that goes by the name open government or open ... or transparency. And these are people who, two years ago they weren't even interested in how a city worked or a state or the federal government.

But with the movement towards a more transparent operation, the December 8th last year mandate of all federal agencies, for instance, to publish non-confidential data in a machine readable format, things like, things like

Now what you get are people who just like to build things ... makers, right? Makers are who is here at South By Southwest saying we can actually participate now in the civic or the political process because we can build tools that sit on top of this data. It wasn't that they were particularly interested in optimizing city government before but you give these type of people building blocks and they'll make something good.

And City Forward really partakes of this sort of growing ecosystem of applications that interoperate. I should have mentioned that City Forward is, exposes its APIs. The data that comes out of it is unencumbered by terms and conditions. It's sort of, you can consider it a pass-through. And we want to play in that space.

So there are a few, I'd say a few dozen people here who are specifically interested in the city as a machine. But more, it's about how do we really change the conversation about how the world is managed and change the conversation from "I'm really irritated at my government" to "how do I participate in the governance of things."

The ascendancy of Twitter in some ways is really more than a status message update thing. It's a platform that has changed things for community involvement and collaboration. And that has effects on the city.

developerWorks: And one of the things he said about, which we're interested in helping people pay attention to what they're interested in, we don't want to just get their attention. I mean, in a way that's really part of the [A] Smarter Planet kind of message about innovation around building smarter cities, smarter interaction, smarter everything, right?

So that was my thought, is how much do you sense general initiative at this conference around that [A] Smarter Planet theme even when people don't realize that's what they're doing?

Tolva: You know, we're all riding a wave I think of the sense that a greater degree of interconnection is really how it goes ... I mean, how innovation and awesomeness, as I said, is going to happen.

What you probably find more here is not so much a focus on the hardware that's going to instrument our infrastructure as people; people as sensors. I mean, that's sort of an odd way to say it. But what is Twitter if not the largest distributed sensor of the subsystem that is people? And that's just as important as the bridges and roads.

developerWorks: Well, we've got five of them, right? Sen-SES, right?

Tolva: Right.

developerWorks: If we're using them then you can't have more coverage than that, right? Anything else, Todd?

Watson: No. I thank you for taking the time. I think you've really helped paint a picture of both where the [A] Smarter Planet stories evolved from but I think more importantly where it's going. And it's a very exciting time.

Tolva: Thank you.

developerWorks: John, great. John Tolva, Director Citizenship and Technology, IBM Corporate, and Todd Watson.


Watson: They're clapping. [LAUGHTER]

developerWorks: We're going to head back in. Yes, they enjoyed that. That was preclapping for the podcast which is not published. Thank you, John.



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ArticleTitle=SXSWi 2010: IBM's John Tolva on smarter cities