Navigant Research Blog

IBM Tackles Transport Snarls in China

— March 1, 2012

IBM has announced its first major customer for the Intelligent Transportation solution it introduced last year. The project is with the Chinese city of Zhenjiang, where IBM is working with the local municipality to deliver an integrated transport management system as part of the “Smarter Zhenjiang, Smarter Tourism” project. Zhenjiang is a city of 3 million people in eastern China and is an important regional hub situated near the Yangtze River and the Grand Canal.

The new system is based on IBM’s Intelligent Operations Center for Smarter Cities (IOC) and will provide a real-time picture of the city’s traffic network with the aim of alleviating congestion, improving traffic management, and providing a better travel experience for citizens and visitors.

A core component of the project is a bus scheduling system that will help increase the efficiency of public transportation. The system will help Zhenjiang manage over 1,000 public transportation vehicles, over 80 city bus routes and 400 upgraded bus stations. A sensor system will collect data from smart devices in buses and bus stations and feed these to the IOC, where the data will be analyzed to help transit personnel adjust bus routes, frequencies, and bus station locations.

IBM China Research Laboratory is working with the city to create what it calls a Transit Route Network Optimization Planning System (TOPS). TOPS will provide a simulation platform for transit fleet and passenger flow on the network. It will draw on a variety of historical and real-time data sources and use predictive analysis to enable proactive management of the transport and transit system.

Amidst the stream of smart city project announcements, this one stands out for a number of reasons.

First, the project is concrete evidence of how China is looking to smart solutions to address the challenges of urban growth. Most analysis of the smart city market, including our own, presumes that China will eventually be at the forefront of smart city development, but to date, actual projects on anything approaching city-scale have been thin on the ground so far. Our report, Smart Cities, identified transport as the segment of the market where Asia, and particularly China, would grow fastest because of the impact of congestion on economic growth and sustainability. According to IBM, China is building more public transit systems than the rest of the world combined, and the country can’t cope with its rising transport demand without more intelligent management.

Second, the project builds on and develops some key innovations in transport management. This will be a state-of-the art system that not only monitors congestion but also uses predictive analytics to proactively manage traffic flows – through the routing of buses to meet demand and avoid bottlenecks, for example. Based on its work with Singapore and other cities, IBM claims its systems can now predict congestion build ups between 5 and 30 minutes ahead of problems arising, allowing traffic managers to take mitigating action.

Third, this is an early vindication for IBM of its IOC model for city management. The base of the system is the IOC platform, customized to meet the needs of the city and enhanced with the new capabilities being developed by its research arm in China.  IBM has the opportunity to build a positive feedback loop as innovations made in Zhenjiang feed back into the solution set and make it even more relevant to the issues facing other cities.

 

Using Data to Drive Urban Transformation

— February 1, 2012

As I mentioned in my last smart city blog, one of the biggest challenges to realizing the smart city vision is finding financial models that can enable the transformation in city operations.  This recent Climate Group report highlighted the opportunity offered to cities through better exploitation of one of their most critical and under used assets: data.  The most obvious use of city data is for the city authorities and service providers to become better at collecting, analyzing and acting on information about how the city works.  While public sector organizations – not only city authorities – have gone a long way in creating modern IT-based front- and back-office organizations, they have generally been much slower than the private sector to use the power of data analysis to understand how to improve those processes.  This is now changing, and city authorities are beginning to understand the power of data analytics.  But even with cloud computing and software-as-a-service models helping to reduce costs and speed up deployment, data analytics and advanced information management systems still involve a significant upfront investment, and payback depends on finding efficiencies and improvements in services.  A more radical – but complementary – approach is to open the data to third parties to allow them to provide new services and new insights.  This is one reason why cities are at the forefront of the movement for open government data.

The momentum behind open government data gained significant impetus with the release of President Obama’s “Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government” in January 2009.  This paved the way for the launch of data.gov in May 2009, a web portal that today provides almost 400,000 raw and geospatial datasets and more than 1,000 web apps.  The U.K. government launched data.gov.uk in April 2010.  Both the U.N. and the World Bank are now working to encourage governments around the world to adopt open data policies.  As well as spurring innovation, opening up government data is seen as a means for tackling corruption, increasing transparency and improving accountability.  In July 2011, Kenya became the first developing country to have an open government data portal.

Trying to put specific value on such data is difficult, but a report from the European Commission suggests that opening up public-sector information could be worth up to €140 billion (almost $200 billion) to the EU economy each year.  Cities have been among the most proactive governments promoting the possibilities for open data.  In the United States, cities like San Francisco, New York, and Chicago have launched open data portals, as have London and Barcelona and Helsinki.  A number of cities have also launched developer events and competitions to encourage the creation of new applications that can then be made available on the city website.

Transparency, Accountability

So why is this important to the development of the smart city concept? Most importantly, opening up data to new uses is a way of refreshing our ideas about the city: how it works and how it could work better.  It also frees up the potential for further exploitation of new technologies such as smartphones and sensor networks.  Open data can also provide a boost to the city as center for software development and other digital industries, as the Mayor of New York has recognized with his promotion of NYC Digital.

Chicago provides a good example of what can be achieved.  In January, the city launched a new web site, Chicago Shovels, which keeps residents informed in real-time about the activity of the city’s snow ploughs when the blizzards hit.  In future, it will provide space for coordinating community-based snow-clearing teams.  It also provides additional applications developed by third-parties using the city’s open data sets.  Twoinch.es, for example, alerts drivers of winter parking bans, while WasMyCarTowed.com uses the City’s towed and relocated vehicle data to reconnect owners with their cars.  Sites like Chicago Shovels are not just providing new services, they are also making new aspects of a city’s operation transparent.

