Comment lines: Building a Smarter Planet, one city at a time

Building a smarter city is a challenge in ways that are both similar and different from companies whose mission it is to succeed and grow. While there is no real question that technology would be able to help cities innovate and grow, strained resources often make such investments impractical. But innovation starts with intelligence -- getting data and using it -- and that kind of innovation is what IBM®'s Smarter Cities™ initiative is all about. This content is part of the IBM WebSphere Developer Technical Journal.


Anthony Bernal (, Chief Programmer, Industry Solutions, IBM

Author photoAnthony (Joey) Bernal is the Chief Programmer for the IBM Intelligent Operations Center, a part of IBM's Smarter Cities initiative. He has an extensive background in the design and development of WebSphere and WebSphere Portal applications. He is a developerWorks Professional Author and the author or co-author of several books, including Web 2.0 and Social Networking for the Enterprise, Application Architecture for WebSphere, Programming Portlets, and several others. He is currently helping to build a smarter planet working on IBM’s Intelligent Cities Operations Center.

18 May 2011

Also available in Chinese

Innovating intelligence

This is really a great time to be part of a company like IBM®. The continuous innovation and growth of our products over the last several years has been nothing less than amazing. With technologies featuring everything from IBM’s Watson™ recently trouncing two of the strongest Jeopardy contenders in history, to IBM’s current focus on combining its product strengths and industrial expertise to provide customers with complete industry solutions.

By now, you have probably heard of IBM’s focus on a Smarter Planet™. The breadth of IBM solutions within this portfolio is staggering and continues to grow. Smarter solutions are focusing on everything from smarter government and cities, to retail, communications, healthcare, and energy, all while leveraging new technology paradigms such as social networking and cloud computing to deliver these solutions.

Here, I’d like to consider just one of these areas of focus: Smarter Cities™.

Why Smarter Cities are important

As you can imagine, the structure of any city can be quite complex, and the management of many cities continue to be strained by factors such as population growth, an aging infrastructure, and a continuously shrinking pool of available resources, to name a few. The everyday goal is to keep up with these challenges and manage available resources as closely as possible. There also must be a strong focus on serving the public need in times of crisis, large and small.

At a high level, the internal workings of a city can be viewed as a combination of departments designed to provide the services required for both citizens and visitors. Figure 1 illustrates some of the common departments that provide support and management for any reasonably sized city.

Figure 1. Common city departments
Figure 1. Common city departments

In turn, each department provides dozens (or perhaps hundreds) of discrete services either to other departments or businesses, or directly to citizens. This list of provided services can be quite large, even for the smallest city.

The goal of optimizing the delivery of services is quite simple: provide the best service while expending as few resources as possible. This is actually the goal of any organization, including corporations, non-profits, and sports teams, as well as cities and other government organizations.

What makes a city smart

Being smarter is about being able to make better decisions. This can be done by gaining additional insight into the systems that affect the decisions that need to be made. For cities, this is no different than for any business or individual. The main difference is in the type of information that is required to help gather new insight.

City executives require both a holistic view of what is happening as well as the ability to dive into more detail when something is going on. Knowing simply that traffic congestion is getting worse, for example, helps you make high level decisions to focus on road maintenance or public transportation. However, knowing where and when traffic jams are occurring is required for more detail planning to ease congested areas.

Often, we think about the physical systems of a city that need to be monitored, such as roads, energy, water, and sewer lines. But there is a lot of intangible data that, when analyzed and combined with other factors, provide critical, additional insight. Budgets and revenue percentages can provide even more information about how city resources are spent or how they are likely to grow or shrink over time. For example, if parking revenues are down in a particular area, what could contributing factors be? Only by gaining this holistic view can all relevant information be taken into account.

Usually, cities grow slowly over time, as do many large companies, and as such can ultimately contain many disparate systems and processes. Work order systems used by one department might be incompatible with those used by another. Older systems might not able to provide as much benefit or optimization as more modern systems as an organization grows or expands. Smarter cities recognize these limitations and look for ways to enable inter-department interaction and the coordination of resources as necessary.

Definitely, these are long term goals. But these objectives include areas and processes that require specific domain knowledge combined with a cross-department view of how domains can work together toward these goals. The benefits are easy to measure as related systems grow closer together and can share relevant information between them.

Physical meets digital

One of the keys to making something “smarter,” in our sense of the word, is to instrument systems or services in order to provide real time information about what is really happening (Figure 2). This can be, for example, in the form of sensors that provide real time information on traffic and road usage, water and sewage, electricity and gas consumption, weather, and more. Device instrumentation can be expensive and time consuming, and so careful planning must be done by the city to focus on the areas that need improvement first.

But instrumentation does not always have to be hardware. People can act as sensors, providing near real time information on fires, emergency management, crime, flooding, crowds, and even budget figures. This idea can be further expanded by enabling citizens to become sensors, especially in the early stages of a smarter city, as hardware sensors may be less prevalent. 311 systems can be provided to give citizens the ability to update city managers on non-emergency problems in near real time, reporting on everything from a new pothole on Main Street to poor water quality on Elm Street.

Figure 2. Combined city view
Figure 2. Combined city view

Sensor input, either hard or soft, enables a system to provide a combined view of all the disparate information that comes in. One key element to consider is what I call the normalization of data, which provides a single view of different types of data across a city’s many domains. This is a challenging task to achieve, but the long term payoff can be tremendous. Providing a normalized data schema enables new types of data to be integrated into the system with relative ease. Using standard data transformation tools such as an enterprise service bus or message broker can greatly simplify the task of transforming messages and data streams into a well-defined data format.

Building in intelligence

Before you start imagining machines taking over the Earth, understand that in this view intelligence is intended to augment a city’s executives, planners, and operators in their decision making abilities. The enhancement of sensor data as it is transformed is an additional benefit of smarter systems that enables more meaningful analysis both by the system itself and by its users. Geo-location information and services can be used to enhance any message data so that is can be quickly overlayed on any map, or used to correlate incoming messages by type, location, or time as they are processed by the system.

While Geographical Information Systems (GIS) can be used to provide a visual real time view of cities as an ecosystem, standard business intelligence tools can be used to provide historical analysis of collected data across all the domains of a city. As information about city departments and services -- once considered standalone data -- are analyzed, efficiencies can be realized as waste and redundancies are removed.

System maps are another way for operators or other users to visualize information. Think in terms of a subway map, but add in layers of data like water and sewer lines, power grids, and real time traffic information. As more information is gathered in real time, systems can be trained to provide direction to departments and users appropriate for the situation.

This will not happen overnight, but as events are recognized and analyzed, the training process can evolve for each city. A traffic accident in a busy traffic location can trigger the re-routing of bus routes, or upcoming weather events can start the process of optimizing and prioritizing work orders in areas prone to flooding.

On a more basic level, simply having a general view of status and events across the city can help executives determine where to focus their energy and resources. Leveraging social media has become a way to learn about news events, problems, and concerns of the world, and can also help emergency services become aware of spontaneous events such as fires, riots, stampedes, gunfire, or simple mass gatherings that might require additional resources on standby.


It’s an exciting time to be part of something that is changing the way we interact with the world around us. The preview of Watson was only the beginning of an impressive array of products and services that could change the lives of people around the world. The interesting thing about these technologies is that what we learn from optimizing large city and government ecosystems can transcend to other domains fairly easily.

Look for more in this space in the coming months, showing how IBM is creating a Smarter Planet and how you can get involved!



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ArticleTitle=Comment lines: Building a Smarter Planet, one city at a time