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IBM launches new services model for city planners

By Nicolas Zeitler
August 8, 2011 08:43 PM ET

IDG News Service - Based on a pilot project with the city of Portland, Oregon, IBM is offering a new services and software model to help municipal administrations predict the effects of policy choices.

The aim of IBM's System Dynamics for Smarter Cities model is to help mayors and other municipal officials understand the possible consequences of municipal actions, the company said Monday. IBM said it was designed to break up information silos that so far have hampered an integrated view of how an action in one policy area can affect other areas. According to IBM, predictions up to 25 years in advance will be possible.

The project began in April 2010. In the beginning, IBM and Portland's city government held talks with more than 75 subject-matter experts from the Portland area to learn about interconnections among the systems of the city, such as transportation, housing and public safety. "We involved 18 government agencies," said Joe Zehnder, Portland's chief city planner.

Afterward, together with researchers at Portland State University and systems software company Forio Business Simulations, the city and IBM collected data from across the city, dating back almost 10 years. This resulted in a computer model of Portland that could show how changes in one system would affect other systems.

"The aim was to look over the boundaries of the traditional information silos," Zehnder said. Authorities had been in close communication even before the project, but the integration of data offered "more depth," he said.

For example, Portland's plan for a 40 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2030 showed how change in one area can affect another. The authorities already knew that getting people to change a number of trips from driving to walking or biking would help to achieve this goal. The model showed that this shift would also lower obesity rates and so affect the health situation in the city. According to IBM, the model also can show associations such as a link between average residents' health and the attractiveness of the city to businesses, or between population density and wellness.

One surprising result for Zehnder was in the field of energy. The municipal administration wanted to know about the patterns of energy consumption and whether consumption could be lowered across neighborhoods. "Before the project, we had the assumption that in rich neighborhoods with bigger houses, energy consumption would generally be higher. The analysis showed that this is not necessarily the case," Zehnder said. The results of the assessment are now used within the city's Clean Energy Works, an existing project designed to identify energy-saving opportunities.

In general, the work on the model showed how to pursue the priorities laid out in the city's road map for the next 25 years, the so-called Portland Plan, Zehnder said. "It's a useful tool to challenge your thinking and assumptions," he said.

Reprinted with permission from IDG.net. Story copyright 2014 International Data Group. All rights reserved.
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