The CTO of Chicago has written an excellent blog on the city’s open data platform.  In the post he describes the four principles that have driven the program: transparency, accountability, analysis, and open data.  Looking to the future, he also talks about the emerging concept of the “city-as-platform” – an idea I will examine in more detail in my next blog.

 

A Small Car for the Smart City

— January 31, 2012

Last week saw the official unveiling of the Hiriko electric car in Brussels, in front of the President of the European Commission Jose Manuel Barroso.  A trial manufacturing run of the vehicle is set to begin at Vitoria Gasteiz, outside Bilbao, next year and the first models are expected to reach the market in 2013.  Several cities have apparently already shown interest including Berlin, Barcelona, Malmö and San Francisco.

Developed by a consortium of seven companies based in the Basque region of Spain, Hiriko Driving Mobility is taking forward a design for a CityCar first produced at MIT.  The Hiriko has several city-friendly features, but the most striking is its size and the fact that it folds up to fit into the smallest of urban parking spaces.  At only 2.5m (100 inches) in length unfolded, when crunched up for parking it takes a measly 1.5m (60 inches) in space.  The vehicle’s wheels also turn at right angles to help sideways parking in tight spaces and the lack of conventional doors mean that you can still get in and out the vehicle.

The transport challenges facing city leaders were the subject of some of the most interesting sessions at last November’s Intelligent City Conference, in Hamburg.  Amongst lengthy discussions about multi-model transport strategies and the pros and cons of road charging schemes, several presenters raised the importance of rethinking the role of the private car within our cities.  This is not only about the need to encourage EVs, or to accelerate the shift to public transit systems, but also to foster new thinking about car design.  We need to design cars that meet the needs of cities, several speakers declared, and move away from shaping our cities to accommodate cars.

That’s the basic idea behind the Hiriko (which means “urban” in Basque).  The developers say that it’s well-suited to electric car-sharing schemes, similar to those already in place in San Diego and other cities.  Other options might include the use of advertising to pay for the car rental, or sponsorship by hotels, restaurants or other local businesses.  Operators and city transport authorities might also consider time-of-use pricing or incentives to encourage the use of alternative pick-up and drop-off points during busy times.

The Hiriko may horrify lovers of classic car design, but for anyone interested in the future of urban transport it offers some intriguing possibilities.

 

Victory for Greenpeace as Facebook Un-Likes Coal

— January 10, 2012

The release last month of a joint announcement by Greenpeace and Facebook marks the end of one of the most interesting green campaigns of recent years.  Greenpeace first targeted Facebook 20 months ago, after the social media giant announced a new purpose-built data center, which it turned out would depend on electricity mainly generated from coal.  Facebook cited its commitment to building an energy-efficient data center, but Greenpeace argued that ignoring the prime source of energy for the site undermined other green elements of the strategy. 

According to the new statement, Facebook is now committed to using renewable energy in future data centers and also offers to promote this approach to other companies:

Facebook is committed to supporting the development of clean and renewable sources of energy, and our goal is to power all of our operations with clean and renewable energy.  Building on our leadership in energy efficiency (through the Open Compute Project), we are working in partnership with Greenpeace and others to create a world that is highly efficient and powered by clean and renewable energy.

A number of specific activities are also mentioned in the statement.  Facebook has committed to adopting a siting policy that states a preference for access to clean and renewable energy supply, and funding research into energy efficiency that will be shared through the Open Compute Project.   The company will also “Engage in a dialogue with our utility providers about increasing the supply of clean energy that power Facebook data centers.”

Greenpeace, meanwhile, will help support for the Open Compute Project, by encouraging companies to join in, use the technology, and share their own efficiency innovations, and will encourage utilities to offer ways for customers to get their utility data.

Purists may decry the lack of specific goals or actions relating to existing data centers, but the statement clearly marks an acceptance by Facebook of Greenpeace’s basic argument.  The biggest irony of the campaign of course is that Greenpeace used the facilities of Facebook to campaign against Facebook.  More than 700,000 people signed up to the organization’s Unfriend Coal page on Facebook (which now includes a timeline description of campaign).  Now that same platform (though not necessarily that page) will be used to encourage energy efficiency and to convince other companies to adopt clean energy sources.

The Open Compute project mentioned in the statement was started by Facebook as a means of sharing its own work on energy efficiency in the data center.  While the initiative sought to counter some of the flack being received from Greenpeace, it also addressed an important criticism of many of the major Internet companies with regard to their secrecy over their data center operations.  The new sense of cooperation between Facebook and Greenpeace is likely to put more pressure on other Internet and cloud providers to increase their transparency in this area.  The campaign demonstrates the importance and visibility that is now attached to data center facilities and the fact that citing a low power usage effectiveness (PUE) rating isn’t enough to satisfy environmental campaigners.

The power of Facebook, Twitter and other social media is now becoming evident on a daily basis.  In our recent report Social Media in the Utility Industry, for example, we estimate that in 2011 more than 57 million utility customers worldwide will use some form of social media to engage with their electricity providers, and that number will grow to 624 million by the end of 2017.  As Facebook found, important conversations are already going on that will impact your business, whether you’re involved or not.

 

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