A smart or aware city might sound futuristic, but some companies are already at work using sensors and software to make cities run more smoothly and efficiently. VentureBeat talked with Chris O'Connor, vice president of engineering and smart city products at IBM, about the smart city services the computing company offers. The interview is a glimpse into the first generation of smart cities.
Cities have always improved their infrastructure with improving technology. At some point, adding fire hydrants to towns must have seemed new and smart. But when people talk about "smart cities" today, they usually mean adding sensors to city infrastructure to gather information such as who is using water and how much, or where traffic is flowing. Software then analyzes the data and does something with it – or suggests actions to officials – to make the city run better. The software might have solutions to help residents conserve water, for example, or reduce traffic congestion.
Many sensors already exist for cities to use. There are monitors for water meters, elevators, stop lights, toll booths, buses, taxis and parking tickets, O'Connor said. Cities may also gather publicly available social media information from their residents, such as tweets and status updates.
IBM has used data from these sensors to better link the emergency response and transportation departments of Davao in the Philippines, so the two departments can work together in emergencies, O'Connor said. The computing company has also set up a system for South Bend, Ind., that monitors all the water systems in the city and helps the city reroute storm runoff, which was a problem in the past. The entire system runs in an IBM-run cloud service, so South Bend doesn't have to install the software itself. IBM has set up 2,000 similar projects over the last few years, VentureBeat reported.
There's still plenty of work left for the future. The next generation of smart city systems should be able to cooperate better than they do now, for example. Right now, sensors in the same category, such as all transportation sensors or all water sensors, usually can communicate with each other easily, O'Connor told VentureBeat. A transportation device can't talk with a water device as easily, however, so IBM and other institutions are working to develop standards for the future that will run their systems using the same computing languages, so they can coordinate better.