IBM Partners With Boston in Developing Smarter Cities Projects

The city of Boston, Boston University and Massachusetts are leveraging IBM software to improve operations and cut costs.

BOSTON—IBM and officials with the city of Boston, Boston University and the commonwealth of Massachusetts used new projects that are getting under way as the cornerstone of a far-reaching conference on the issue of using technology to improve how cities and state agencies work.

The conference on the Boston University (BU) campus here March 13 comes about five years after IBM kicked off its Smarter Planet initiative, a program aimed at enabling communities and states to leverage the vast amounts of data collected every day by various sensors, databases and mobile devices to improve how they function and serve their growing numbers of residents.

In a daylong series of talks and panel discussions by Boston and Massachusetts officials, BU faculty and IBM executives on the subject of smarter cities, the message was that communities can do a lot with software that collects and analyzes data to make their operations more efficient and more responsive to resident needs, and to better communicate with those residents. At the same time, the technology is continuing to improve, and while technology plays a key role in improving the overall health and life of a city, so does having the correct public policies in place and adapting the personal behaviors of city workers and residents alike.

"Technology is an enabler … but a fool with a tool is still a fool," David Bartlett, vice president of smarter physical infrastructure at IBM, said during the conference, adding that cities must deal with not only development from the top down but also behavior from the bottom up. "That's the fastest path to innovation."

Nancy Staisey, vice president of the Smarter Cities effort in North America for IBM, agreed, noting that a challenge is getting people to embrace technology and what it can do, and to leverage it in a way that helps improve their lives as well as those of their neighbors.

"A whole lot of this is going to come down to how we can use all this [innovation] to change the behavior of corporations [and] of people," Staisey said.

IBM is one of a number of tech vendors—such as Cisco Systems with its Smart Grid efforts—that are looking to create solutions that help communities become more efficient. The solutions address everything, from crime and energy management to traffic and population growth.

Boston CIO Bill Oates said the city has been leveraging the widespread use of mobile devices to better communicate with residents and city employees alike, while also using IBM software to improve the efficiency of city operations. In 2009, the city created an iPhone app called Citizen Connect 1.0, which residents could use to report a streetlight that was out or a pothole that needed to be filled. A similar app for city workers was soon created, and eventually the two were placed on the same platform, and a "street cred" feature put on it so residents can "high five" workers when they do a good job.

The app also is expanding this year to include 35 communities throughout the commonwealth, Oates said, adding that there's more that can be done.

"Everything I just mentioned is just scratching the surface," he said.